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  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2016/08/30 Permalink
    Tags: a.s. byatt, bad blood, evelyn waugh, , kingsley amis, margaret drabble, martin amis, , ted hughes   

    Four Literary Families who Sabotaged Each Other’s Careers 

    Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No one knows this better than those who spend an inordinate amount of time writing about dysfunctional families. Everyone has family drama, but while many of us might squabble privately, if anyone attacks the family, we’ll close ranks quicker than the Starks of Winterfell. Sadly, this doesn’t always apply to famous literary families: most stories of family dysfunction are, after all, inspired by personal experience, something that’s especially obvious in the following four cases, in which sisters, brothers, fathers, and spouses have publicly and purposefully worked against the literary career of someone they theoretically love.

    Martin and Kingsley Amis
    Every Father’s Day we take a moment to celebrate the strong, supportive father figures who have taught us life skills, loaned us the family car, and imparted hard-won wisdom. And then there’s Kingsley Amis, a celebrated author who regularly insulted his equally famous son’s literary talent, denouncing his work for “breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to [it]self.” The relationship between father and son was complicated, and Martin Amis seems to have adopted the position that his father was simply offering honest, tough-love opinions about his work. Still, it’s remarkable to think that a father who had achieved all manner of literary success would publicly dismiss his own son’s achievements instead of simply holding his tongue.

    Evelyn, Auberon, and Alec Waugh
    Evelyn Waugh is one of the most celebrated writers of all time, with books like Brideshead Revisited lodged firmly in the global imagination. Many have forgotten that there was a time when his older brother Alec was the more famous writer; The Loom of Youth made a huge splash in 1917, and Alec continued to publish throughout his life, even as his younger brother overtook him in reputation. When Alec’s novel Island in the Sun became a big hit 40 years after Loom, Evelyn damned it with faint praise, saying it was “rather good if you think of it as being by an American, which he is really” (trust us when we say Evelyn Waugh describing you as “American” was a terrible insult). Evelyn’s son Auberon summed up the family’s opinion of Alec’s literary output with the Britishly savage quip that Alec “wrote many books, each worse than the last.” As with all things British, you kind of have to translate that through a Sick Burn Filter to get a real sense of just how brutal a takedown it was meant to be.

    Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt
    Sisters Drabble (The Pure Gold Baby) and Byatt (Possession) have between them won dozens of awards, sold a mess of books, and earned literary reputations many would kill for. They also, in no uncertain terms, hate each other. They throw shade at one another in both interviews and in their fiction, and haven’t spoken in decades except through withering insults offered up in interviews. Neither ever fails to say something negative—sometimes openly hostile —when the other publishes a new book. The product of an intensely unhappy and ultra-competitive upbringing, each remembers the other being mother’s favorite, and resents it with a passion. It’s entirely possible that, had the sisters evolved different artistic interests, they’d have maintained a relationship. With both of them pursuing storied literary careers, however, their sibling rivalry was doomed to blossom into something that can be culled only with fire and blood.

    Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
    Ted Hughes is simultaneously one of the most celebrated poets of the modern age and a reviled figure in the literary world of literature, as many—without any hard evidence, it should be noted—believe he was in some way responsible for his wife Sylvia Plath’s death. Plath committed suicide, yet many believe Hughes’ treatment of her drove her to that final, desperate moment. While Hughes had nothing but sincere-sounding praise for his wife’s genius, his handling of her manuscripts and unpublished material after her death was questionable at best; he admitted burning Plath’s journal, which detailed their final months together, and his curation of her work has been met with severe criticism over the ordering of poems and the choice of what to publish and what to keep private. The argument that Hughes hurt Plath’s literary reputation with his decisions after her death leads naturally to the conspiracy theory that he did so purposefully, either to conceal his own bad behavior while she was alive, or as a sort of final revenge. Obviously, Plath was a desperately unhappy person who had been attempting suicide regularly since her childhood, but when Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes had an affair with while married to Plath, committed suicide in the same manner (killing the daughter Hughes fathered with her as well), it became a lot easier to imagine that Hughes was a monster.


  • Ester Bloom 7:00 pm on 2014/07/25 Permalink
    Tags: , a.s. byatt, , , , hear my cry, howards end, , island of the blue dolphins, james m. cain, , , , madeleine l'engle, mildred d. taylor, mildred pierce, , possession, roll of thunder, scott o'dell, , the lord peter whimsey mysteries,   

    Our Favorite Fictional Feminists 

    Lonesome Dove

    From Jane Eyre to Janie Crawford, strong female characters make literature go round. All of the best authors seem to concur on their importance. They elevate and add more resonance to dystopian tales like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Gamesand make novels like the Song of Ice and Fire series even more worth reading.

    Picking favorite fictional feminists then presents a challenge. This list is composed of people who do not merely take charge of their own destinies and care about society’s treatment of women, but who would probably agree that they were feminists if you asked them (and, if necessary, explained the term). Clarissa Dalloway would probably smile politely at you and then excuse herself to find the ladies’ room; Miss Jean Brodie would laugh and blow cigarette smoke at you; and Scarlett O’Hara, though she is a successful, independent businesswoman and professional problem solver, would probably throw a drink in your face.

    The women of this list pass the Bechdel test, too: they have another female character around to talk to about subjects beyond men. That helps.

    Favorite Fictional Feminist—Western Division

    Clara Allen (Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurty)
    Virtually all of the women in Larry McMurtry’s fabulously entertaining historical epic about the American West are tough, canny, assertive, even the tertiary ones like the dissatisfied wife Elmira (“’Nobody run off with her,’ Roscoe said. ‘She just run off with herself, I guess’”). Like Lorena, the prostitute powered by the determination to get to San Francisco, they are limited sometimes by circumstance, but not by the inherent frailty of gender. Gus’s old flame, Clara, the tough-minded, practical mother with a Nebraska ranch she runs herself, takes the proto-feminist cake. The cake is red velvet, of course, as befits a queen.

    Shakespearean Division

    Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare)
    How powerful is Kate in Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew? So powerful that he has to insert a monologue at the end in which she supposedly repudiates everything she once thought. Yet, for all her anger, there doesn’t seem to be as much depth in her as there is in Beatrice, who mixes humor in with her candor and so gets a happier ending. One gets the sense though that she remains the same person from start to finish: intelligent and wry, with a gift for understatement (“I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight”).

    Classic British Lit Division

    Margaret and Helen Schlegel, (Howards End, by E.M. Forster)
    The earnestly intellectual Schlegel sisters don’t merely believe in progressive causes, they act accordingly, even when their activism makes their lives more difficult. Though their commitments to morality strain their relationship, ultimately they strengthen their bond as sisters and as friends. They’re even rewarded at the end, as though they have been playing The Price Is Right all along. (A new house!)

    Academia Division

    Dr. Maud Bailey (Possession, by A. S. Byatt)
    Overlook, if you would, the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow played her in the movie version, and Maud becomes much easier to identify with. A passionate scholar and keen literary detective, Maud finds love without letting that goal displace her desire to be successful and taken seriously.

    YA Sci Fi Division

    Meg Murry (A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle)
    Mathlete Meg Murry uses every resource at her disposal—including her awkward but fierce individualism—to save both her father and her younger brother from imprisonment on a distant planet. Yay, Meg!

    YA Survivalist Division

    Karana (Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell)
    Could you hold your own against ravenous wolves that killed your brother, ultimately mastering both your fear and the hostile environment in which you have been stranded? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

    YA Historical Fiction Division

    Cassie (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor)
    Could you hold your own against the joint forces of The Great Depression and the White Supremacy in power in the Deep South? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either. Cassie comes to understand the grim realities of sharecropper life, but she never lets them dampen her spirit or her resolve.

    Mystery Division

    Harriet Vane (The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, by Dorothy L. Sayers)
    A middle class, Oxford-educated country doctor’s daughter, Harriet has only her stubbornness to help her when she finds herself locked up for a sensational crime she didn’t commit. From the depths of Old Bailey, she wins over the sensitive, self-mocking aristocratic detective who saves her life; but how can she marry him when she fears he will sap her independence? Over four hilariously unromantic books, they argue in Latin and simmer sexual tension at each other while solving, and writing, mysteries, and, without sacrificing their individuality, become one of the best couples in British literature. Harriet, especially, earns her happy ending.

    Noir Division

    Mildred Pierce (Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain)
    Care for a pie, or some chicken? The no-nonsense housewife at the center of this small, midcentury masterpiece, tired of being subject to various men, launches her own entrepreneurial enterprise. It goes great! Until, at least, she is undermined by her conniving daughter, who represents Traditional Femininity and a patriarchal society’s desire to keep women in their place. Ultimately, though, we have no doubt that Mildred, like the other feminists in this list, will rise from her own ashes. She is too tough and resourceful to do otherwise.

    Who are your favorite fictional feminists?

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