Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter
Talking about American Women Writers

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I was very surprised that the American media paid almost no attention to the discovery and publication of Ted Hughes's poem about Sylvia Plath's suicide, in the New Statesman  on October 11. The British press exploded with coverage and commentary, but American papers were silent save for a few brief notices. I wrote on my Facebook page about it, and Professor Dianne Hunter of Trinity College wrote back: "Oh, those two old vampires!" I guess in some sense Ted and Sylvia are the Great Undead of literary history, impossible to keep down, always resurfacing with some new poem, or revelation, or family tragedy. And this poem was never finished; Hughes left it  in drafts and fragments. It's certainly not one of his best; Al Alvarez, a friend of both poets, wrote with uncomfortable phrasing (considering Plath's suicide by gassing herself in the oven), that is was "somewhat uncooked."

But it's not uninteresting; on the contrary, it's a poem of personal confession and strong emotion. Hughes tells that Plath sent him a suicide note which arrived too early, thanks to the efficient London post office, he rushed to her house, and she assured him that it was not serious and burned it in an ashtray before his eyes. Hughes then spent the weekend at a hotel with yet  another lover, a writer named Susan Allison  (unmentioned in the biographies of Hughes by Elaine Feinstein and Diane Middlebrook)---in other words, he was already cheating on Assia Weevil, the mistress he and Plath had separated over. Yet Hughes's tone throughout the poem is angry; he is bitter that  that Plath had planned the whole event in order to torment and haunt him. The telephoned  news of her death is a deliberate, deliberated blow to his life and sanity:

"Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.'"

A weapon selected by Plath? An injection of poison she had measured? Is she the victim or the vampire?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Learning a Little Chutzpah from James Ellroy

I've just been reviewing James Ellroy's latest memoir, The Hilliker Curse.  Clearly, Ellroy is not a woman writer. He is a very macho writer of cult crime fiction and Los Angeles Noir. But he is such a knowing and confident promoter of his own writing, and such an aggressive hustler of his literary persona that I think women writers, who tend to be self-effacing, modest, and genteel, could learn a lot from his style and schticks. Ostensibly, The Hilliker Curse is about Ellroy's doomed pursuit of women who somehow fulfil his guilty memories of his mother, but the subtext of the book is his psyching out the dynamics of bookstore reading and radio self-promotion. As he says "I semi-memorize the passage so that I can stand at the pdoum and share eye contact with the audience. I read shorter sections with as few differentiations in dialogue as possible. Never go long. Never try the audience's  patience." Ellroy spends hours practcing his bookstore gigs, gets snazzy clothes for them, plays to one woman in the audience. He has no hesitation in calling himself "the greatest crime novelist who has ever lived." As one of his interviewers noted, he starts his performances with a strong rhyming riff: "Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right and slick trick  with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all."

Could a woman writer get away with anything remotely close to this?  Probably not; even Camille Paglia risked (and received) plenty of  ridicule. But I'd like to see women writers unafraid to perform.