In the literary world, in terms of public opinion with regard to the writer, it has long at least seemed the case that a man is allowed to write about whatever he wishes to write about and if the writing itself is good or bad he is then judged to be a good or bad writer. It does not matter what his subject matter is, however grim, depressing, grotesque or perverse, he is a writer. Historically, women have not been allowed the same latitude.
When it comes to pushing the envelope, plumbing the depths, or simply having the guts to go there, a woman is too often judged by her choice of subject. Her character then called into question, her state of mind dissected and dragged forth for endless speculation and examination in the arena of public opinion.
In the literary world a woman is not always afforded the same objectivity as a man. No matter what he writes he is assumed to be a writer, she is too often assumed to be whatever she has written.
Some of this may be due to the mythology , the mystery, the romance that is woman. Earth Mother, Goddess, Healer, Siren, Savior, Virgin and Whore, follow her through the mist to places unknown in fear of losing or in hope of saving your mortal soul. That’s a lot of pressure, and yet most of us welcome it on some level or at least accept it, the idea that we, as women, are ethereal at our core because maybe…we are. Maybe women are all-stars and angels fallen to the earth from divine midnights and never-ending rainbows at sunrise. Each woman a unicorn in her own right, deserving of nothing less than awe…and a lot more sleep.
Society perpetuates these myths, feeds on them and is unintentionally helped along by those women who break the mold in some fashion. Women who do not accept the social status
quo or who do not fit neatly into any known definition of what a woman is or should be, society insists, even in today’s world, that there must be something wrong with such a woman.
Society is also fascinated with the train wreck, a woman coming apart at the seams, clinging to whatever examples of such women that it can find, often using such examples to persecute the whole of womanhood, regardless of the truth of who these women are or were or the value of their work. Society also likes to hold the female train wreck up as warning that sometimes sounds more like a threat, look what happened to HER. Very often the value of a woman’s work in an artistic field is unfortunately increased or decreased by the morbid fascination with whatever her personal issues may or may not be or have been.
Literary history is strewn with examples of so-called poorly behaved men, alcoholics, womanizers, deviants, drug addicts, what have you, and while these facts are readily known, they remain secondary to the work the men have produced. Not only that, men are often forgiven or exonerated for a multitude of crimes and sins if their work is exceptional. What do we expect after all? He is/was a brilliant man. As though genius itself were the perfect excuse. And while we might discuss in whispers the scandalous details of the exploits of the male artist, it is often with a sense of awe and at times, a sense of glorification.
A woman, typically, is afforded no such accommodation. Pardon me but a woman must keep her proverbial shit together at all times.
A woman’s work is often excluded from the canon, from discussion, discredited and or dismissed if her social or personal behavior was or is deemed unsavory in some way. We forgive Sylvia Plath because she is seen as the beautiful, suffering waif who succumbed to mental illness under what we deem a mysterious set of circumstances, when in fact her final days may have been marked but the effects of having been prescribed the wrong medication. Sylvia Plath is the literary equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. We can feel sorry for Sylvia, her husband was unfaithful, and thus her work is allowed to be valued and cherished and continues to outsell many other female poets. That is not to say that her work was not amazing, it was, completely. The work, however, should be the thing.
What about Anne Sexton?
Anne Sexton is something of a taboo subject. When it was all said and done, she didn’t do a good enough job of confining her maladies to herself. Thus her work, which may be the most important work ever produced by a female poet, is mostly only whispered about, is not kept in stock, is not taught or discussed on any level approaching what it deserves. Anne Sexton gets her due, but it is almost grudgingly. Her work was/is undeniably important, “undeniably” being the key word.
If Sexton had written what Plath wrote, you’d hear nothing about Anne Sexton. Which does not mean that Plath’s work was not excellent, it simply means that it would not have been exceptional enough to overcome Anne Sexton’s personal issues and still continue to have been accepted once all of her personal secrets began to emerge. What that means is that Anne Sexton’s work was not merely brilliant, it was phenomenal. It was enough to maintain her place in literary history despite what her problems may have been as a person.
This does not happen in the same way to male writers. When you think William S. Burroughs, Hunter Thompson, Oscar Wilde, their personage is accepted completely as having been part of the package, as part and parcel of whatever “magic” they possessed as writers. Can the argument be made that they were simply so brilliant, that their work was so brilliant, that it didn’t matter what their personal issues were? Maybe. But that maybe does not negate the point and more often than not, men are allowed increased leeway under the guise of he’s an artist, genius, writer.Of course it should not be ignored that these two women in particular, Plath and Sexton, added to the mystique of the female writer and fueled the fires of the double standard because they took their own lives. And though they certainly were not the first writers, male or female, to have chosen to remove themselves from this world, the fact is that these two, more than any others, left those of us who remain with something of a stigmatized legacy of the female poet. Ultimately lending an arguable though not factual modicum of credence to the idea that men are writers and women are what they write. In that regard, Plath and Sexton did us no favors.
Women writers of a particular vein are often robbed of the credit they deserve for their imaginations. One of the hazards of writing in the first person, so-called “confessional” style, is that it is readily assumed that the writer is everything they’ve written or that everything they write is something they’ve actually experienced in life. Not only is this not always the case but moreover, something of an impossibility. When you look at the varying subject matter and the range of emotion expressed by the more prolific writers of poetry, essay and prose, in the confessional style and otherwise, it becomes quite clear the imagination and experience go hand in hand. Confessional style writing is only that, a style of writing. Most writers who write in the confessional style do not do so exclusively.
Intelligent women who blaze trails are too often subject to this kind of microscopic examination, again, society demands it. Don’t hate her because she’s intelligent, beautiful, strong, possesses some kind of integrity ~ instead find something really wrong with her that will negate all that radiance in the first place.
Dorothy Parker wrote volumes of brilliant verse, screen plays, articles, books, was a Civil Rights activist but when a bio pic of her life was made the focus was on the boozy days of the Algonquin Round Table, her failed love affairs and marriages in addition to her failed suicide attempts.
Ayn Rand was a genius, no question. Her work is brilliant in its comprehension of government, social systems, freedom, ethics and morality. Books that she wrote more than fifty years ago remain in print, their subject matter more relevant now than ever, regardless of personal opinions as to the philosophical movement that those works spawned. However,when a biography of her life story was committed to film, the gist of it was that she had an affair while she was married, the tone, one of an attempt to paint her as nothing more than an immoral hypocrite.
Society loves the idea of a train wreck and if they can combine the train wreck and the rebel into one ball of wax, then hallelujah ! Society loves the idea of the troubled artist, the angst ridden, addicted, recovering, passionate, struggling to produce the goods mess of a person who dares to call themselves a writer, artist, actor, musician. Literary history has shown that there is some truth to the stereotype. Society needs it, the romance of the possibility of living ones life passionately, with some seeming measure of abandon, integrity and commitment to self, to the work, to that ethereal within us all, to the art of being human.
The romanticized idea of the artist lifts us out of the confines of the daily drudgery of survival. Hope is pinned on these individuals who seemingly dare to strike out on their own in some way to live their lives as they see fit, exploring the world out there and the world in here on their own terms, who seem to represent individual freedom.
We accept and even expect the idea of the train wreck, of the self-destructive arteest, because there must be a high price to pay for such talent, for such freedom, society has demanded it. It is the equalizer. It’s bullshit. I don’t know what else there is to say about it, it’s bullshit.
When the proper credit is not given for the work the individual has contributed, when our need to comfort ourselves with the notion that these people, because of whatever character flaw they may have, real or perceived, and tell ourselves that they are no more brilliant than the average person, when that need supersedes our ability to acknowledge the truth of their genius, it is a reflection on us, on society, not on these women or any individuals who excel and achieve greatness and are then so maligned.
Where are those individuals now? The free? Where they have always been, in the plain view of a society suffering from rampant arrogance, narcissism and 20/20 hindsight. And they are different now than any who have traveled this way before them, their romance is not only that of reality, but one of honesty with themselves, their romance is that of the possibilities inherent in individual transcendence of the ideas and labels placed on them by others. They are freedom self-contained, personified and from within. The underground renaissance is alive and well, its representatives and their works only to be completely apparent in retrospect, as has always been the way with those who are cutting their own path through the wilderness. We do not see them and know who they are until and unless they emerge.
Do I mean to compare myself to these women writers? Only in general, as a woman writer, only to illustrate the point, because it is something familiar to me personally and something I’ve long noted when any such discussion of these women writers, and others like them who push the boundaries with their work, has ensued, the double standard, the lack of latitude.
It’s been ten years since I wrote this piece. I was thirty-nine then, now I’m forty-nine. Double- standards as applied to artistic freedom, sexuality, speaking my mind, or a variety of other things, still don’t interest me, they never have and they never will. Imagine that. ~ TS, 2018