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What the Editors of N+1 are Reading
Awful lot of writing by women here… good work gang! Keep it up! Just yesterday, at N+1–
I finished Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman—her biography of Sylvia Plath—four weeks ago, and it gave me the best kind of vertigo. Malcolm approaches her subject with an almost monastic devotion: as a researcher, she demonstrates the necessary patience to muddle around in the minutiae of her sources, and she scrupulously balances both Hughes’s and Plath’s lives and their work as she reconsiders the art of the biography. For a book born of such single-minded enthusiasm, it is a huge credit to Malcolm that The Silent Woman manages to be brilliant without also being alienating. As I paged through the book, I felt alternately awed by and aligned with Malcolm, like the assistant to a capable and charming boss. And as is the case for a good boss, there’s a control and quiet power to Malcolm, which is best evidenced by the ease with which she parlays peripheral details into useful evidence for her argument. An example: as a way to mark the parallels between Plath’s own troubled self-perception and the grotesque elements of Ariel, Malcolm parses “an extraordinary passage” from Plath’s journals wherein Plath celebrates “the illicit sensuous delight [she] get[s] from picking [her] nose.”
I doubt that Malcolm enjoyed writing The Silent Woman—if nothing else, it’s no fun sifting through licensing agreements from the estate of such a famous poet—and I could guess that she might be frustrated by the way it turned out. For all its precision and diligence, Malcolm’s work is in some way about the inevitable failure that accompanies writers’ attempts to engage impartially with people and their work. “Writing,” Malcolm resolves, “can never be done in a state of desirelessness.” Throughout The Silent Woman, it feels like Malcolm acknowledges that it isn’t desirable to get what you want, that what is interesting is the way we frame our failures. This is why I love The Silent Woman: it encouraged me to not only be careful and thorough in my own work, but to also feel convinced of its worth when it seems most difficult to do so.
More at N+1.