|Ted Hughes, 1978 (Photo by Bill Brandt)|
The case for literary criticism as art is easy to make. Simply adduce Janet Malcolm’s brilliant The Silent Woman (1993), a mesmerizing exploration of “the labyrinth of the Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes story,” and rest your case. No further submissions are necessary. The Silent Woman originally appeared in The New Yorker (August 23, 1993). One of my favorite lines in it is “When Bitter Fame appeared, and raised the stakes of the game, I decided to become a player.” Twenty-three years later, Malcolm is back at the table with her " 'A Very Sadistic Man' " (The New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016), a scathing review of Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life. She says of Bate’s book,
Is that why we read literary biographies – to see what writers are “really” like? Maybe. The literary biographies I most enjoy explore the relationship between the life and the work. Perhaps the greatest of them is George D. Painter’s Marcel Proust. A recent example is Adam Begley’s excellent Updike. Bate’s book is not that kind of biography. It dishes the dirt. Malcolm rightly dismisses it. But it seems to me her defense of Hughes has at least one hole in it. It fails to adequately explain his destruction of Plath’s last journal, the one she wrote during the months leading up to her suicide when she was composing her great Ariel poems. That action strikes me as seriously self-incriminating. It puts Hughes’s character in issue.