05 May 2013

A Rhetorical Position: A Review of Claiming Sylvia Plath by Marianne Egeland

Look, I like to nitpick when I read a book or an article about Sylvia Plath where the author gets a fact wrong, or where the editing is abominable. There have been many instances, perhaps too many, where I have done this very thing on this blog. However, the level of nitpicking; condescension; the tone of nastiness; rampant simplistic commentary which is mask of moral/ethical judgment; the seeming inability to truly understand or acknowledge that the majority of writing on an author - on ANY author - is undertaken with a bias or an agenda; a pathological obsession of pointing out a writers' academic affiliation; and the mistaken assumption that writing on Sylvia Plath makes one either rich or famous or both in Claiming Sylvia Plath: The Poet as Exemplary Figure by Marianne Egeland (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) is so distasteful so as to make the book - like this sentence - practically unreadable. That being said, the level of close reading and scrutiny evident in Claiming Sylvia Plath is commendable, but overall the book suffers from - put in the most non-academic fashion as possible - highfalutin bitchiness.

Claiming Sylvia Plath "is a study of five decades of Plath reception, of shifting hegemonic positions and issues addressed by the communities that have tried to make sense of her life and work" (4). The book aims "to demonstrate what may predictably happen when critics swear by a particular theory and end up with answers that support their chosen approach" (4). In writing about those who have written about Plath, Egeland places herself "outside the Plath institution" (6); however this is problematic as Egeland herself is as much a part of the "institution" as anyone that has ever written on Plath: critics, biographers, etc. Who is she to assign where she fits in and how dare she place herself outside of the "institution"? Especially given that she is the author of her own Plath biography (in Norwegian) as well as the author of at least one essay on Plath as well as a featured participant at a major international Plath conference (Oxford, 2007)! That Egeland has an interest in the "ethical questions" of writing about Plath gives me the absolute shivers: suggesting that by placing herself "outside the Plath institution" she has placed herself above everyone else. And this is dangerous territory. It is as though she were sitting there up in Norway-land with a lightning-bolt lance smiting Sylvia Plath scholars!

Egeland routinely criticizes authors for claiming to be the first to present Plath in a new light (most notably those writing on Plath's political interests and involvement). While not a novel thing to do, Egeland highlights narrative differences of the same events in biographies and discusses fictional coloring for the sake of story-telling. However, Egeland herself is not the first to point out that the genre of the Plath biography is problematic, nor is hers remotely the best writing on the topic. One does get the impression in Claiming Sylvia Plath that Egeland feels very passionately about Sylvia Plath: this is clear through the time it must have taken to accumulate and process all this information. The books back jacket claims that Claiming Sylvia Plath "suggests a host of possible answers" as to "why Sylvia Plath has been serviceable to so many and open to colonization." But these answers are hard to locate as the writing is so infected with pointing out the errors, misstatements, etc. that people have made over the decades. I saw no attempt to undertake or suggest a definitive way to read, review, criticize, biographize, and write about Sylvia Plath. That is because there is none. Plath's writing is literature. Literature is variable; as is the way we interpret it. It is subject to trends; theories being something like the next seasons colors in the fashion world. Egeland also fails to consider that through the years, people change their minds about impressions and opinions, especially when new information is revealed or published over time, or as archival material is made available.

The standards to which Egeland holds those who have written about Sylvia Plath (i.e. her peers) are both absurd and naïve. Some of the writing suggests Egeland is bored with her subject, such as this exemplary example from the chapter on "Critics": "The publication of Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems in 1981 gave critics an opportunity to reconsider her work and their own earlier reactions to it. Reviews once more covered the whole range" (my emphasis, 86). No duh. The book is littered with such banal and hollow-hearted statements.

Claiming Sylvia Plath is a foul effort at contributing to the literature about Sylvia Plath. The book is not such much about Sylvia Plath as it is about those have written about her. Egeland, as mentioned above the author of her own Norwegian language biography of Plath, takes on Critics, Feminists, Biographers, Psychologists, Friends, and those who "use and abuse" Plath. I, too, come somewhat under the gun in the "use and abuse" section, but feel I come out relatively unscathed. However, in the Biographers section, Egeland does not seem to hold herself to the same standard that she does Edward Butscher, Linda Wagner-Martin, Anne Stevenson, Paul Alexander, and Ronald Hayman. This is because she restricts her focus to English language works, but regardless it reeks of hypocrisy. Because her own biography of Plath is in her native tongue, we non-Norwegian speakers cannot therefore see how her own treatment of Plath is presumably better than those who have written about Plath's life in English.

Each chapter is set up with little chunks of text divided by subject or theme; this does make for easy reading and also allows one to skip around if particular area of study is not of interest. The notes are generally helpful though also frequently snotty. The reason to buy this book is the "Other Sources" in the Bibliography (the "Works by Sylvia Plath" section of the Bibliography is weak, as might be expected since the focus is less on Plath's creative and autobiographical writings than it is about the writing on Plath). However, it is good to a point. Stephen Tabor's bibliography is much better as it lists "everything" as it were, whereas Egeland only lists those articles to which she refers in the text. But it does update somewhat from Tabor. The section on the critics might have been better had she spent time focusing on the handful or so of reviews that appeared during Plath's lifetime (that Plath might have seen). Final verdict: For me, Claiming Sylvia Plath is a buzz kill. If you have to read it or are curious, check it out from your university library if they have it; but at circa $75 it might even be too pricey for them.

Lastly, the design of the book is awful. It is as heavy as a brick, is so tightly bound I probably developed tendinitis holding the pages open against the boards, and the dust wrapper flaps do not extend far enough, leading it to be constantly falling off the book. Furthermore, there is precious little space in the margin to comment on the text if one is prone to do so.


Melanie Smith said...

Take that!
I am part way through and quite grumpy with the book's tone. Perhaps it should have been titled 'Blaming (everyone else writing about)Sylvia Plath.'
Wishing I could read her biography...

Melanie Smith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
suki said...

Should I buy it for my library...

What is it about Plath that makes people so on sided about

suki said...

Could it have been a really interesting book? That is, is the concept interesting?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Suki - Not sure what makes Plath-dom so one-sided.

It could have been a more interesting book. Janet Badia's Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women's Readers was similar in concept: a reception study of how Plath is read and how Plath's readers are read/understood/interpreted. The tone of Badia's book, as well as the writing, is simply better and more professional and handled with a lot more care.

Me too, Melanie. I'd love to read the book in English. Not only because I have interested myself in Plath's biography but indeed to see "how it should be done".

What's striking is that everyone I know that's read Egeland's book has hated it and felt the same about the tone of voice and the writing. So I'm glad I'm not alone!


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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.