Sylvia Plath, Narcissist Poet

I’ve continued to indulge my Sylvia Plath obsession by devouring the second volume of her correspondence, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963. The first volume (1940-1956 ) included Sylvia’s pre-college and college years, and chronicled with particular poignancy her first nervous breakdown and the lead-up to her suicide attempt in the summer of 1953. After a hiatus of six months during her subsequent hospitalization, she resumed her life and letter-writing energetically, as if making up for lost time. After graduating from Smith College in 1955, she traveled to England to study on a Fulbright grant at Cambridge University. She met and married fellow poet Ted Hughes, and the match seemed idyllic at first.

The second volume covers the blossoming and conflicts of that marriage, including two years spent teaching and traveling in America, the births of two children, the establishment of a permanent home in England, and numerous literary triumphs for both writers. Then came the discovery of Hughes’s infidelities, the dissolution of the relationship, and Sylvia’s descent into madness a second time, from which she was destined not to recover.

The outlines of the story were already well known to me. I tried to add another dimension to my understanding by concurrently reading The Collected Poems, which includes most of Plath’s output from 1956 to 1963, plus some juvenilia from her college years. This collection was assembled by Ted Hughes around 1980, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Much of this poetry is difficult, although lyrical and masterful. It gets increasingly personal as time goes on. Knowing some of the facts of Plath’s life is helpful; without that, I’m guessing much of it would be incomprehensible.

Joyce Carol Oates, novelist and literary critic, offers some insight into this “personal” phenomenon in an essay included in the digital edition. This piece, entitled “Sylvia Plath and the Death Throes of Romanticism,” argues that the world is no longer as receptive as it used to be to this “romantic” brand of poetry, which is increasingly regarded as narcissistic. Oates cites several of Plath’s later poems as prime exhibits. One of these is appropriately entitled “Mirror.” Oates criticizes the self-centered nature of this piece: “the result of a limited vision that believed itself the mirror held up to nature,” and therefore godlike. She argues further that there is no hope for social integration in this stubbornly individual viewpoint: society is simply “an organization of the solitary.”

Oates also cites one of Plath’s most famous poems, “Daddy,” a bitter attack on her long-deceased father. In a wild exaggeration, Plath conflates her father’s German ancestry with Nazi identity. She describes herself, a victim of his supposed tyranny, as “a bit of a Jew.” She doesn’t stop there, but includes her estranged husband in this indictment, and by extension, all men: “Every woman adores a Fascist/the boot in the face, the brute/brute heart of a brute like you.” Oates condemns such a viewpoint, which “never crosses over the threshold of an active, healthy attack upon obvious evils and injustices.” Plath expresses no true sympathy for the actual victims, as she keeps stewing in her own private Holocaust.

This leads Oates to accuse Plath of being blind to the real thoughts and feelings of other people. I find myself wondering if this is really the way Plath was, or if her narcissism was mostly a literary device. Quite a few people who knew her have described her complicated nature: warm and caring at times, but utterly self-centered and rude on occasion. Perhaps Oates’s most serious indictment is that Plath’s poetry treats even her children as mere images. Does this mean she wasn’t a caring mother?

Plath’s correspondence from her teenage years on testifies to her determination to have both a family and a career. In letters to various girlfriends, she claimed that giving birth to her daughter Frieda in 1960, and her son Nicholas in 1962, had been the most satisfying experiences of her life. But the realities of her situation made motherhood a difficult proposition. One of the most devastating results of her marital breakup was Hughes’s confession that he had never wanted children, but had lacked the courage to tell her so until it was too late. When it came to caring for them day-to-day, he made it clear that they would be her responsibility. Her letters from this point on describe her relentless, almost feverish search for reliable nannies and babysitters who would allow her the private time she needed for writing. Her only alternative, as long as she lacked adequate help, was to rise every morning at four a.m. and write for three or four hours until the children awoke.

Plath is perhaps at her cruelest in the poem “Lesbos,” written in October 1962. This poem emerged shortly after her separation from Hughes became permanent, and was evidently inspired by a visit she paid to a couple they both knew. The woman, supposedly a friend, is described in hostile terms. She was an aspiring actress, and Plath mocks her aspirations: “It is all Hollywood, windowless/the fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine.” The two of them are discontented mothers, commiserating with each other, yet failing to bond, despite the suggestive title of the poem. Oates indicts Plath as  “an adult woman denying her adulthood, her motherhood, lashing out spitefully at all objects―babies or husbands or sick kittens―with a strident, self-mocking energy.” Since her husband is not there, the bulk of her rage is visited on her children. She stews in the day-to-day realities of child care:  “There’s a stink of fat and baby crap/I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill/the smog of cooking, the smog of hell.” Her daughter’s tantrum is equated with a nervous breakdown: “And my child―look at her, face down on the floor/little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear/why she is schizophrenic.”

Anger and revenge were the ingredients that made Sylvia Plath’s name as a writer after her suicide. She would never have acquired such fame if not for the rage-filled poems of her posthumous collection, Ariel, written mostly during her hard-won early morning private time. There are no happy poems, celebrating domesticity, as she neared the end. On the contrary, she seemed determined to break those bonds.

Maybe Ted Hughes deserved a beat-down like this, but what about the children? How did they cope with such a legacy? They both seemed to have traveled long distances from the scene of their family tragedy in order to forge their own identities. Frieda moved to Australia, married and divorced three times without children, and pursued a career as a painter. Nicholas moved to Alaska, became a well-respected professor and researcher in ocean sciences, never married, and died by suicide at the age of 47.

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Are Your Characters Despicable?

I requested reviews for my novel Sycophants, published late last year on Amazon, so it’s time to take some flak. Overall, the reviews aren’t bad, and much of the criticism is couched in compliments. Almost everyone thinks the writing is solid, the dialogue is snappy, and the story flows reasonably well. It’s the characters that seem to give critics heartburn. I meant to make them reasonably flawed, like real people. So how did some of them, even ones I don’t think are so bad myself, turn out downright despicable to more than a few readers?

The novel poses some questions about the nature of friendship. Can a relationship possibly be healthy if one of the participants possesses most of the charisma and power, possibly encouraging something that borders on hero worship? In Sycophants, there is a basic imbalance between the co-heroines, Imogene and Sara. They are former college roommates (as depicted in my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming) who team up years later for a movie-making venture. They pick up where they left off at school, with Sara the leader and Imogene the follower.

In their new situation, Sara is the boss of a production company with headquarters in New York City. Imogene has been hired not for any particular qualifications, but because they are old friends. Imogene jumps at the opportunity, having become disenchanted with the mostly clerical jobs she has held in the publishing industry. Her marriage to a young lawyer, also an unequal partnership,  is on the rocks. Somewhat naive and unprepared,  Imogene finds herself scrambling to gain a foothold in the high-powered company. She does manage to benefit from her business association with Sara, as she earns a decent salary, plays at being a publicist, and works toward acquiring some credits as a screenwriter. But there’s no way she can catch up to her friend.

It isn’t that Sara is the worst boss in the world. In fact, she is fairly generous in putting up with Imogene’s early miscues, for which another supervisor advocates firing her on the spot. Still, the super-busy Sara blows hot and cold. One moment she might chide Imogene for overstepping her authority; in the next breath, she might exhort her to develop more of a backbone. There are limits to how much Sara can prod Imogene toward success; the neophyte will have to do that herself.

I never intended Sara to be “despicable,” although she does tend to collect “sycophants” through the force of her personality. Her older brother Jake, a fading rock star, is the one who uses that word to describe his sister’s  relationships. He’s offended when Sara proposes to salvage his career by putting him in a movie, although his grumbling doesn’t prevent him from accepting her help.

Not every reader finds this friendship weird or the characters totally unlikable. Some comments fell along the lines of “flawed, not perfect, just as in real life.” Some thought the chemistry between Sara and Imogene had potential. Others felt the need to refer to the “friends” in quotes. To paraphrase one reader, “These people might be realistic, but I’m glad I don’t know them!” They are pegged as users, especially Sara. “Friendship to her is a one-way street,” another reader says, adding that Imogene is too much of a wimp to avoid being her prime victim. Why, these critics demand, can’t Imogene learn to stand up for herself, benefit from experience, and take responsibility? (I had hoped the story demonstrated her doing more of those things as time passed).

The most extreme reaction came from a reader who professed to like the writing, but not the book. She admitted to being predisposed against the “coming of age” genre (although that’s something of a stretch, as my characters start off in their late twenties, having left college about eight years before). For this reader, sycophantic behavior equates to being obsequious and brown-nosing. She concludes, “I’m not sure I’ve ever despised characters so thoroughly.” I’m kind of flattered that I evoked such a strong reaction, even if I didn’t exactly mean to!

I can understand why readers take Imogene to task for bad choices. One observes wisely, “Working for a good friend isn’t always a good idea; neither is blaming your husband for your career failures.” It’s always incumbent on authors to get readers to care what happens to their characters; not caring enough, as one critic says, tends to slow down the reading. Sara’s company is stacked with ambitious people besides herself, and blind ambition tends to make them all unlikable from the start, even before they get to be out-and-out sycophants. Imogene is also taken to task for assuming that her husband is cheating on her and acting accordingly, without real proof (although her suspicions turn out to be true).

To sum up, they are “all shallow, money-driven users with no redeeming qualities. No true villains but no heroes either.” It was suggested that if I had put in a few “true villains,” it might have made the “minor villains” seem less bad. I did introduce an armed kidnapper, but he might have come off as more deluded than evil. And maybe the perpetually drunk minor musicians, who are prone to settling their artistic differences with their fists, served more as comic relief.

Once in a while you get a criticism that you actually like! One reader thought I was emotionally distant from my characters, more in the vein of 19th century literature than modern writing. As a former English major who often prefers the old style myself, I really can’t get too upset about that. If it means my book is somewhat “literary,” I’m all for it.

I’d be interested to know how many of my fellow authors have taken a similar trip with their characters. Have you set out to make them realistically flawed, but perhaps gone too far and accidentally made them despicable?

Sylvia Plath’s Final Act

I’m finding Sylvia Plath’s second volume of letters, covering the years 1956 to 1963, even more fascinating than the first. These are the letters that take her from happy newlywed to deserted, suicidal housewife. Through it all, almost until the very end, Sylvia’s writing kept coming―poems, stories, essays, book reviews, one novel published and another partly drafted, broadcasts for the BBC. She enjoyed a fair amount of success and recognition, although her true fame was posthumous. In the letters she mostly conveyed happiness and contentment in her domestic life and creative excitement about her writing. Most of her correspondents, even those who knew details of her breakdown during her college years, must have assumed that she was fully recovered and doing well.

Both she and her husband, Ted Hughes, decided to forego stable jobs as college teachers for riskier but more satisfying careers as writers. Sylvia devoted herself to family life, giving birth to two children whom she adored, and supported Ted unstintingly in his writing. His fame was greater than hers, which she believed was proper and justified. Her love for him, by some accounts, could be smothering. She came to realize herself that the loss of her father at an early age had most likely triggered this possessiveness. There were times when she couldn’t bear to let Ted out of her sight, for fear he would disappear forever. Eventually, the pressure became overwhelming. and led to an explosion. After six turbulent but mostly happy years, Ted threw it all over, shockingly and suddenly, by taking up with another woman, and probably more than one. Sylvia’s rage was unrelenting, and strongly influenced her writing from then on.

The most intriguing and ominous of these letters are the ones she wrote from her home in England to the psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who had treated her at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard, during her first breakdown in 1953. These were the letters that Sylvia’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, highlighted in her introduction to the volume. Frieda had only recently encountered these letters herself. Reading them must have been an excruciating experience, but she insisted that they be included in the volume. Frieda opines that not everything her mother wrote can be taken at face value. There are alternate accounts from other sources of some incidents described in the letters, many of which cast doubt on her interpretations. At the very least, it seems Sylvia was prone to exaggeration. Frieda herself wrestled with some of the worst allegations against her beloved father.

Sylvia’s letters to Dr. Beuscher began well before there seemed to be anything seriously wrong with the Hughes marriage. Perhaps they were mostly intended for reassurance. By the time she wrote the last one, Sylvia was aware that history was repeating itself. She had been reading reviews of her recently published novel, The Bell Jar, and pronounced them mostly “raves,” but she seemed to take no pleasure in that. On the contrary, she described the novel as the story of her “first breakdown.” She seemed to acknowledge that a second breakdown, much like the first, was in progress.

Before the book was published, Sylvia wrote a detailed letter to her British publisher in response to his inquiries about libel concerns. She reassured him that the book was fiction and wouldn’t be subject to lawsuits. Many of her claims that certain characters were entirely fictional seem disingenuous. Anyone who has studied her life would recognize the genesis of those characters … the clueless boyfriend, the perpetually put-upon mother, the romance-writer benefactor, the fellow mental hospital inmate (who eventually did sue the estate), and many others.  Far from making up these characters, Sylvia totally nailed them. She knew she got too close to the truth, which prompted her decision to publish the novel under a pseudonym. In the end, her brutality toward some of the people who helped her through that crisis seemed to give her pangs of conscience, and probably contributed to her distress after the book appeared.

The Bell Jar was not her first attempt at a long work. She tried for years to write a “positive novel,” a happily-ever-after story about her courtship at Cambridge University and marriage to Ted. The novel proved to be difficult because, as she wrote to a friend, she couldn’t get beyond “what really happened.” She had also planned a sequel to The Bell Jar, to demonstrate that everything turned out fine for her heroine, “Esther,” who would find love and professional success. But Ted’s desertion blasted that, and she reportedly burned the only copy of that book in a sacrificial fire. Somehow, she could never refashion her narrative to make it come out better.

During her downward spiral in the summer of 1953, she had written desperate journal entries, begging herself to escape from the quicksand that was her mental state. She knew objectively that she was loved and admired by many, as a nearly straight-A scholarship student at prestigious Smith College, with more publications to her credit than almost anyone else her age. But several discouraging events hit her all at once that summer: an unsettling experience as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, a rejection for a writing course she’d hoped to take in summer school, and difficulty getting started on her senior thesis about James Joyce, a notoriously impenetrable subject. Eventually, she became convinced that she couldn’t write anymore, or even read. Her sleeping and eating were affected. Her mind was a quagmire that she couldn’t dig herself out of, no matter how sternly she ordered herself to snap out of it. That led her to a desperate act from which she was fortunate to be saved.

A similar paralysis overcame her in 1963, as can be seen via her increasingly desperate letters to Dr. Beuscher. Outwardly, she had refashioned her life after Ted’s desertion, leaving the country home where she felt buried and establishing herself and the children in a London flat. She knew she had the makings of a renewed life. She had her babies to live for, and her writing was flourishing in a new way since she’d thrown off her own bonds of domesticity. She cherished some hope that once she had released Ted from the smothering marriage, and established herself as an independent woman, he would be less of a bastard. Perhaps they could even renew the literary partnership that had been so fruitful.

She tried gallantly, but her final letter to Dr. Beuscher signaled that she was losing the battle. Once again, her depression was a quicksand:  “I am scared to death that I shall just pull up the psychic shroud & give up … I am aware of a cowardice in myself, a wanting to give up .. I am suddenly in agony, desperate, thinking, yes, let him take over the house, the children, let me just die & be done with it.” She begged Dr. Beuscher for the reassurances that would pull her out of this “damned, self-induced freeze … this ghastly, defeatist cycle.”

Sylvia’s desperation was heartbreaking, and makes me want to cry for her. I wish that she had found the right tools to master herself. It has been speculated that modern psychiatry could have done more for her. Back then the profession was just beginning to explore the possible physical components to mental illness. She’d been referred to a specialist who intended to analyze her menstrual cycle and its possible effect on her moods. That referral, although promising, came too late. One morning, after taking care to protect her children, she turned on the gas. She ensured their safety for the moment, but there was no protecting them from that horrible legacy.

Laura Ingalls Wilder And Cultural Insensitivity

I was perturbed when the American Library Association announced its intention to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award. The purpose of this action, according to one source, is “to distance the honor from what it described as culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.”

As far as I know, no one has as yet proposed banning the books themselves from elementary school curriculums. Still, this could prove to be a slippery slope. At the very least, it casts a shadow on these autobiographical novels that gave me endless pleasure as a child, and that I still admire. When it comes to protecting people’s sensitivities at the expense of free speech, I tend to come down on the side of free speech.

It has been pointed out that the third book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, contains the old saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Obviously, that is an ugly, bigoted statement, but it must be put in context. The remark was made by a new neighbor of the Ingalls family after their move to Kansas, and Laura’s Pa took exception to it. Laura, although still a little girl in this part of the series, was afraid of Indians but also curious. On some level, she sensed the Indians’ anger at having their territory invaded was justifiable. When she asked her parents about it, she was usually shut down quickly. There was no question that Laura’s Ma hated Indians and said so, but Pa had a more nuanced view. Throughout the series, Laura always seemed much closer temperamentally to her father than to her mother. In a later book, Ma made a face as she recalled the smell of the skunk skins that some of the Indians wore. Pa continued to insist that there was much to be learned from the native tribes: “They know things that we don’t know.”

Our understanding of history requires an honest discussion of these issues. We must try to comprehend how pioneers who ventured into what was once designated “Indian territory” actually felt about the challenges they faced. It is not terribly useful for us, in our superior enlightenment, to declare how we think they should have felt. True, it would be useful to know more about this era from the Native American point of view, but that is a whole different story.

Unquestionably, Laura and her family felt a real threat from Indians. Some encounters were friendly, and some were not. They knew they were taking a risk by moving to Kansas when the Federal government opened it up to non-Indian settlers. The fertile land was too tempting for all kinds of pioneers … farmers, hunters, and cowboys … to pass up. Later, the government reversed that decision, but in the meantime, tensions built dangerously between the old and new inhabitants. Laura described the noisy powwows, punctuated by ear-piercing war cries, that often kept her family up all night as the local tribe debated what to do about the invaders. The most dramatic moment in Little House on the Prairie occurs when a French-speaking Osage chief, Soldat du Chene, arrives on the scene by horseback. He persuades his followers, in the nick of time, not to attack the white settlers.

Excessive political correctness in our day and age is as dangerous in its way as Trumpism. Those of us who oppose this vile president, a shameless enabler of racists and neo-Nazis, only play into his hands when we refuse to understand the different context of racial clashes in times past. It is dangerous enough to demand absolute purity of thought in the present; it is futile to demand it from our ancestors.

The “Little House” books provide testimonials of how people handled cultural clashes when they were a life and death matter. A long-running television series, also called Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) provided a more soft-pedaled version, far less jolting to modern sensibilities but far less accurate as well. I would still recommend the books, trusting that most readers would understand that perceptions have changed since the 1870s, and would be able to handle any discomfort that might cause. When I first read these books as a fourth grader, I was capable of understanding that. Why do we think present-day readers, even young ones, must be protected from history?

Scaling The Border Wall Of Publishing

 

If you consider yourself a writer, you must have experienced a few breakthrough moments. Once in a while there are magical times, hard to come by but worth all the previous struggle, when the words begin to flow and a previously thick stew of ideas coheres into a real story. In years past, that euphoria never lasted long because it was next to impossible to take it any farther. That fleeting sense of accomplishment was inevitably followed by the hopeless feeling of running up against a border wall. Patrols were stationed there to keep you from entering the promised land where your stories might take root and flourish. Obtaining a passport to gain entry into that realm wasn’t totally impossible, but there were dozens of hoops to jump through, and endless waits for the decision-makers to pronounce you worthy.

Then a revolution of sorts arrived on the scene. The self-publishing industry rose up, almost overnight, to blow down that barrier as if it were the Bastille. How liberating was that? We could say good riddance to those endless rules of proper storytelling that applied to newbies like us, but that established authors ignored with impunity. No more waiting six months to hear an agent or publisher say “not for us,” if they bothered to reply at all. No more of their arrogant demands, like the right to view our pieces exclusively so that we wouldn’t waste their precious time, when they had no regrets at all about wasting ours. No more spending years revising one story to suit numerous “expert” and often contradictory specifications, years that could have been filled with countless other stories and boundless creativity.

Perhaps most importantly, none of us has to take no for an answer without knowing why. Even if every agent on earth declares, “I can’t sell it,” that no longer has to be the final word. If we believe in our own work, we can sell it ourselves. Once I’ve given my best effort to my own manuscript, I can put professional editors, proofreaders, and graphic designers on the job. A hired team works to make it as professional as it can be without stomping on my original vision. There are plenty of books out there that are not particularly commercial, and certainly not destined to be best-sellers, but that are good enough for me.

Those would include my own four self-published novels. If I were to pick up one of them and skim it as if it had been written by somebody else, I would at least be tempted to buy it. It would speak to me on numerous levels. No industry expert can convince me that the first paragraph has to grab me with blood and gore. Slow but steady character development is what I like. The most liberating part of this revolution is the ability to produce the kind of writing that interests me. I might be in the minority when it comes to literary taste, but I can’t be the only reader in the world who likes chick-lit minus the predictable, happily-ever-after endings. I must be able to believe it myself. My favorite heroines aren’t all that different from me.

Back in the old days, some experts advised aspiring authors to concentrate on popular genres where the markets were relatively receptive. They mentioned children’s stories and science fiction as possibilities. Certainly those genres have popular appeal, but I was never able to get a spark of an idea from them. My stories tend to take a political or sexual turn, which is hardly ideal for children.  Science fiction presents too many plausibility issues. My real interest is writing about the struggles of more-or-less ordinary women who will never be Wonder Woman, or even the first female president of the US, but who can nevertheless triumph in their own journeys.

These days it looks like we’ve blown down the border wall by sheer numbers, but that doesn’t guarantee that all of us will prosper on the other side. It’s our job to cultivate the promised land, not overcrowd it with junk and take up resources without contributing enough. Who knows how long it will take us to feel like full citizens of that rich country? A satisfying life can only be built one day at a time. It’s our job to spread our seeds, cultivate them, and then wait patiently for the desert to bloom.

Jo March’s Dilemma

I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.

Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.

A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.

Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.

Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”

The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.

Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.

So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.

Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.