The Biographer As Burglar: Janet Malcolm On The Sylvia Plath Legend

from: The Buffalo News (NY) - May 1, 1994

by Margaret Sullivan - News Book Reviewer

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes By Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm made her name as a writer by painting with the broadest and smeariest of brushes. In the most famous sentence she ever wrote, she sullied all journalists in one huge stroke:

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Her point (expressed in her New Yorker article, and then the 1990 book, "The Journalist and the Murderer," about author Joe McGinniss and his treatment of convicted murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald) was simple enough: Journalists always betray their sources for the sake of their stories. Now she turns her attention to the literary cousins of these journalists -- biographers -- and the trademark Malcolm brush appears once again. It's as broad and smeary as ever.

Biography, she writes, is "the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world."

The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The funny thing is, of course, that Malcolm herself is something of a journalist and, with this Plath book, something of a biographer, too. But she places herself above all the base information-gathering that those job descriptions imply, preferring to think of herself as a social or literary critic.

Yet her inclusion in the dreaded ranks of journalist and biographer can hardly be denied. (After all, being a journalist has landed her in some ugly, high-profile trouble in the past. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Masson sued Malcolm over a New Yorker article she wrote, largely about him; last year, a jury found that she had indeed made up quotes that defamed him.) Now she focuses on Sylvia Plath. "The Silent Woman" is not a biography -- heaven forbid -- but a study of how biographies have forged Plath's reputation.

Malcolm makes the point that Plath's reputation as an important poet depends heavily on the work produced just before she killed herself. "The death-ridden poems move us and electrify us because of our knowledge of what happened," Malcolm writes. And she agrees with those who say that Plath never would have captured the public's imagination if she had not killed herself -- that suicide was, for Plath, a brilliant career move. Much of the book revolves around Plath's relationships with her husband, writer Ted Hughes, and his sister Olwyn Hughes. She writes, at great length, about how their relationships with various Plath biographers has affected the way the world sees Sylvia Plath.

Malcolm's great strength is her quirky way of looking at the world. Her observations about biographies of famous people are original and valuable. The biographer's business, like the journalist's, is to satisfy the reader's curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods . . .

And when biographers hint that anything has kept them from doing exactly that -- for example, sensitivity to the subject's family -- the biography is regarded as damaged goods.

Relatives are the biographer's natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes an explorer encounters and must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory.

Interesting observations -- but not at book length. The problem is that, in the end, Malcolm's book is too distant from what should be its real subject. Instead of writing about Plath and her poetry -- worthy topics -- she is writing about people writing about Plath. Sometimes, even more distantly, she writes about the public's reaction to people writing about Plath.

It's like one of those photographs of someone holding a photograph of himself, holding a photograph of himself.

And in the end, too much of it is arcane and meaningless. One wants to say to Malcolm: Look, if you're so dissatisfied with the existing biographies of Plath, why didn't you go out and write the definitive one yourself?

The answer, probably, is that it was just too much work to do the digging that would require. It's easier -- and somehow more glamorous -- to have a high-flown, preconceived idea and then fit reality to it. Easier and more glamorous but, sad to say, not terribly valuable.

Copyright (c) 1994, The Buffalo News

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