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.


Lurking Behind The Stars

Last May I took a nine-day motor-bus tour of the mid-western U.S., featuring the scenic Ozarks, as well as stops in St. Louis and Branson, Missouri. Our group of travelers consisted mostly of retired East Coast dwellers like myself, for which the area produced a modest amount of culture shock. We were eager to embrace the many planned activities that featured country music. Some of us were less prepared for certain side attractions, such as overt demonstrations of Bible Belt religion. One of our local guides, appointed to show us a few sites including the church-oriented College of the Ozarks, took special pride in pointing out huge crosses and other Christian displays that had been erected on public land. She seemed to dare the Feds to come in and try to take them down. At one point on the highway we were accosted by an enormous pro-Trump billboard (“Thank you for making America great again, Mr. President!”) that would have suffered effacement, if not a total take-down, had someone tried to erect it near where I live (and I would gladly have assisted in such desecration). Religious music, however, seemed easier to to digest. We heard numerous soaring versions of “Amazing Grace,” and a few renditions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a lovely hymn which seems to embrace a host of traditions.

The Ozarks have a way of producing huge families that are often musically talented. We were treated to the Hughes Brothers Six, described in the brochure as “six real brothers (out of ten in the family) … an orchestra of human voices … who sound like a band using only their mouths.” In contrast to these a cappella heroics, the Haygoods, described as “five spirited brothers and one vivacious sister,” use 20 different instruments, as well as dancing and spectacular aerial entrances. We also took in the combined Dublin Irish Tenors and Celtic Ladies, who start their show with their native Irish music and branch out into just about everything else imaginable, including opera.

We enjoyed seeing two elderly and rather decrepit legends, Johnny Lee (“looking for love in all the wrong places”) and Mickey Gilley (don’t the girls all get prettier at closing time”), who could barely drag themselves onto the stage, and could no longer manage their instruments, owing to the various accidents and illnesses that have befallen them. But they can still sing; in fact, Gilley sounds uncannily like his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. With more than enough instrumentalists to back them up, this pair will undoubtedly continue to soak up acclaim in Branson, as long as they can manage to sit upright in front of their microphones.

Afterward, my closest friends on the trip discussed which musical performances we liked best. I was the only one who put in a good word for “Billy Yates’s Hit Songwriters in the Round.” Yates is best known for collaborating with a much bigger star, George Jones, on songs like “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” He is also a regular performer at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. My friends tended to dismiss his show as disorganized and lacking in star power.

But to me, that was the point. The “stars” of that show, which change every day, were not big-time celebrities. The advertisement reads: “See and hear Nashville’s top songwriters perform their hits and tell the stories that inspired them.” Telling the stories is key. These guys have written numerous hits for other people, but real fame has eluded them. While they do perform live on occasion, that is not the essence of who they are. They don’t make flamboyant entrances, and don’t deck themselves out in spangles and feathers. Like all writers, they built their careers on persistence. In order to get their songs heard, they often had to fling themselves at famous singers or sneak into recording studios, where the stars might or might not be receptive. One of the composers described his chagrin when a famous singer heard his song twice, and twice pronounced it “nothing special.” Yet the second time worked the charm. The singer happened to be in need of a song, any song, so the “nothing special” effort got recorded, and turned out to be worth it.

I think I liked this show best because it’s unscripted and unpredictable, and therefore takes the most courage to put on every day. Or maybe I just sympathize with fellow writers. For example, “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a widely recognized song, having been a major hit on both the country and top 100 charts back in the mid-1970s. Likewise, most people can easily identify Glen Campbell, who popularized it. But who has heard of Larry Weiss, who actually wrote it? His own recording of his own song wasn’t a hit. Most music fans would have to google the names of the non-star songwriters in order to learn any intimate details about their lives, since they’ve never been sprayed across the gossip columns.

My point, I guess, is that life isn’t always fair to writers. Since we’re introverts, we’re okay with that most of the time. But thanks to shows like “Hit Songwriters in the Round,” there’s a chance for those toiling behind the scenes to become stars, if only for one night.

My Secret Drawer

I recently came across a half-forgotten drawer in an ancient but sturdy desk where my main computer and printer now sit. This drawer is stuffed with old letters, many of them over forty years old, written long before such contraptions as personal computers and printers existed. These handwritten letters reacquaint me with a world that no longer exists. Not only am I mostly out of touch with the friends who used to correspond with me, but the method of correspondence itself seems to date from medieval times. A message written in a friend’s handwriting provides a level of intimacy that simply doesn’t come across in e-mails. It reminds me that I had some vibrant friendships before and during college, and for a few years afterward. Those friendships have mostly gone by the wayside for various reasons, but there are no hard feelings, at least not on my part. Even if a few of them ghosted me, I’m grateful for the time we had. Without my small group of friends, I would have been lonely in high school and college, at least when it came to other girls. They were there for me when I really needed them.

Many years later, some of my college friends have turned up, unbidden and fictionalized, in my novels The Rock Star’s Homecoming and its sequel, Sycophants. My portraits of them are nostalgic but not altogether flattering. I gave them the collective name of “nondescripts,” not that I thought of them that way back then. It was a name they coined for themselves in the stories. The more popular and influential stars of the college tended to overlook them as part of the woodwork. But that didn’t mean they were incapable of exerting themselves behind the scenes.

It occurs to me now that in our post-college years, my friends were generally braver than I was. While I returned to my DC-area hometown and prepared for a fairly safe career as a bureaucrat, they plunged into the worlds of journalism and teaching. They all struggled some in the mid-1970s job market. The one friend whom I always thought had a real shot at fame, the aspiring journalist, is still obscure to this day. She lacked nothing in talent, drive, and ambition, but she could have used more luck. I remember how excited I was for her when she seemed on the verge of launching a reporting career in DC. One day I  accompanied her to the office of a small publication, a local sports magazine, for which she had written a free-lance article. That rag folded under dubious circumstances, as someone apparently made off with the start-up money. Sadly, that seemed to be the story of my friend’s life. She started her own print newsletter, eventually to be superseded by digital ones. She had some great ideas for free-lance articles, but even when she scored the necessary interviews, they weren’t published. She moved away for her husband’s career, raised a family, and finally caught on with a mid-west newspaper, but worked mostly for free.

The teachers also had their share of struggles, given the state of education in their mostly rural jurisdictions. They learned their craft, slowly but surely. There was no such thing as leisure time for these young educators―they barely had a moment to write those letters. After-school hours were taken up with counseling students and preparing lessons. Some progress could be detected in their letters, as the tone moved from exhausted to merely stressed. The kids they described as their “problem children” gradually became less problematic.

Some letters contained bad news, and I can even say there were a few nervous breakdowns. I believe this was characteristic of the baby boom generation. We put so much pressure on ourselves to equal our peerless parents of the Greatest Generation, but we didn’t benefit from the same booming postwar economy that lifted them. I knew one girl who got so comfortable in college (or more accurately, scared of the real world) that she stayed on and took courses beyond the ones required for her degree. She clung to that academic shelter until the college kicked her out. Then she started running through part-time jobs, and managed to get fired from substitute teaching and waitressing. The last I heard, her parents were still taking care of her.

There were a few genuine tragedies along the way. A friend of mine since junior high, who to my chagrin always outperformed me academically in school, went to the state university and fell apart after being sexually assaulted on campus. She started writing me weird poems. I also received a letter from her younger sister, advising me that much of what I was hearing from my friend were lies. Soon she dropped out of college and had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility. After her release, she married hastily, had two children, became an abused wife, and was getting divorced around the time her siblings were getting married. “I made a mess of my life,” she wrote plaintively.

Sometimes the breakdowns were slow-moving. My best friend during my final year at college was one of the most stable and sensible girls I knew. She progressed farther as a teacher than any of the others, from junior high to the college level. You would think that having mastered classrooms full of hormonal twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds would prepare her for any subsequent challenge. As a professor and a dean, she published some articles about educational theory, but I’m guessing the writing part of her career dried up after a while. She may have felt her ideas were unappreciated, although I had never known her to be a fanatic. At any rate, she committed suicide by self-immolation, making the local news for just a day. I find myself reading and re-reading her letters, trying to glimpse between the lines any hint of the girl who would be capable of such an act.

I treated my best friends rather unfairly in my college novel and its sequel. It’s true they mostly stayed sequestered in the dorm on Saturday nights, the way I depicted them, drowning their loneliness in popcorn and soft drinks and gaining weight, while the big shots of the college turned up their noses at them. They didn’t actually plot ways of getting back at those snobs, as far as I know. I made up the scenes in which they crashed a Homecoming dance, fixed school elections, and finally set the spark to a more serious eruption of violence on campus.

Sycophants takes up the story several years later. My heroine, Imogene, has gotten a foothold in a film production company run by her dynamic former college roommate. She writes a movie script called “The Nondescripts,” to commemorate a crowd she was friendly with in college but avoided embracing totally. Imogene’s screenplay never gets produced as a feature, merely turning up as a few scenes of backstory in an ongoing movie project. When Imogene calls on the actual “nondescripts” to play themselves in those scenes, they are stars for a day.

The letters my real friends wrote back then are anything but “nondescript.” They are vital and ambitious, if sometimes anguished. I’d forgotten how alive we all were in those days. My secret drawer provides a disorganized jumble of memories, literally falling apart, but more meaningful than any e-mail trail will ever be.

The Game Of Thrones Effect

I  experienced the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon, much like the earlier “Harry Potter” fad, by sticking my toes in tentatively rather than immersing myself in the lengthy narrative. I read the first book in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, watched the first season videos, and dipped in occasionally thereafter, to get an idea of what the excitement was about. As with Harry and his cohorts, I definitely got it, and I was curious about how it would end, but that was all I needed. To experience it in its entirety would take years.

I find that “Games of Thrones” can influence my writing without my fully comprehending it. George R. R. Martin has created an alternate universe, one that is medieval, brutal, and warlike. It’s a place where you don’t reason with your enemies. You behead them, throw them off a cliff, or poison them. If for some reason you prefer to keep them alive to prolong their suffering, dismemberment is the method of choice. There are no real consequences for violent behavior, other than the certainty of making more enemies. Warriors fight to advance their respective kingdoms, with one overriding throne in contention. There are no nations, and no seasons as we know them on earth. It has been summer for ages, but everyone can sense the approach of winter, which will seem never-ending and make for an even harsher world.

This sort of reality-altering creation has somehow freed up my own imagination. I feel just a tad better about what my critique group sometimes calls my “plausibility issues.” I suspect many of us genteel fiction writers might get a boost from tales like GoT. It seems to make honesty and rawness more possible for every writer. For example, I’ve always been squeamish about sex scenes, but I recently attempted one that is downright kinky. It involves a powerful woman taking advantage of a vulnerable man. I gave it a fairy tale sheen, comparing it to a popular story in which an evil witch kidnaps a handsome prince.

Now I can admit that my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, and its intended sequel with the working title Let’s Play Two, really do inhabit an alternate world. I invented a new Cuba, an island south of Florida that is more brazen and more of a player on the world stage than the real Cuba ever was or probably will be. Council meetings at the presidential palace resemble the mad hatter’s tea party. This country keeps acting up and committing outrages against the United States, mostly by making use of its baseball connections. American leaders not only tolerate these shenanigans, but sometimes subtly encourage them for their own purposes. One of my critique group members complained, “I don’t believe all this presidential stuff!” I didn’t totally believe it myself, but I couldn’t help liking the “presidential stuff.” In fact, I’m beginning to think “Games of Thrones” may have inspired aspects of Trump World, or maybe vice versa. The one adviser to the original King Robert who was a true friend of his, and had enough courage and integrity to tell him the truth, was beheaded for his efforts. The beheadings in Trump World may be symbolic, but truth and integrity lose out just the same.

Similarly, this is a world totally devoid of political correctness. The dwarf Tyrion Lannister, despite being high-born, witty, and suave, is referred to as the “imp” or “half-man.” He is defined by his most obvious physical attribute, until he manages to push himself onto the field of battle, the only way a man can earn respect in this world. Jon Snow is forever “the bastard,” as if the circumstances of his birth were his own fault. Luckily for him, he’s a born fighter. The story’s treatment of women is also dicey. They are roughly divided into prostitutes, wenches, and high-born women, with very little in the way of normal housewives. Cersei, Robert’s unfaithful wife, is pure evil, producing prospective heirs not only by adultery but by incest. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” she pronounces, and she should know. The wives of powerful men are mostly heir-producers, and no matter how grand and beautiful, can be silenced at any time by their husbands with a sharp “Enough, woman!” This is true until Daenerys Targaryen comes into her own with an inherited title and dragons to help her conquer all … and unfortunately, a perpetual target on her back.

My favorite characters in the first season were the two battling sisters, Sansa and Arya Stark, daughters of the beheaded adviser and therefore always in mortal trouble themselves. They remind me of my close but competitive fraternal twins in Let’s Play Ball.  One of the twins is having an affair with a ballplayer whom the other twin suspects of participating in a kidnapping plot against a teammate of his, who happens to be her own fiancé. That makes for an awkward family dynamic, but they have nothing on the Stark sisters. Sansa, the oldest, is expected to marry the creepy heir to the throne who oversaw her father’s execution without a shimmer of remorse. Arya, refreshingly, saw through the loathsome fiancé long before her sister did. She trains to fight back as a warrior, although there is the drawback of being mistaken constantly for a boy.

“Game of Thrones” can be taken as a delightful vacation from reality, one that encourages us all to take similar flights. The only trouble with this formula is that the real world keeps getting weirder. Somehow, the wildest fantasies don’t seem so implausible anymore.

Boneheaded Bureaucrats

Let me start by saying I spent many years behind bureaucratic desks myself. Like all of us paper-pushers, I was fairly insulated from the public I was supposed to be serving. I worked in a high-security building that became increasingly difficult, year by year, to enter without credentials. Phone systems were a maze for anyone on the outside to negotiate. Apart from this kind of insulation, there are rules and regulations, unique to each agency, that limit the bureaucrat’s ability to act on the public’s behalf, at least with any speed. Mountains of red tape are required to accomplish anything in government.

Now that I’m retired and on the other side of the wall, I have to say I’ve never been more frustrated with bureaucrats who have stood in the way of my accomplishing what have always been routine but necessary tasks. Maybe I took on too large a challenge by trying to renew my driver’s license and get a passport in the same year. I’ve come up against something new, the federal REAL ID Act, which puts upon the citizen the entire burden of proving he or she isn’t a hostile alien. I never dreamed it would be so difficult for a native-born American like myself, who has only been outside the United States twice in my life, to prove this. I worked for the Federal government for over 35 years, and had a top secret security clearance for the jobs that required it. I’m now an an annuitant, and on Medicare, for heaven’s sake. I’ve renewed my driver’s license countless times before, and the passport I had years ago was easily obtained with just a hospital record of my birth. But now, it seems, everything has to be super-official and sealed.

It has been like pulling teeth to obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate from the office of vital statistics where I was born, Washington DC. The main obstacle is having been born in 1952, apparently a year in which birth certificates were not routinely issued with all the necessary formalities. Certificate of this age tend to be in fragile shape, or don’t have a raised seal, or are lacking some information. Abstracts have to be made, a process which I was told would take two weeks. Try two months.

While I was struggling with this, my older brother, born at the exact same hospital and to the exact same parents, received his passport with no problem at all. His birth certificate, issued in 1947, apparently had been endowed with the requisite raised seal. In a nice Catch-22 situation, it turned out that having the passport in hand would have eased my license renewal process.

In order to prove my legitimacy, I’ve had to come up with documents that literally didn’t exist when the new requirements went into effect. They had to be recreated in a way that I can only hope will satisfy bureaucrats of various stripes. I got periodic updates from a well-recommended third party I enlisted to handle the matter. These ran along the lines of  “Sorry, but this process takes time.” Their refusal to give exact timetables is aggravating when you’re up against your own deadlines. Meanwhile, in a desperate do-it-yourself attempt, I searched three different databases that supposedly have millions of vital records. They enticed me to apply for access by claiming, during a test run, that my maiden name turned up several matches. Once in the systems, the same name came up zero. What’s with that? To be unable to find written acknowledgement of your existence is downright chilling.

I’ve tried to use what writer’s eloquence I possess, through emails and phone calls, to try to get the relevant bureaucrats to listen to reason. It’s not like appealing to a business, which depends on a customer’s good will and future patronage. I was able to break through some barriers when I made those non-refundable hotel reservations by mistake, or when I had to talk my way back onto social media sites that locked me out for no apparent reason, or when I finally got an appliance store to deliver a hard-to-obtain dishwasher after three cancelled deliveries. But now I’m dealing with bureaucracies, not businesses. The law makes them utterly inflexible, and they don’t need my good will. It doesn’t seem to matter that it’s not my fault I was born in 1952. Lately, a dark suspicion has occurred to me: that these processes are less about security and more about harassing and inconveniencing certain classes of people who don’t tend to support the dominant political party.

How much more of a US citizen could I be? My paternal ancestors helped to found New Amsterdam in the 1600s. A great-grandfather on my mother’s side was friends with and worked for Theodore Roosevelt. I have a photograph to prove it … but how would I convince a bureaucrat that the handsome man sitting beside TR is really my great-grandfather? At times I get irrationally angry at my parents for not making me as “official” as my older brother. I know having two children is twice as hard, but you still have to properly register all your kids, not just the first.

Postscript: After further effort, I was finally able to get past the irritating rotary phone systems and communicate with real humans, which has made me feel immensely better. Flesh-and-blood people, as a rule, really do want to help you. I talked to one on the phone who assured me that she would put the necessary copies of my birth certificate in the mail without further delay. They have arrived, and have actual signatures and seals that make them look official. A few days later, an in-person visit to the local department of motor vehicles went off fairly smoothly, despite time wasted standing in the wrong line and in front of a lady whose driving privileges were in jeopardy because she had misplaced her social security card. So as of now, I haven’t given up on ever driving or traveling again. As I’ve had to learn as a writer, you can’t be a quitter. If I hit further snags, I’ll persevere, even if it means suing somebody or starting my own movement.

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.