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 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 called into question, her state of mind then 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 eye toward the objective judgment of her work as is a man. No matter what he writes, he assumed to be a writer, a woman writer is too often assumed to be whatever she has written.
Some of this, I believe, is 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 hope of saving your life, or losing your mortal soul. That’s a lot of pressure, and yet most of us welcome it in some way, on some level, or at least accept or acquiesce to it, the idea that we, as women, are ethereal at our core because maybe, we are. Maybe we 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 fascinated with the metaphorical 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. Often times the value of a woman’s work in any particular field is unfortunately increased or decreased by the morbid curiosity and fascination with whatever her personal issues may or may not be, or have been.
Literary history is strewn with examples of 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 because their work is viewed as being exceptional. What do we expect, after all? He is/was a “brilliant man.”
Women are allowed no such accommodation.
Women are, in fact, often excluded from the canon, excluded from the discussion, or at least, discredited on some level, if their social or personal behavior was deemed unsavory in some way. We forgive Sylvia Plath because she is seen as the beautiful, suffering waif, who succumbed to mental illness under mysterious circumstances after years of a difficult relationship with her husband, who it seems certain had his own motives in both her life and death. Sylvia Plath is the literary equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. We can feel sorry for Sylvia, in death she became the embodiment of victimhood, thus her work is allowed to be valued and cherished and continues to outsell other female poets, because, had only someone known. And Plath’s work, which I am just beginning to delve into, is brilliant, amazing, completely. The work, however, should be the thing. But what about Anne Sexton?
Anne Sexton is a taboo subject. She didn’t do a good enough job of confining her maladies to herself. Thus, her work, which may be the most important poetic work ever produced by a female writer, as Sexton openly wrote about her uterus, issues that are exclusively female, and brought that vernacular into the mainstream literary forum, yet her work is only whispered about, is often not kept in stock, is not taught or discussed as work on any level approaching what it deserves. Anne Sexton gets her due but it is grudgingly. Her work was/is undeniable important, “undeniably” being the keyword.
If Sexton had written what Plath wrote, you’d hear nothing about Anne Sexton. This doesn’t mean that Plath’s work wasn’t excellent, it simply means that it would not have been exceptional enough to overcome Anne Sexton’s personal issues. Which means that Anne Sexton’s work was not merely excellent, it was phenomenal. It was enough to earn her place in literary history despite who she may have been as a person.
This does not happen to male writers. Hear the name William S. Burroughs and you think of what he wrote, you do not think heroin addict who shot and killed his wife in a supposed drunken game of William Tell. Not only that, people have pitied him over it, poor thing, he was just too loaded. Her name was Joan Vollmer, she was twenty-eight years old, she was the mother of two children. Can the argument be made that Burroughs was brilliant, that his work was simply so brilliant, that it didn’t matter, what his 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.
It also cannot be ignored that these two women, in particular, added to the mystique of the female writer and fueled the fires of the double standard because they took their own lives. Though they were certainly 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 a stigmatized legacy of the suicidal 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 bent 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 that 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 range of emotions expressed by the more prolific writers of poetry, essay, and prose, in the confessional style and otherwise, it becomes quite clear that imagination and experience go hand in hand. Confessional style writing is only that, a style of writing. And most writers who write in the confessional style, do not do so exclusively.
Intelligent women who blaze trails are subject to this kind of microscopic examination, again, society demands it. Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful, intelligent, strong, and possesses some sense of integrity— instead, find something really wrong with her that will negate all of her radiance in the first place.
Dorothy Parker wrote volumes of brilliant verse, screenplays, 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 her suicide attempts. Ayn Rand was a genius, no question about it. Her work is now proving to be not only brilliant in its contemplation of government, freedom, social systems and morality, but somewhat prophetic. She should be recognized as being one of the most important philosophers of the modern age. Books that she wrote more than fifty years ago remain in print and more relevant now than ever. When the biography of her life was committed to film, the gist of it was that she had an affair while she was married and to portray her as an immoral hypocrite.
Society loves the metaphorical female train wreck, and the idea of a rebel, forgetting all the while that those who rebel against the status quo generally begin blazing that trail alone, and how difficult that is, because of how difficult that exact society causes it to be. Society loves the idea of the individual, 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, painter, actor, musician. Literary history has shown that there is some truth to that stereotype. Society needs it, the romance of the possibility of living one’s life passionately, with some seeming measure, of abandon, integrity, and commitment to self, to the work, to the 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 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 isn’t nearly that simple and a lot of that is bullshit.
When the proper credit isn’t 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 and narcissism, and 20/20 hindsight. And they are different now than any who have come before them, their romance is not only that of the possibilities inherent in the individual transcendence of the ideas and labels placed on them by others. They are freedom, self-contained, personified from within.
Do I mean to compare myself to these accomplished women? Only in general as women writers. Only to illustrate the point, the double standard, the lack of latitude.
Personal note: I’ve since found myself unable to continue to read the poems of Anne Sexton, having read an article that demystified some of the origins and meanings of her work. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that about keeping some mystery, in poetry at least. None-the-less, personal preferences aside, the double-standard persists.