Recently I was sitting having coffee with a couple of friends who’d volunteered to look after my dog while I was away at a literary festival. We walked round their garden to check for canine escape routes. Early crocuses were pushing through late snowdrops. I gave them wine and copies of my books: Vertigo (short stories) and Hotel (creative essay/memoir). I apologised for my work being such a downer.
“Happiness writes in white ink on a white page,” reckoned Henry de Montherlant (though this is a whole other kettle of fish I’d like to look into someday). I am drawn to write about difficult things, often based – directly, or through fiction – on things I have found difficult in my own life; and sometimes my life is difficult, but no more than anyone else’s, a lot less than some, and sometimes not at all. I do not write about dramatic events, I write about what Freud called “common unhappiness”, on Woolf’s principle that “It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses”.
Recently I reread Leslie Jamison’s essay Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain from her book, The Empathy Exams, in which she asks how women can explore the difficulties in their lives, in fiction and nonfiction, without letting victimhood define them or their characters. She describes her annoyance at encountering a woman who sighed that she was “just so tired of Sylvia Plath”.
In a garden at the litfest I listened to Ted Hughes’ unofficial biographer sketch Plath in a sentence – essentially she was mad and dead – and Hughes’ second wife, a “copycat suicide”. He efficiently characterised both women entirely by their pain, and simultaneously condemned them for it. Jetlagged after a 26-hour flight, on one hour’s sleep, I burst into tears to hear that tired old not-untruth unkindly wheeled out again to be Plath’s final blazon.
The “I” in a poem is often assumed to be the eye of the poet, its subject his or her personal experience. If you read Plath’s work you’ll find a whole range of perspectives on subjects from motherhood to love to making art (if you find the first two trivial, get a life). I might not rate cult read, The Bell Jar, as highly as some, but anyone expecting wall-to-wall depression will find its first section, in which Plath’s avatar struggles with a work placement at a glossy magazine, startlingly and hilariously absurd.
There is nothing less like victimhood than getting a hold on personal pain, and turning it into art: men have been doing it for centuries, but no one accused Michel de Montaigne, or Thomas Burton of narcissistic self-pity, no one was bored with Rilke or Goethe’s examinations of depression and obsession, or thought them less human for it.
Let’s look at the women who have grasped the nettle of their pain with words, for instance Chris Kraus’s transmutation of her experiences as a “corporate wife of the avant-garde” in the female-unfriendly art world into what the author herself called “lonely girl phenomenology”, via a screwball persona one reviewer compared to I Love Lucy in her books Torpor and I Love Dick. The Italian author, Elena Ferrante, whose anonymity could be taken as either a refusal or an admission of links between her personal life and her work, sees her characters not so much as “women who are suffering but as women who are struggling”.
I find Kraus (again) offers a useful perspective: “The personal pursued for its own sake is no good. The ‘I’ is only useful to the point that it gets outside itself, gets larger.” Nothing feels more like agency than grappling with the forces that make us “victims”, whether we tackle this through personal or fictional accounts. The battleground is ourselves because men like Hughes’ biographer still have the power to make it so. And it’s not only nonfiction: the great tragic heroines – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina – defeated by their circumstances, tend to have been the creations of men. Geroge Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, trapped in a provincial marriage and possibly Bovary’s British counterpart, does not die of her situation: she suffers, then struggles and marries a second time, for pleasure.
As for me, I am interested in discomfort, disjunct and, yes, I am interested in myself, as it’s within my own experience that I have felt these things most oddly and sharply. As Shelia Heti, Canadian author of the autofiction How Should A Person Be? put it, “people who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster.”
And, despite everything I have written, I have a dog, I can make negronis and hollandaise sauce. I like stupid puns and good clothes and sentimental music. And I have written four books. What more positive engagement with life, what better negotiation of self in the world, than that?