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  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2016/08/30 Permalink
    Tags: , bad blood, evelyn waugh, , kingsley amis, margaret drabble, martin amis, sylvia plath, 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.

     

     
  • Kat Rosenfield 3:00 pm on 2016/08/01 Permalink
    Tags: , art imitating life, , , Colette, iris murdoch, , mary wollstonecraft, , , sylvia plath,   

    The Bell Jar Gets a Movie, and 5 More Biopics About Women Writers 

    Sylvia Plath is one of modern literature’s most celebrated, complicated women, which is why it’s astonishing that it has taken this long for her famed novel The Bell Jar to get an outing in Hollywood (unless you count the awful, unsuccessful 1979 attempt by an all-male writing and directing team to adapt the novel for the screen…and really, it would be best for all of us if we just pretend that never happened.)

    But now, per a report from Deadline, The Bell Jar is finally getting the movie adaptation it deserves, with Kirsten Dunst directing and Dakota Fanning in the starring role of Esther Greenwood—a character who’s more or less an avatar for Plath herself in the largely autobiographical story about a young woman struggling with mental illness.

    Production on the movie won’t start until early next year, so it’ll be awhile yet before we see whether Dunst and her crew can do this story justice. But knowing that the lives of fierce literary ladies tend to make for great movies (when they’re done right), we’re feeling optimistic! Consider these five grand dames of literature who have gotten (or are about to get) a big-screen outing.

    Virginia Woolf
    Although The Hours was written by a man, it was Virginia Woolf’s life and legacy that inspired the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel—and when the novel was adapted for film, it was Nicole Kidman’s searing performance as the author that won the Academy Award.

    Mary Wollstonecraft
    While big sister Dakota is gearing up to play Plath’s heroine, Elle Fanning has signed on to star in a biopic of another awesome woman writer: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, founding mother of feminism and author of the seminal sci-fi novel Frankenstein. That movie, A Storm in the Stars, will be out later this year.

    Jane Austen
    It is a truth universally acknowledged that the makers of Becoming Jane probably took a few liberties vis-a-vis the seriousness of Jane Austen’s IRL romance with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, but that’s probably because so frustratingly little is known about the personal life of the woman who introduced the world to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy that even the most knowledgeable Austen biographers have had to fill in the blanks.

    Colette
    Colette’s novels, Cheri and The Last of Cheri, have already been made into a delicious (and highly underrated) film starring Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging courtesan and Rupert Friend as the bratty, beautiful title character, but the writer herself had a fascinating life—which will be the subject of an upcoming biopic starring Keira Knightley.

    Iris Murdoch
    The Irish writer—who penned more than two dozen novels, four books of philosophy, five plays, and a libretto before succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease in 1999—was portrayed as a young woman by Kate Winslet and an old one by Judi Dench in the 2001 biopic Iris. In addition to being a literary powerhouse, Murdoch was one half of a fascinating, eccentric literary power couple (not unlike Plath was with Ted Hughes); her husband, John Bayley, wrote the memoir that served as source material for the movie about her life.

     
  • Jeff Somers 8:30 pm on 2016/07/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , sylvia plath,   

    5 Writers Who Shouldn’t Have Survived Long Enough to Write Their Classics 

    We tend to imagine writers falling into two camps: hard-drinking misfits who somehow translate their personal misery into beautiful works, and buttoned-up academics with glasses perched soberly on the ends of their noses. While normally stereotypes should be deprecated, in this case there’s some truth to them: there certainly have been authors in the Tolkien mold, puffing on pipes in their natty sweaters, desks piled with books. And there have definitely been writers who tried their best to turn up dead long before they could manage to write their classic books. In fact, these five writers should have died long before they then—making their books even more incredible by dint of their mere existence.

    Charles Bukowski
    To say that Charles Bukowski should not have made it to age 73 is an understatement. At age 13 he had his first drink, and promptly announced, “This is going to help me for a very long time.” What’s even more remarkable, aside from his writing talent, is that it wasn’t even his lifelong alcoholism that killed him—cancer got him first. In the words of the Waco Kid from Blazing Saddles, “A man drink like that and he don’t eat, he is going to die.” And yet Bukowski barreled through a boozy life with gusto, and left us with one of the greatest grave markers in history—his final resting place is emblazoned with his famous advice to young writers: “Don’t try.” Far from a nihilistic admonishment to give up, the phrase is actually the most pithy writing advice ever conceived.

    William S. Burroughs
    Burroughs became a heroin addict in his early 30s, and switched to abusing Benzedrine when he had to flee to Mexico to escape a drug arrest. He then promptly killed his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in an inebriated attempt to recreate William Tell’s famous stunt of shooting an apple off his son’s head. Considering that Vollmer and Burroughs were estranged and constantly at each other’s throats, it’s easy to see why he was convicted of homicide, although he endured no jail time for the crime. Oddly enough, this turn of events didn’t clean Burroughs up; he continued to use heroin for most of his life. It did, however, inspire his writing, and he embarked on his greatest literary achievements after Vollmer’s death. The fact that Burroughs survived Mexico free and alive is almost unbelievable.

    Jack Kerouac
    Not only was Kerouac a formidable alcoholic who died at age 47  as a direct result of his drinking, he also spent much of his early adulthood literally on the road with Neal Cassady and others. Life on the road isn’t the healthiest, and when you combine it with dangerous substance abuse, well, it’s absolutely amazing the man lived long enough to write his one true classic, On the Road, and even lesser works like The Dharma Bums.

    Sylvia Plath
    Sylvia Plath attempted suicide twice before she graduated college—the first time swallowing a bottle of pills and lying in the crawlspace under her house for three days. Most people die much more easily than that, so it’s kind of amazing Plath managed to cling to life for another decade, long enough to produce The Bell Jar, alongside a wealth of poems and other writings. Considering how many people die completely by accident on a daily basis, the fact that Plath was determined to do so and yet lived long enough to produce her iconic work is in itself proof that the world is a crazy random place.

    Hunter S. Thompson
    Hunter S. Thompson’s entire existence be implausible if he hadn’t lived in an age when technology allowed it to be definitively proven. From a rough and tumble childhood that saw him doing jail time for robbery, to a year spent hanging out with noted gentlemen and scholars the Hell’s Angels, the fact that Thompson lived as long as he did (67 amazing years) is remarkable. When you throw in his drug and alcohol abuse (and the way his real and fictional personas merged over the course of decades), you’ve got the kind of legend upon which cargo cults are based.

     
  • Lindsey Lewis Smithson 6:00 pm on 2015/12/09 Permalink
    Tags: almost doesn't count, and to think that I saw it on mulberry street, , , , east wind: west wind, , , , pearl s. buck, , sylvia plath, , the diary of a young girl   

    More Essential Books that Almost Never Saw the Light of Day 

    The best, most beloved books often have one thing in common: a struggle to be published. Some of our most important stories, from Anne Frank’s unforgettable diary, to the wanderlust classic On the Road, and even early books by childhood idol Dr. Seuss, were passed over by multiple agents and publishers. Yet sometimes it’s those books that break rules, the ones labeled “too different” for a mainstream audience, that become the ones we really needed. Check out some of the books below, (or some from our earlier post on books that almost never were), and fall in love with something a little “different.”

    The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
    Plath, the Pulitzer Prize-winning idol of many poets and readers in search of a coming of age story, had to publish her novel The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The novel faced rejection because the publishing house saw it as “disappointing, juvenile and overwrought.” Now it’s compared to The Catcher in the Rye, (another frequently rejected title, ahem).

    Animal Farm, by George Orwell
    When T.S. Eliot was the editing director of Faber & Faber, he rejected Animal Farm because he “did not want to upset the Soviets in those fraught years of World War II.” There was no mention of a problem with Orwell’s writing, and he was already a household name with five other books in print. In this case, in contrast to other rejected writers, politics—not style—almost stopped this required reading staple from ever hitting bookshelves.

    The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
    Anne Frank’s dairy faced unusual hurdles on the road to publication. After her hiding place was discovered, the remnants of her notebooks left behind by the Nazis were kept hidden for years. Eventually her father reclaimed them and worked to bring her voice to light. Under his watchful eye, though, many of the teenage struggles he thought might offend more conservative readers were edited out of the book. A text with fewer edits was later released, giving readers more insight into this vibrant, inspirational young girl.

    On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
    The jewel in the Beat generation’s literary crown, One the Road was initially said to be too provocative and nontraditional. In one very harsh rejection letter Kerouac was told, “this is a badly misdirected talent and…this huge sprawling and inconclusive novel would probably have small sales and sardonic indignant reviews from every side.” The passionate fanbase that exists to this day might disagree with that sentiment.

    East Wind: West Wind, by Pearl S. Buck
    Pearl S. Buck struggled to find an American publishing house for her debut. As one of the few Americans living in China, and one who had close relationships with Chinese writers, Buck was positioned better than anyone to bring China to America with her epic, cross-cultural coming of age story. She was told in a rejection letter that American readers “aren’t interested in China,” but clearly this proved to be untrue. Buck became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.     

    And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, by Dr. Seuss
    Pretty much everything Dr. Seuss wrote in his early career faced rejection. His first book was passed over 27 times before finally finding a home. Rumor is, he was told his books were “too different” to be published. The Cat in the Hat, Horton, and the Grinch may have never been, just for being different, though ultimately that’s what made them great. Considering the way Dr. Seuss has become a cornerstone of early literacy, a world without him in it would be one with fewer people whose passion for reading began with his giddy, rhyming tales.

    What books do you love that were once overlooked by publishers?

     
  • Sabrina Rojas Weiss 4:15 pm on 2014/10/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , sylvia plath, , ,   

    Meg Wolitzer’s YA Debut, Belzhar, Turns Grief Into A Special Realm 

    Meg Wolitzer's BelzharWho isn’t emotionally fragile at some point in their teen years? And who doesn’t long to be picked out of the crowd, recognized as someone special, either because of the heightened nature of their feelings or some other intangible quality only other special people can see? That’s why the Wooden Barn, a New England boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” students, and its selective class Special Topics in English (featuring lots of dark poetry and journaling), sounds like the setting of our adolescent dreams. But that’s not the only fantasy offered to the damaged students in Meg Wolitzer’s first YA novel, Belzhar.

    Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue’s parents send her away from their home in Crampton, New Jersey (yep, a town name doesn’t get more on-the-nose than that), because she can’t seem to get it together almost a full year after the death of her boyfriend, British exchange student Reeve Maxfield. “After I met him, the kinds of love I’d felt for those other people suddenly seemed basic and lame,” Jam tells us early on, comparing this new love to higher math. His sense of humor matches hers exactly, and they click instantly. Her brief relationship with Reeve also set her apart from her group of “low-key nice girls with long hair” and got her noticed by the in crowd.

    Now, after months of locking herself in her room in a stasis of grief, Jam is again picked out of the crowd as one of the five students of the Special Topics class. Mrs. Quenell, a teacher so ancient she still goes by her last name, tells the students they’ll be studying Sylvia Plath all semester, as well as writing about their feelings twice a week in antique, red-leather journals. As she passes these out, she assures the students: “Everyone has something to say. But not everyone can bear to say it. Your job is to find a way.” And your job, reader, is to bear with that sentimentality for a moment and get to the good stuff: what happens when they do find that way.

    When Jam finally manages to write one line in the notebook, she’s sucked into another reality, where she finds herself lying in the field behind her old school with Reeve. She’s allowed to spend time with him, reliving some of their best moments together, and when she returns to this world, she finds five pages filled in her own handwriting. The same thing happens to the other students, each suffering their own, slowly revealed tragedies. Everything they lost is restored, albeit for a few hours. They meet at night to share their experiences, which are far too real to be called dreams. “I feel like we’re a group of grade-schoolers trying to name their crime-solving or bottle-recycling club,” Jam tells the reader when she comes up with the name Belzhar (pronounced BEL-jhar, as in Plath’s Bell Jar). Yet the name and the rules they establish about when and how often to go there not only make their journeys feel more real, as Jam puts it, they also draw the group closer together. Now their specialness is tangible.

    In The Interestings, Wolitzer’s characters also form a tight-knit group in the dark like this, but that adult novel throws grown-up life in their way, smashing the cocoon of their summer camp, Spirit-in-the-Woods, and destroying their notion of being something better than anyone else. Wolitzer is much gentler to Jam and her friends—the intellectual edge and introspection that gave The Interestings its sharpness is softened here in favor of a lesson. There is a twist, however, and even if you see it coming, you might agree that it’s weird enough to keep things, well, interesting.

    “Please, look out for one another,” Mrs. Quenell urges her students. And, in fact, they learn that by supporting each other, they can slowly find the strength to step out of their magical worlds. They’ll be less special once they break out of those bell jars, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

    Belzhar is out now.

     
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