I don’t mean to. And when I say I like the suicidal writers I of course mean I like the writing of suicidal writers. I obviously haven’t met Ernest Hemingway or Dorothy Parker or Sylvia Plath, so I can’t say whether I’d like any of them personally.
I am reading the Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (off and on), and based on what I’ve read so far, it seems safe to say I probably would have liked her. (Then again, can’t we come to find we presently like someone we didn’t get to meet until after they were dead? If a journal represents, in large part, the essence of a person, and if we can assume the journal was written with honesty, it could be that we like the person inside the pages, that I can say, “I think I like Sylvia Plath” rather than “I would have liked” her. She doesn’t have to be alive for me to like her, does she?)
As to Dorothy Parker, having read her stories and poetry and book reviews collected in The Portable Dorothy Parker, I think I might have been more concerned with whether she liked me. There would have been something at once flattering and scary about being taken into her little Algonquin circle (as if I would have been!), and more unnerving would probably have been the way she would look at a new person, followed by the creative ways she would find to insult them that probably wouldn’t really hurt until two hours later when what she said finally settled in.
All of that is an aside. What struck me when reading Plath’s journals (having never read any of Plath’s other writing) was that I absolutely loved, and was inspired by, her skill and her style, which was a surprise to me because I didn’t expect to enjoy it. In high school, when the teenage girls were going through their “very deep” and emotionally traumatic phase, many of them turned to Sylvia Plath’s writing. It felt to me at the time like they were worshiping Plath’s depression, and envying her suicide. I wanted no part of that, so I stayed away from Plath.
But her journals (and, again, this is the only writing of hers I’ve read) are truly incredible. The skill she displays – and she’s just 18 years old at the journal’s start – is phenomenal.
Just as I enjoy Plath’s style, I enjoy Parker’s style. And Hemingway’s (even though I could do without his endless run-ons). Aside from John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger (who does have some issues), they’re the only long-gone (excluding Salinger) literary authors I would immediately cite as my “absolute favorites.”
But what I can’t help noticing (naturally) is that they were all suicidal. (Parker didn’t technically kill herself, but she did try at least three times.)
Is there some truth to the “tortured artist” after all? That the best art comes from the tortured soul? I don’t like to think so, not only because I’m not tortured and would therefore end up at an automatic disadvantage, but because it seems so very dramatic and ridiculous as an idea. While there very well may be actual “tortured artists,” there’s nothing more annoying than someone who identifies him- or herself as one of them. (And it’s probably safe to say anyone who calls her- or himself a tortured artist isn’t one. At least, not one to be taken seriously.)
It used to be that I intentionally stayed away from reading these suicidal writers because it was considered “trendy” to like them, and also because I wasn’t separating their behavior, or their lives, from their writing. But it’s a true thrill to have been introduced to Plath’s journals this past Christmas, when Ian gave it to me as a gift. I’d never mentioned Plath to him, but he saw the book in the store and thought I might like it (I’m nosy and find people’s published journals interesting). I don’t think he could have anticipated just how much, though. Nor could I. I didn’t want to like her. Or Hemingway. Or Parker. But I can’t help it.
Question: What are your thoughts on the “tortured artist”?
(Backword Books author Bonnie Kozek wrote an engrossing article on the subject of the “tortured artist:” UNDER THE INFLUENCE: WRITERS AND DEPRESSION AND CHOICES CHOSEN. Read it here.)