Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I want to be unbearable.

I was ecstatic to see the New York Review of Books devoted four full pages and a tiny bit of a fifth page to a review by Terry Castle, called "the Unbearable," of two of the three Plath biographies that came out this year, Carl Rollyson's American Isis and Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song.


And I do not mean she thinks poorly of the books. "It will come as no surprise that I'm one of those who will always be turning away from Plath," says Castle at the start of the review's final paragraph. Okay, whatever — she admits to her bias, that's fine. "I find her grisly — unbearable, in fact" — really? Why — "because, even five decades after her suicide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoulish tenacity. She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave."


"She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave."

That is absurd, Terry Castle. That is a fringe blog rant at best and nowhere near a valid criticism.

Wait! She does not just let this wild complaint hang there — she provides an example.
A respectful fisheries biologist — he taught at a university in Alaska — Nicholas Hughes had apparently done everything possible to distance himself geographically and psychically from his parents' cursed history. (Most of the people who worked with him knew nothing of his family story.) Yet Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last. He was said afterward to have been "lonely" much of his life and depressed by his failure to find love. His mother was by then long dead — he had never had any memory of her — yet even so I couldn't help wanting to kill her.

"I couldn't help wanting to kill her."

Oh my god! Until this point I was conventionally disappointed. I don't find the observations that make up the bulk of the review really illuminating. She sloughs through the history of Plath-as-biographical-subject, including the bias exerted by the executor of her estate, Olwyn Hughes. She cites the death of many key players in Plath's life as an advantage of Rollyson and Wilson without so much as even kind of trying to maybe acknowledge that a distinct disadvantage of there being fewer and fewer tangible connections to one's subject makes one prone to PROJECTION. Which, in the case of both books, it did. And in the case of this review, it did.

I am relentlessly disappointed by the inability of critics to judge the work, and even here — when the work being judged here is by Misters Rollyson and Wilson! — Castle is totally overwhelmed by Plath the human. She's so totally overwhelmed that she cannot even judge writing that is about her, and the review dissolves into one long blah about Plath's poetry using "Nick and the Candlestick" to segue into that grotesque WTF at the end.

In the sole concrete observation about what new access to Plath's archives has yielded, Castle picks out the most mundane fact that is, at its kernel, not exactly a bombshell (Plath had a crush on Richard Sassoon that persisted after she met and took up with Hughes — those who think she fell fully for Hughes the moment they met are mere Plath hobbyists). There are totally revelations to be found in those two books (one of which I reviewed in HTMLGIANT) and she does not touch on them or the dubiousness of some of the conclusions both biographers draw. Her chief comparison is the pace of the two books: Wilson's dwells in Plath's life before Hughes and Rollyson's rips through her life manically from start to finish.

The one interesting note that Castle makes in all the many words that she devoted to these books is about the abrupt ending to Wilson's book: "how easily the 'life before Ted' might have become the 'life without Ted.' Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years — with or without poems — for Sylvia?"

Holy shit, when people call Plath "Sylvia" — would it not make you stop if, reading an esteemed publication, you saw T.S. Eliot referred to as Tom? That really shakes a critic's credibility for me right there. And this is last on my barometer of concerns regarding this review.

I'd sooner recommend American Isis and Mad Girl's Love Song than this review, and both are inferior biographies. It's hard to pick a lesser evil between "she was a goddess too rare for this world so of course she had to die" (Rollyson, mostly) and "she's an evil hag casting spells from beyond the grave to get bulemic [sic] female undergraduates to keep her heinous poems in vogue." Castle actually makes this characterization, and unless NYRB messed up bulimic on purpose to be saboteurs, way to diminish the suffering of untold numbers of living humans with psychiatric conditions and appear unable even to Google a word you do not know.


  1. I just read the review, and, like you, am extremely perplexed that the final paragraphs, especially the last, apparently were A-okay book review material. It makes me wonder about the editorial process—like, was this a first draft or something? Was it handed in, then returned with suggested structural or content edits? The mention of Nicholas Hughes was just utterly distasteful, not to mention what the hell does that have to do with anything?! And the ‘bulemic’ thing, both the spelling and the condescending comment. Oh, and that Terry qualifies Assia Wevill with “whom [Ted] subsequently married”. No, no he didn’t.

    My favorite is the, “She was crazy, after all” comment. It’s so absurdly reductive that I wondered if Terry was being sarcastic.

    Joyce Carol Oates, an NYRB reviewer herself, recently issued a twitter message that book reviewers should leave their opinions out of their reviews. “An ideal review should present the book, with appropriate quotations, & a minimum of ‘opinion,’ so that the reader can judge for himself.” I read the quote secondhand, in a review of Marie Calloway’s work, and thought, I don’t think I agree. The way that books can touch people’s lives is part of their importance, right? And book reviews are more complex I think than yay/nay--sometimes I seek out books precisely for all the reasons the reviewer derided the work. But now, I feel like perhaps Oates' approach is best, at least in certain forums.


    In the comments of your htmlgiant review, I asked you what one Plath biography you would recommend. You said Rough Magic and I read and enjoyed--it was very evenhanded. I also read Pain, Parties, Work (which, though non-traditional in many ways, I liked A LOT. have you read it?), and the Feinstein biography of Ted Hughes. Oh, and Unraveling the Archive which had some truly amazing essays. I have American Isis and MGLS crammed onto my library book shelf, but Her Husband is really calling to me right now.

    …can you tell that I’m kind of bursting at the seams right now? A few years ago, when I got really into biography reading, I wanted to read a Plath bio for the sheer voyeurism of a gossipy rundown of the Plath/Hughes marriage. I chose Janet Malcolm’s book, and that pretty much crushed the impulse out of me. Since I’ve come across your blog, though, post-many many rereads of The Collected Poems, post-Crow, post-Birthday Letters and I must admit, post-Sylvia , the desire to read about Plath's (and Hughes’) life resurfaced--I'm the kind of reader who is very much tied to the personhood of the author--and I started reading based on your recommendation. I suppose this is a long winded way of saying, Thank you.

    1. Ahh that's so wonderful! You're very welcome. Go to "Her Husband" next. I LOVE "Pain, Parties, Work" — that part of Plath's life was crying out forever for its own separate consideration. A different "here's everything that REALLY happened" was unnecessary — that's "American Isis," and "Mad Girl's Love Song," well, you know. I'm so so very glad to hear you liked "Rough Magic."

      I don't find anything wrong with disclosing a bias in a review, but this was just absurd! So much filler, so little of substance about the books in question, and so much malice. One time I was in a debate with some friends, a formal one, and the party lines were pretty obvious. My best friend was the team's ace in the rhetorical hole, but when she rebutted an argument that hit particularly close to home, she just started yelling. She was still making her points, but her anger was crucially distracting. In the end, I forget who made this remark, but it has permanence for me: "I couldn't hear what she was saying over her anger." I don't think there's anything wrong with being angry, but that wasn't the mission she was on as a book reviewer, that did not serve the form or the intent of the article. She totally co-opted a book review and turned it into a polemical, spiteful, weird tantrum.

      Very nice to see you in my comments, also! I'm so grateful for your input!

  2. Oh good, I'm not the only one to be floored by that last paragraph (and last line!) of the Castle review.

    (I would like to know how many male writers have had the NYRB's reviewers expressing the wish to kill them.)

  3. Thanks for this, Kari. I too was bewildered and upset by the Castle piece. And I'm so glad you enjoyed my book!


    1. OH MY GOSH, Elizabeth, your book was so so vital! And so much fun! Oh my gosh I'm so grateful for the chance to tell you — that was the book I'd been waiting for! And YES YES YES this was awful!

  4. A+. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    1. Oh my gosh thank YOU for enabling me to discover your lovely blog!

  5. I read that review. Pinched, narrow and prudish.