The New York Times Book Review has a regular feature where two, usually very different, authors respond to a question like: is there too much violence in graphic novels; or, which Ayn Rand novel did you find most ridiculous; or even, what pop-up books do you remember from your childhood. This week the question was
Which Books From Your Past Do You Read Now With Ambivalence?
First up was Adam Kirsch who contended that “The Waste Land, with its showy references and sexual dread, seems like a kind of young person’s performance.” Kirsch in a side note also appeared to agree with me in suggesting that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was juvenile fluff but valuable to use when introducing poetry to the young and dumb (well, maybe he didn’t go that far but then again, I did say it was a suggestion and not a firm statement).
Following a trend of discussing authors I crossed off my list long ago, Zöe Heller brings up J. D. Salinger and seems to conclude that Salinger, especially with the Glass family, does not represent the misunderstood masses, the rebellious juveniles, or the literary outsiders. But Salinger is not her main topic: it is Sylvia Plath. “I’m more skeptical of attempts to transmute Sylvia Plath’s highly individual wretchedness into a feminist fable.” Heller writes:
Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is another book that elicits a very different response from me now than it did in my youth. (Although I partly suspect that my ambivalence toward these poems was always there and that it was just my craven submission to peer pressure that prevented me from acknowledging it.) By the time I was encountering her work for the first time, Plath had already been canonized as a feminist saint and the Plath cult was in full flower. To “love” her work was a way of aligning oneself with the spurious glamour of her suffering. It lent a patina of high seriousness to one’s own garden-variety teenage depression. These days, I’m more skeptical of attempts to transmute Plath’s highly individual wretchedness into a feminist fable. And while it’s impossible not to admire the technical virtuosity of the poems, I’m frankly amazed that I ever affected to “relate to” or be consoled by their cruelty, their masochism, their terrifying “ice-eye.”
Plath had just committed suicide when I was at the university and her novel, The Bell Jar, was one of those “must reads” I remember from those days (along with The Group, Candy, and Silas Marner). Plath was highly symbolic for the poets in the English Department who were still struggling to overcome a lack of talent (like me). But despite having all of Plath’s books on my bricks-and-boards bookshelves, I began to question her work much like Heller did. I eventually discovered Ann Sexton, il miglior fabbro, and ever since then, the best I can say about Sylvia Platt is that she is Ann Sexton Light.
So the question remains: Which Books From Your Past Do You Read Now With Ambivalence?