Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Plath Complex

In an empty bar in Williamsburg with my author friend, we were in the midst of a discussion about women's literature when I said, "I never used to think men were assholes until I tried to talk to them about Sylvia Plath." She repeated the sentiment, then said, "Now there's a great first line to an article about why feminism still matters."

A few weeks earlier, I had basically erupted in a hysterical bout of the “f” word when my two male friends proceeded to have a laugh over the work and life of Plath—I don’t remember exactly how they described The Bell Jar, but let’s just say it was far from complimentary. I responded by asking if they had ever read her poetry, to which one of them responded that he had not, the other that he had read “a few of them.” I pointed out that sometimes it’s best to read someone’s work before you condemn it. Both of them offered a defense amounting basically to the idea that “the sort of things she writes about,” were of no interest to them. “What sort of things?” “Oh, you know: motherhood, marriage, jealousy, etcetra.” Oh, I see.

Then I got really angry. In the crowded bar, I could feel like tears welling up in my eyes and my throat was doing that swelling thing where it makes it difficult for me to breathe. “So,” I said, trying to speak clearly through my semi-intoxication, “Could one of you explain it to me how it is that I am able to recognize the literary merits of someone, say, like Henry Miller, who writes about fucking whores’ cunts (his phraseology, not mine) but you two are unable to acknowledge a woman’s talents as a poet because she writes about motherhood?”

I relayed this story to my author friend, who quickly replied, “Why are you friends with these guys?”

But it isn’t just the boys, I’ve found. Several of the female interns where I work have expressed a marked dislike of Plath. One said, “I don’t like Sylvia Plath.” When I asked her why not, she said the The Bell Jar was “too morbid.” Prying further, I asked “Have you ever read her poetry?” to which she responded, vaguely embarrassed, “no.” Another boy responded that he thought Plath’s poetry was “overdone.” “What,” I asked, “do you mean by overdone?” “I mean, those emotions are so overdone.” “Well,” I said, “Do you think they were overdone in the 1960s, when Plath was writing?” “Oh,” he replied. “Probably not.”

I’ve realized after close to eight years defending her, I can’t force people to like Plath. Hell, I can’t even convince them to give her a chance. Most of all, I can’t convince people of how ignorant they sound when they presume to judge someone’s work when they haven’t even read it. How is it that Plath gets such a bad rap? Are the subjects of her poems and her novel still so taboo and upsetting that people are unable to look past the topics and into the art? Why is it that, even today, topics such as emotional hysteria, abandonment, marriage, love, childbearing, domesticity, parenthood, and sex still seem “uninteresting,” or “too personal?”

I just finished reading I Love Dick, a semi-fictional memoir by Chris Kraus, written as an epistolary novel. In her discussion of why some contemporary artists are taken seriously and why some are not, she draws the line in terms of gender. She mentions one artist, Hannah Wilke, who, in photographs and performance art, makes a comment about her longtime boyfriend abandoning her for another woman. She appears naked and vulnerable. Critics called her work “hysterical” or “overdone” or even “sloppy.” What bothers people more, I wondered, the fact that she was vulnerable, or a woman, or both? Other critics condemned her art, saying it was simply, “too personal.” She responded:

If women have failed to make 'universal' art because we're trapped within the 'personal,' why not universalize the 'personal' and make it the subject of our art?

I couldn’t agree more. But how? How do we get people (I wanted to type men here, but now unfortunately it’s more than just men who refuse to acknowledge the importance of the personal and the feminine) to be interested in this kind of art? Do we really have to fight the fight again? My professor at IU, Susan Gubar, and her teaching partner, Sandra Gilbert, founded the first graduate colloquium on Women’s Literature in the 1970’s. The first. How the fuck is it that I’m still defending writers like Plath thirty years later? Has anything really changed? Why is it that I’m expected to have read Ulysses but not Mrs. Dalloway, and how can women my age shrug off Plath like she’s some irrelevant poet? Are they afraid of what men will think of them if they profess to enjoying or relating to her work? Why do I almost wince as I write this?

I’d like to write some sort of over-arching, inspiring conclusion to this post, but I can’t. I can only offer that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, or rather, in the state of feminism today. It’s the same reason so many of my female friends are so unhappy if they aren’t in a relationship. It’s the same reason many of my female friends in relationships allow their boyfriends to insult them and under appreciate them. And it’s the same reason so many of my female friends apply huge double-standards to their sexuality in comparison to their male friends’ sexual behavior. This is not the Victorian era, ladies. Women don’t have to be a paradigm of virtue anymore. There is no one to impress but ourselves. If Sylvia Plath has taught me anything, it’s: There is no other person. You are the other person. And relying on someone to fulfill you or your life, only gets you into a whole bunch of trouble, and apparenty makes you author of poetry that no one wants to read.

I know one thing for sure: it’s never okay to judge someone or someone’s work simply because it’s outside of your comfort level. And to debase someone because of their sex or their experience only makes you look like a big fucking idiot.


michelle said...

Bravo! Incredibly well-written and sadly, true. I've been a fan of Sylvia Plath since reading some of her poetry in conjunction with that of Anne Sexton and Emily Dickison in, of all things, a course on madness some six years ago. Bravo to you for articulating what I think many of us feel. Don't you think our mothers' generation-- the women who fought so hard, who worked to spearhead the women's movement and essentially the entirety of feminism-- would be shocked and dismayed to see girls' attitudes nowadays? Especially towards Sylvia Plath. For shame, girls, for shame! (and guys, too)

Snobber said...

Oh, it's great to get some feedback. Your course sounds awesome! I'm so glad to hear that I'm not the only one that has noticed this strange phenomenon. I do think that the first string of feminists (and the second-wavers, too) are appalled at the behavior of our generation. I can't believe that "feminism" has become a bad word, but I suppose the backlash was on its way....I just didn't expect it from women (and men) who are so seemingly intelligent.

Thanks so much for reading!

riese said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
riese said...

It drives me CRAZY that men won't read women's books. There've been serious studies on this topic--all of which proved that (surprise!) men don't read books written by women, on the whole. Thinking about it makes me want to stick my head in an oven.

But actually: I used to not like Sylvia Plath, but now I do. And I haven't read "The Bell Jar," though the fact that I haven't read "The Bell Jar" has come up about 100 times in the last month, so I think I'd better get down to it. I wanted to buy it on audio, but the narrator is an actress who had a fling with my girlfriend once, and I thought it'd be creepy to have my girlfriend's ex-lover's voice in my earbuds as I navigated the city. Like, right?

So: I've actually ONLY read her poetry. I used to dislike Plath because she was so mis-used by depressed teenage Elizabeth Wurtzely girls in high school. But that's unfair, and I knew it then, and know it now. I just couldn't like Plath because all the annoying girls who kept writing BAD suicide poems loved her.

I get really annoyed by women who only read men (my girlfriend is one of these, unfortunately). men's lit is always taken more seriously. it just is. You'll never hear a man claim passion for any women's lit--even classics, in the same way you will see a woman cling to a male author. But that's cuz men are supposed to be the universal voice! women are separate and weird and have periods and shop all the time!(according to the voice of the people, which is wrong 99% of the time)

It's actually similar in music, isn't it? Kinda?

Now I'm just rambling...anyhow...nice post!

kat said...

This is fantastic. You're so right. I'm consistently disgusted by women of our generation who disassociate themselves from writers like Plath because they feel that feminism is unattractive (and by the men who perpetuate that idea... it's the same guys who will say something insulting to you, and then ask if you're on your period when you get upset. AAARGH.) Anyway, bravo.

Snobber said...

riese--read the bell jar! it's fantastic. i just re-read it, and i was blown away. again. well, for about the fifth time. i know the poems are difficult to separate from her biography, and i don't think you have to disassociate in order to really appreciate what a fantastic poet she is, but it sometimes helps. wtf how can your gf only read men? i'm on a mission right now, and that's to read more female authors...i'm on a mary gaitskill kick, and damn is she awesome. i'm so intrigued by this whole female/universal/male voice thing. i think you're so right---and i hate it! thanks for reading :)

kat--amen, girl. i'm so happy that you agree. and your example is spot on. i'm so astounded by the men of our generation--we've come this far and they're still scared of women who have adult emotions. it's never okay for women to be angry. well, i'm angry dammit and i'm not afraid to say so. thanks for reading!!! ps room with a penis was amazing.

riese said...

mary gaitskill is my favorite writer EVER. i've read everything she's ever written, she's my idol, i love her, love her, love her.

Snobber said...

gaitskill's amazing. i met her once, and i said, "i love your writing because you aren't afraid to approach subjects that are un-feminine." and she said "what do you mean?" and i said, "well, like AIDS, fist-fucking, s&m, dirt, etc etc etc" and she said "do you think it's still taboo for women to write about those things?" and i said, "yes, unfortunately i do, and it's one of the reasons why i love your work."

Anonymous, On Strike said...

How utterly disgusting. How can art be too personal? Art is your soul ripped out and smeared everywhere in a graphic albeit beautiful way. Those people are so thick. I pity them. They will never have any real connection to themselves or any deep, relevant emotion. They are static and boring. You are not. Sylvia Plath was not. As far as I'm concerned, she's a classic.

Snobber said...

anon, on strike: thanks so much for your comment, and bringing me back to this post that i wrote almost two years ago (incredible). i'm proud to say that i still feel exactly the same way. thanks so much for reading!