20 November 2011

Review of Representing Sylvia Plath

The majority of the eleven essays in Representing Sylvia Plath (249 pages, ISBN: 978-1-107-00675-1, Cambridge University Press, 2011, also available in two digital editions via the publisher: Mobipocket eBook and Adobe eBook Reader) draw from papers given at the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium held at Oxford in 2007. The book is divided into three sections: Contexts, Poetics and Composition, and Representation. The focus of the essays is on the poetry, with somewhat token attention given to Plath's letters and short fiction. Though referenced nine times, The Bell Jar is largely not discussed.

With some exceptions, Representing Sylvia Plath seems to consciously avoid an explicit consideration of Plath's biographical representations - of how Plath directly represents her self/life in her creative works- and this omission is a disservice to a writer who was, according to a close contemporary -Ted Hughes- her own best subject. In his "Introduction" to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Hughes writes, "It was only when she gave up that effort to 'get outside' herself, and finally accepted the fact that her painful subjectivity was her real theme, and that the plunge into herself was her only real direction…that she suddenly found herself in full possession of her genius" (5). Hughes also comments in that introduction that even the "arbitrary surreal symbols" of Plath's Ariel poems "are really impassioned reorganizations of relevant fact" (2). In their introduction to the book, Brain and Bayley go to lengths to point out what they perceive as the general unreliability of Plath's speakers through the guises of their veils, specifically seeming to target or caution those that read Plath's works as biographical or factual (note: this is different from a confessional consideration). Bayley and Brain claim the essays add "to a growing movement in Plath studies that is suspicious of an older but still lingering school of Plath criticism that sees her as a 'confessional' writer" (1). But it seems to me that considering Plath as a "confessional" writer has for a long time been out of fashion. So, where and why they bring this up is a mystery.

The thesis by which Brain and Bayley base their book and their theme of the unreliability of Plath's texts (her speakers & personas) is from an excised line from a draft of The Bell Jar, "I never told anybody my life story, though, or if I did, I made up a whopper" (1). To base such a thesis upon a "fictional" character while simultaneously issuing a caution against reading any literality into the fictional character (or speakers, in the case of the poems) - and then telling us not to trust how the real person presents herself in her writing - strikes me as odd. (Lest we forget, in the case of The Bell Jar Plath went through a very thorough consideration of potentially libelous content in the novel with her British editor James Michie ... see letter to Michie, 14 November 1961, held at Smith College.) Plath's novel has autobiographical elements; it is based on her biography. So, too, does much of her poetry and her short fiction. To deny this is simply stubborn. But then it is important to remember that certain academics need to try to make things complicated... The creative genius of Plath is how she wrote about herself in the selected mediums she did, and how she mythologized that self and connected it up "to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on" (Orr). How she took those real life physical and emotional experiences, such as attending a bee meeting which she captured in her Journals, and turned them into art is fascinating. The gestation period between event and composition in this case June to October 1962 (excluding the false start of "Stings" in August which goes to show that the transformation was not yet complete) is a topic that would add richly to how Plath represented herself. To further belabor my the point, to disdain of ye olde confessional (or biographical) reading of Plath and then turn around and edit a book which explores "Plath's own self-presentations" (how she presents herself) is strongly hypocritical.

Two highlights in Representing Sylvia Plath are Kathleen Connor's "Madonna (of the Refrigerator): Mapping Sylvia Plath's Double in 'The Babysitters' Drafts" and Luke Ferretter's "'Procrustean Identity': Sylvia Plath's Women's Magazine Fiction." Connors essay uses Plath’s journals, journalism, and biography to effectively illustrate an instance where Plath represents herself creative in the form a poem. It is the crowning achievement in the book and as it accepts Plath's biography as a focal point of inspiration of the poem discussed, it should not come as a surprise as to why I liked it so much. The information contained in Ferretter's paper was so fresh when first given in October 2007 at the Plath Symposium, before his full length critical study on the subject of Plath's fiction was published in 2010 (read my review). People who have read that book and then read this essay might feel that they have somehow gone backwards. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant essay. It is worthwhile, too, to point out that Ferretter's paper might have worked better in the Contexts section given the richness of background material at the start of the essay. These two essays make wonderful use of Plath's archives, showing important perspectives in the creative process. Essays by Jonathan Ellis (Plath's letters), Sally Bayley (tree imagery), and especially Anita Helle (use of photographs), have moments of revelation and excellence.

The rest of this review will focus on the last part of the book, Representation. This section will interest primarily those interested in what happens to Plath in the minds of others (writers, artists, etc. - even certain biographers) and is a by-product of how Plath inspires and how one interprets her; and thus "represents" Sylvia Plath in a very literal, surrogate format. Lynda K. Bundtzen's essay the exception - and her essay is certainly the best essay of the three in this section - it is not particularly an area of Plath studies in which I am interested. In fact, the last two chapters of Representing Sylvia Plath step away from a direct study of Plath's works and the discussion leads away from something which Plath produced to something produced in reaction to something Plath produced. I largely fail to see how this improves either our (or my) understanding of Sylvia Plath or how it contributes to the scholarship, and this lets the book down. Which is a shame, as I typically read eagerly anything by both Brain and Bayley. Conversely, I do find that I have similar opinions to much of what Brain discusses in her piece.

As anyone who either attended the Plath Symposium in Oxford or read about it in one of my daily reviews of event knows, the title of the book comes from Tracy Brain's own paper delivered on 28 October 2007 (and given again on at least one occasion, 20 November 2007 in London). This presents a crucial, critical conflict to my reading of this book because what Brain does in her essay (renamed to "Fictionalising Sylvia Plath") is wholly different to what the other contributors do. The same goes for the regrettable Chapter 11... So my expectation in a book by this current name automatically refers back to the circumstances in which the topic was first introduced: a discussion of the fictional representations of Sylvia Plath. (It should be noted that another paper given at Oxford, and published in early 2009, also discusses biofictive representations of Plath. See Annika J. Hagstrom's "Stasis in Darkness: Sylvia Plath as a Fictive Character" in English Studies 90, 2009.) This is my own hurdle to get over but it is not coming easily.

I agree with P.H. Davies that Brain's essay could be the subject of its own volume. This would enable a couple of things: she could attempt to answer the myriad moralistic, rhetorical questions she poses as well as discuss what I see as a large gap in her essay, which is a failure to consider as fully as she does the fiction, the poetry inspired by Plath. Most of the poetry inspired by Plath is lamentable, but there are a couple of people that do it well: namely, David Trinidad and Christine Walde. Likewise, in the last chapter, a failure to recognize a wider pool of artists who respond to and "represent" Sylvia Plath is a narrow shortcoming, particularly as it ignores the complicated brilliance and originality of the artwork of Kristina Zimbakova, whose artwork was prominently displayed and widely admired at the Oxford Symposium. Simply put, the last chapter feels like a Mean Girls-esque insider’s club, six-degrees of separation clique. Say what you will, but an essay on interpretive dance with image stills of that dance does not translate well in to print. Perhaps a DVD should have been included that contained visual access to all the work discussed in Chapter 11?

Throughout the book there are a number of instances where a full familiarity of artwork discussed by Plath's and others will require the reader to also have with them either Eye Rhymes or a time machine. Nervaux-Gavoty's essay makes little sense without Eye Rhymes, especially when she refers to works still not published and that would require a visit to the Lilly Library to see. This is simply unfair to most readers; and to boot the art discussed is not detailed in a sufficient way to help the reader "see" the work considered. Bayley refers to Vine's "sylvia robin" which was destroyed by the artist after it was displayed in London. The description of this piece, with a red bird perched near the Plath figure as "as visual equivalent of a Hallmark card taken to its most grotesque conclusion," confirms that we are indeed not missing anything (229). Credit to Vine then for sparing us. A DVD -or more illustrations at the least- would have given the reader something to refer to; as it stands for this and a host of other reasons the last chapter should be disregarded.

For editors who have been critical over how Plath's own works have been edited, I expected more from a work that they edited. Some oversights that are more annoying than the rest are: the recording Plath made on 30 October was not done for the BBC, but for the British Council and the Woodberry Poetry Room. Plath did record "Berck-Plage" for the BBC on 29 October; however, the session and interview with Peter Orr the following day was unrelated to the BBC. These poems may have aired on the BBC, but that is not the same thing. It is Wober, not Weber (pages 37 & 52). Also, there are several nearly shameful instances of sloppy editing in the dating of poems in Chapter 11. There are many more but I am trying to be less picky. If the editors/authors would like a list of things to be corrected in future printings of the book I would be happy to supply one.

At $85 (cheaper in digital edition formats) one would expect full color illustrations throughout, not just the cheap boldness of a shocking and colorful cover to try to draw you in. The illustrations in the final chapter could have made a much greater impact in color. For example, full color would have enabled the inclusion of Figure 8 "Color script" (page 210) from The Girl Who Would Be God to be less pointless and more affecting. They are not, but the essays in this book feel disparate: though nearly all of them individually shine, these are not essays written intentionally for a book on the theme of "Representing Sylvia Plath" and as such they fail to be purposeful and cohesive in the way that essays in Eye Rhymes or The Unraveling Archive are. As many of the essays were originally conceived and/or presented in 2007 or earlier, they may not be therefore considered as "new developments" in scholarship on Sylvia Plath (1). To quote from Ferretter's essay (who in turn was quoting a rejection letter Plath received), the book is missing an "indefinable something" (156). Thus, this is a good though uneven book; and not worth the heavy price which will alienate the majority of Plath's readers.

To close, the cover art for the book is atrocious. Honestly: blue eyes? If one were to judge a book by its cover one would not pick this book up. Though unacknowledged in the text dealing with Vine in Chapter 11, the cover image is of course a (heinous) "representation" of Plath's 1956 photograph with Ted Hughes. Stella Vine's representations of Sylvia Plath are unoriginal, misguided, dreary, and quite damaging to Plath's still somewhat fragile image in popular culture, and in this regard I am referring to the disgusting casual ease with which people tend either to mock Plath's suicide or feel that the suicide in some way defines everything about her. It is hardly the view of Plath which many of us are fighting to adjust and has been more prevalent in recent years when one considers Plath's own writing, what Karen Kukil calls Plath's "zest for life." The image looks like the exaggerated teenage offspring which was the result of a confounding three-way between Dorian Gray's haggard portrait, the Joker and Amy Winehouse. It is crass and represents not Sylvia Plath, but bad art and poor taste.

At the request of some of the comments from my review of Janet Badia's book and from personal emails received ... Represent THIS!

19 comments :

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Whew! You've given that book some thinking. It is great to have someone so detail-oriented as to point out these errors. Thanks for that.

It just occurred to me that I am not sure what color Plath's eyes were! Do tell. And where did you find out?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Sylvia Plath had brown eyes. A Alvarez comments on them in his "How Black Magic Killed Sylvia Plath" article from 14 September 1999.

I daresay you can "tell" they are brown even in black and white photographs. This one suggests a dark eye color and is perhaps the inspiration for this color self portrait, which represents Plath's eye color as brown. This color photograph perhaps has best close-up of her face...

pks

Melanie Smith said...

As always thorough and interesting Peter. I must finish reading my copy and gosh those dance photos add nothing to the book.

Moira Russell said...

Julia: Plath frequently refers to her own eye colour in her journals. Ted Hughes also describes her eye colour as brown in several poems in Birthday Letters. And as Peter points out, even in black-and-white photographs Plath clearly has darker eyes.

Moira Russell said...

Maybe the incorrect eye colour is "inspired" by the Sylvia movie -- a close-up of Gwyneth Paltrow's blue eye featured in the movie posters, publicity photos, and is on the cover of the published screenplay.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Moira, thank you for your comments and for recalling the movie poster for Sylvia which makes Vine's work even more off-base.

magiciansgirl said...

I may have to re-read your review twice, there is so much to digest - thank you. But the best part may be the photograph of you in fake drag, an image I will take to my grave......

Peter K Steinberg said...

Lady DzDz - I wanted to write a short review but found that it was impossible; and also I realize most people won't have read the book yet, but I hope at some point we can discuss some of the essays.

pks

Sarah-Jane Burton said...

It's great to see such an honest and detailed review Peter. I picked up my copy today and look forward to discussions of the content.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's some hatchet job. Did one of the authors spurn you in a previous life?! As a Plath biographer yourself, you are probably never going to like a book that is as suspicious of Plath biography as this one is. It's telling that the only pieces you don't hate are biographical in approach.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for your comment Sarah-Jane and I hope that you enjoy the book.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Anonymous from England, I'm sorry you felt it was a hatchet job. No, I do not think any of the authors have spurned me in a previous life - or in this one. We have every reason to be suspicious of Plath's biography, mostly due to the secrets and lies put in place by her estate from almost the moment Plath died. As a Plath biographer, I point out in my review, there is no surprise I liked as much as I did Connors essay. So, it is "telling" indeed.

Hate is a strong word and I do not recall using it in the review of the book. In the review I call it a "good" book. I recall in the review saying positive things about more than half of the essays: Ellis, Helle, Bayley (trees), Bundtzens's second essay, Ferretter and Connors. I even say that I agree with much of what Brain writes about in her essay.

I am sorry that you feel my review was a hatchet job. The comments in this post are a fine example of how difficult it is to please people. On the one had, a previous commenter appreciates my honesty and mentions she will read the book and on the other I've done a hatchet job.

pks

Anonymous said...

I've only got so far as the Introduction, and while you are accurate in citing their unpublished quote from The Bell Jar as crucial to their thesis, it seems a shame that you overlook their very attentive and nuanced readings of 'Purdah' an 'Lady Lazarus' in this preliminary material. Their analysis of these poems is quite original and expert. I suppose it is difficult, even in a long review, not to take things out of context, or leave out some points in the interest of pointing out others.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Anonymous, I agree, it is difficult to try to incorporate everything in a book this size with this much content into a review of any length. I hope each of the essays can be discussed on this blog or elsewhere because there is some very good scholarship that is worth our time & thoughts. I believe I went essay by essay in my review of Eye Rhymes and while I had intentions of doing this for Representing Sylvia Plath it just did not want to happen. I hope you enjoy the book.

pks

magiciansgirl said...

Wow,it sure is easy to snark at people in the comments section of a blog when you post as "anonymous." Agree with him or not, at least Peter wrote his review under his own name.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim! I appreciate your comment very much. While I would prefer people sign their reviews with their names or initials, by allowing anonymous commenting it does encourage people to contribute and occasionally engage in some decent & helpful conversations on a given topic.

I'd love to know who this "Anonymous" is because from all appearances she or he knows quite a bit about Plath - might even have had something to do with this book, or some other book or article on Plath. And, they could undoubtedly contribute to helping people like me understand more about Sylvia Plath.

pks

magiciansgirl said...

I agree with you in principle, Peter, re: being able to post anonymously on a blog. But it seems to me that if someone has such strong opinions and desires to make them public, they should have the 'cojones' to say who they are. The Plath Forum is an example of a blog with contributors who sometimes had very strong opinions, debating with each other, as well as just having lively discussions or helping each other with information. Not that the Forum was snark-free, however! But as I recall, most if not all of us went by our own names. As you point out, this particular 'Anonymous' appears to have some knowledge of Plath and Plath studies, so surely an open discourse would be enlightening to all who read and contribute to this blog. A review is an opinion and is not meant to be the definitive pronouncement on whatever is being reviewed. I'm making my way through the book now and if I have an opinion that might be of interest, I'm happy to contribute it, whether or not it agrees with your review.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim! I know I look forward to your opinions on the book. In some instances there is over-reading, particularly in Ellis' essay (some of the letters he discusses are from when Plath was still a child. Don't take that so seriously! Just let her be a precocious child...). Anyway, as "anonymous" stated the introduction is good, but I kind of felt "Oh no, not another essay on 'Lady Lazarus'." At least they brought "Purdah" into it. No matter how "expert" and "nuanced" it might be, the introduction might have been the place to be very broad-looking and give a sweeping overview of Plath's representation throughout her entire body of work. It focused instead on two poems written basically back-to-back during the period of time when her life (her anger) was most informing her creative output...But I'm beating a dead horse at this point... I understand they had to set their unstable thesis down, which is a continuation, at least for Brain, of her unstable theme (see her "Unstable Manuscripts: The Indeterminacy of the Plath Canon" in The Unraveling Archive).

pks

The Plath Diaries said...

What an insightful review, Peter. I was holding out on purchasing this book until my next funding bursary comes through at the end of December (the price is very steep!) but I am thinking of perhaps acquiring it via library loan now, instead!

Like you, anything to do with Brain & Bayley, I very much anticipate. Perhaps I have placed too much admiration in their work or perhaps, as you say, academics do feel the need to over-complicate things from time to time and this book is an example of that.

From your review, it sounds like a mish-mosh of ideas have been put together that don't quite work. I wholeheartedly agree with you on how ignoring Plath's biographical influence on her work is ridiculous. What you eloquently wrote really struck me:

"The creative genius of Plath is how she wrote about herself in the selected mediums she did, and how she mythologized that self and connected it up "to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on" (Orr). How she took those real life physical and emotional experiences, such as attending a bee meeting which she captured in her Journals, and turned them into art is fascinating."

I agree 100% with your statement here and often I wish that academics with better brains and more expertise than me would stop thinking it's a negative of weak aspect of Plath's work that it is so infused with her biography. I think there is a line that can be adhered to - a fine balance where biograpgy and artistic output can be judged fairly. For Plath, because of the tumultuous biography, that sometimes provides the main focus. Perhaps in this book, avoidance of biography is the major downfall? If good, respected academics simply stoped theorising and complicating themeselves into questions that really require no answer (like the theme of this book, perhaps) and spent more time trying to find that "line," or place of balance where bio and art can compliment each other and lead to better understanding, I think it would be much better for Plath scholarship.

I could write a lot more but will wait until I acquire the book myself. Thanks for the review - and the picture! ;)

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