“If I Didn’t Know Better”

There’s a great piece over on the Tin House blog about Sylvia Plath fans and the distinction between loving an artist for their legend and loving her for her art:

Plath, like no other poet, has been idolized and appropriated and taken ownership of, cast and recast by acolytes as a “suicide doll,” as her daughter, Frieda Hughes, once said. For the many years I’ve spent studying Plath, I’ve worried that I might be behaving this way, too, that even my disdain for what I see as the wrong kind of Plath groupies is proprietary in a way I have no right to be. Now, here I was about to perpetrate some suspiciously cultish behavior and check out a relic of this saint, an act that looked a lot like worshipping the myth and forgetting the person and the poet.

It’s surprisingly easy to get caught up in the idea of a favorite writer, in the romance of a powerful persona.  And often, as in the case of someone like Plath or Hemingway, that persona comes to eclipse the work itself, which is unfortunate.  I was talking to someone recently (was it you, Michelle?) and we came to the conclusion that it’s not Hemingway’s stories we dislike to much, but the cult of Hemingway.

Of course, it cuts the other way, too.  Someone was opining recently that everyone remembers Raymond Chandler as a brilliant prose stylist (which he was) and forgets that he was a terrible father (which he also was).  Sometimes we fall so in love with the idea of someone’s genius that we’re tempted to look the other way when it comes to their personal faults.

It’s easy to say that someone’s personal life has no bearing at all on the art they make.  But it’s not so easy to dismiss an author’s biography in practice.  For the most part, I don’t care much about writers’ lives.  I would much rather judge a work on its own merit.  But for those writers I feel strongly about, I find I want to hold onto every little scrap of information I can, whether true or false, apocryphal or propagandistic.  Sometimes their legends are the closest we can come to these figures we admire so much — except, of course, through their work itself.

3 Replies to ““If I Didn’t Know Better””

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