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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

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From the moment it was first published in The New Yorker, this brilliant work of literary criticism aroused great attention. Janet Malcolm brings her shrewd intelligence to bear on the legend of Sylvia Plath and the wildly productive industry of Plath biographies. Features a new Afterword by Malcolm.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1993

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About the author

Janet Malcolm

45 books413 followers
Janet Malcolm was a journalist, biographer, collagist, and staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of In the Freud Archives and The Crime of Sheila McGough , as well as biographies of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Anton Chekhov.

The Modern Library chose her controversial book The Journalist and the Murderer — with its infamous first line — as one of the 100 best non-fiction works of the 20th century.

Her most recent book is Forty-one False Starts .

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 250 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,215 reviews9,893 followers
June 17, 2021
Revived review : RIP Janet Malcolm 1934 - 2021


It's true, every time I think about this book I tremble with awe and reverence. It's like major parts of the whole thing about how human beings are human are here in its little pages. All the stuff that goes who are you really and anyway who is the I asking this question and what do these marks signify on these pages which apparently relate to people who used to be here but now aren't and why that should matter anyway, don't we have other more pressing concerns like, er, people who are actually alive?

For us bookreaders the distinction between who is alive and who is dead gets very blurry. I know that Mervyn Peake and Raymond Chandler are more alive to me than several members of my family. Now strictly speaking, Mervyn and Raymond are stone cold dead in the marketplace, and my nephews and their broods are all very much alive (although many many miles away from here). But it doesn't seem like they are, it seems like Mervyn and Raymond and a great many others are here in my brain, the voices and the worlds in the pages.

I'll go further - Steerpike from Gormenghast and Lorelei Lee from Little Rock, Arkansas are more alive than most people I know. And they never were alive to begin with. This must be wrong. Maybe I should start the medication again.

But you know what I mean anyway or you wouldn't be here.

This brilliant book is all about why it's important to get the past, someone's life, someone's work, straightened out, but how that's as hard a task as anyone will give you, especially when there are as many versions as there are people remembering. So it's a meta-biography, it's not a biography about Sylvia Plath, it's a biography of other biographies about her, and if that sounds a little convoluted, believe me, it is, but it's completely fascinating.

How do we know what we know? I believe Kant or Leibniz or one of those other fictional characters had a word for that. Janet Malcolm has yet more words and I prefer hers, bitter and wonderful as they are.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,215 reviews9,893 followers
August 19, 2021

Janet Malcolm likes to trash entire genres of writing. Famously, on journalism she said

Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.

In this book she trashes biography which she tells us is an inherently revolting thing, pandering to our worst voyeurism.

The biographer’s business, like the journalist’s, is to satisfy the reader’s curiosity… he is supposed to go out and bring back the goods – the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time

JM has nothing but contempt for readers of biography – they read their books

in a state of bovine equanimity

As a fan of biography I recognise this nasty quality in me to know everything, to peer through every keyhole and overhear all the squirmy pillow talk. I read true crime books in the same merciless spirit. But not only are our motives for reading biography disgraceful, we can’t even believe what we read, according to Janet Malcolm. There is

the epistemological insecurity by which the reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is always and everywhere dogged. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened.


There are rabbit holes you can fall down. Janet Malcolm leaps determinedly into this Sylvia Plath rabbit hole head first. Sylvia’s awful suicide of February 1963 at the age of 30 began a conflict which lasted at least until Ted Hughes died in 1998. Ted himself edited Sylvia’s latest poems and published them in 1965 as Ariel. This was a book of poetry so great that readers who never read poetry would read and reread it.

In the final poems, written in the terrible English winter of her death, Plath, like a feverish patient throwing off a blanket, sheds the ragged mantle of her rage and calmly waits for the cold of her desirelessness to achieve its deadly warmth.

After Ariel, a book full to the brim with hatred, feminists had a new icon and the vicious hand to hand fighting began. The story was clear – Ted Hughes killed Sylvia Plath by his gross treatment of her culminating in deserting her and their children in the middle of the worst London winter for a century.

Somebody quotes a remark by Ted

It doesn’t fall to many men to murder a genius.

It’s possible he was wracked with terrible guilt for many years, but that didn’t stop him and his new girlfriend immediately moving into Sylvia’s flat and cooking their meals on the very oven she used to gas herself. I’m not sure how much of that was generally known but Ted Hughes became the feminists’ enemy and when the biographies began to appear they all gleefully portrayed him as monstrous. Janet Malcolm, iconoclast, doesn’t join in that fun. She is on the side of Ted Hughes.


I count seven full biographies, the latest being Red Comet at over 1000 pages. Janet Malcolm had only five to ponder, including one called Rough Magic, a book

whose chief aim seems to be to see how outrageously it can slander Hughes and still somehow stay within the limits of libel law

The Silent Woman is a brave and really fascinating attempt to figure out who said what and why and who omitted this sentence here and who destroyed that journal there – a portrait of the literary biography community as a hornets’ nest. Actually that is an insult to hornets, they don’t fly around furiously stinging each other.

I made a whole lot of other notes when I read this for the second time but I have tried your patience enough.

This is recommended for everyone interested in Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, biography in general, academic feuds, polite well mannered people losing their tempers, remarkable portraits of several wonderful eccentrics, and a future poet laureate being described as looking “like Jack Palance in Shane”.
Profile Image for Jamie.
321 reviews240 followers
August 25, 2010
I found Janet Malcolm's non-biography/biography on the Plath/Hughes estate battles so gripping that I finished it in two sittings. Admittedly, this was not the book I was expecting (thought what I was expecting I'm not entirely sure of), but it read very intimately, very quickly, and very bitingly. Though Malcolm admits on several occasions that she leans on the Hughes "side" of the drama--and she would, seeing as she's cleverly evading the trappings of conventional biographical strictures with this book--she turns a shrewd, and often unkind, eye on all players in the mythology.

Malcolm's general premise contends that biographers are vultures; identity-scavengers, if you boil off the academic and scholarly niceties. Biography as a genre attempts to whittle the beautiful and the damned down to their most basic and/or relatable parts--people wish either to see that "Celebs! They're just like us!" OR "Celebs! They're monstrous abortions of human decency!" Or so Malcolm attempts to relate in this book, and thus her alignment with the Hughes family, who have been notoriously difficult to wrangle in biographical enterprises concerning Plath. Do I think biographies are all bad, as Malcolm seems to? No. Do I agree that they necessarily play with the reader's hidden or admitted voyeurism? Sure. But biographies can also be potent insights into historical moments--this is, in fact, why (I think) I'm so drawn to the genre. I was once a minor history buff in high school, and realized I wasn't cut out for it, deciding to play to my strengths--and real passions--instead, in literature. Biography, for me, is a way to make contact with history through a palatable entry point--a person, a figure that concretizes the abstractions of history (which is itself in many ways mere narrative, just as biography is) and brings that abyss of moments and experiences to vibrant life.

So the foundations of the book make sense to me, even where I veer off Malcolm's path. And certainly, the drama reads as good as any fiction. There are all the main players: the evasive Bluebeard figure (Teddy boy); the wicked crone (Olwyn); the disoriented octogenarian (Professor Thomas); both the neurotic and the wily academic (Anne Stevenson & Jacqueline Rose, respectively), among others. It's all a high tragedy deployed ostensibly to dispel the high tragedy that's surrounded Plath & her circles since that chilly February morning of 1963.

At any rate, an invaluable tool for anyone interested in Plath, Hughes, or the post-mortem drama staged between them and the reading public, as well as critics. Also a fascinating meta-narrative on biography that should be interesting for basically any curious reader. Highly recommended.

Profile Image for Caitlin Constantine.
128 reviews132 followers
October 4, 2010
It's a shame that the first time I'd ever heard of Janet Malcolm was for the libel case she was involved in back in the 1980s. The lawsuit is a staple of media law curricula around the country, and as a result, almost every journalism student has heard of Malcolm, but for all the wrong reasons. (I'm not trying to defend her against accusations of libel, because I don't know enough about the case and what really happened to say one way or the other.) She is a writer of great clarity and style which she uses to convey observations and criticism that I find quite brilliant, frankly. (And I don't use that word lightly.) I can see why she is such a controversial figure, because she can be quite savage in her description of people and events.

But the flip side of that savagery is a fierce ethical sensibility, and a desire to explore institutions we take for granted (the literary biography, journalism, the American justice system) and to drill down to their moral core and to examine the murky nastiness she finds beneath the respectable surface. In The Silent Woman, Malcolm explores the cottage industry of biographies that have sprung up in the wake of Sylvia Plath's suicide, and the various battles waged against them by Ted Hughes and his sister, Olwyn, and she does so with interviews, literary criticism and good old fashioned research.

It had been a while since I'd read any of Plath's poetry - since high school, to be exact - and I haven't read The Bell Jar in several years (even though there was a time when it was like my talisman), and until I read this book it was easy for me to forget just how stunning of a creative force she was. She was feminist before the second wave came along, she knew of the feminine mystique before it was given a name. The excerpts of her journals are insane in the best possible way, mean and beautiful and sometimes gross and sometimes maddening. It's interesting how Plath has become so iconic that it's easy to forget that she was a person, sort of the way that John Lennon and Michael Jackson and Fitzgerald and a whole mess of other artists became symbols of something other than themselves, and then along the way you lose sight of just what it was that made her so special in the first place. I mean, she was a clean-cut American housewife in the 1950s who wrote poems about Nazis and eating men like air and death and suicide. It'd be as if Betty Draper was suddenly writing poems that read like Nine Inch Nails lyrics.

But the book wasn't just about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and all of their attendant hangers-on, but about what it means to try to capture the messy complexity of life in a book, and how difficult it can be and how destructive too. I found the whole thing fascinating, and it left me not only wanting to read poetry by both Hughes and Plath, but also wanting to read more of Malcolm's books.
Profile Image for Emily M.
293 reviews
May 17, 2022
A wonderful book. It tempts me to make statements like "a classic of the genre" but in fact, I don't read enough biography to know, and this is in any case something of an anti-biography, or a biography of biography itself. Somehow, despite being a biography of a genre I don't read, it was absorbing and a page turner. But it was not sensationalist, even about a sensationalist case. It is more concerned with its own moral quandaries.

Without having really deep-dived into the whole Plath/Hughes debacle, I haven't been above the odd lurid article either, and I've always come out of them feeling immensely sorry for Ted Hughes. I enjoy the work of both poets, having read the usual stuff from Plath (The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems) and not the usual stuff from Hughes (a wonderful little collection called Season Songs). In any case, I don't think it's necessary to be a Plath or Hughes fan to enjoy this; to me it read almost like a literary thriller, where journals, letters, drafts, witnesses are brought forward to give evidence and yet there is no final truth, truth itself is being interrogated, and we always keenly feel the absence of other, lost journals, letters, drafts, witnesses.

I found this pro-Hughes though never anti-Plath, and as a book it was eccentric, unclassifiable and strangely, life-affirming.
Profile Image for Brendan.
Author 9 books35 followers
May 30, 2016
Honestly, I could give two shits about Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes. I've never read The Bell Jar, although I've heard it's quite good. My interest is in Janet Malcolm, the way she has insinuated herself into one of the great battles of modern literature, taking as her subject not so much Plath or Hughes or Plath & Hughes, but their memories, the way they are written about and argued about.

Poets, like politicians it seems, have partisans. And while such folks allow themselves to have a personal investment in the writer, an opinion that is not entirely subject to reason, the biographer should not. Or at least that is the prevailing assumption that Malcolm pokes and prods. She does this in the context of controversy over a new Plath biography written by an old classmate of hers.

Back to the prevailing wisdom: If a biographer doesn’t intend to be favorable, then at least she ought to be cold and omnipotent. To behave differently would be, according to Malcolm (who writes with an approving wink), casting doubt on the whole enterprise.

“As a burglar should not pause to discuss with his accomplice the rights and wrongs of burglary while jimmying the lock,” Malcolm argues, “so a biographer ought not to introduce doubts about the legitimacy of the biographical enterprise. The biography-loving public does not want to hear that biography is a flawed genre. It prefers to believe that certain biographers are bad guys.”

I love Malcolm for the way she confronts such awkward truths, and in this and in other of her books, she pays the price for her trouble.
Profile Image for Sarah Funke.
85 reviews28 followers
May 4, 2009
Smartest book on biography I've ever read. Purports to be about Plath and Hughes but it really about the history of Plath/Hughes biography, and about the project of writing a life more generally. Fascinating, insightful, and some lovely writing. Some representative good bits: "The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism's uncontested privileges, and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its widely accepted conventions." Quoting A. Alvarez on Ted Hughes: "Ted kind of went through swaths of women, like a guy harvesting corn." "The outcry against the Dido Merwin memoir was a cry from the reader's heart about his own posthumous prospects, an expression of his wish to be remembered benevolently and not all that vividly." "The witness, as he blabs to the biographer, is himself like a person writing in his journal or to his mother, without shame, without inhibition, sometimes almost without thought." "I felt the shameful, murderous impatience that maundering old people engender in those who still have time to spare."
Profile Image for Peter.
547 reviews
May 15, 2020
I found this provocative, really smart, and fascinating. It's pretty much an anti-biography, questioning from the start the whole enterprise of writing--or reading--a biography, on ethical grounds, and also because of the interpretative leaps and elisions required to present what appears to be a coherent rendering of a life. Which Malcolm stubbornly refused to do; she includes her doubts, her sense of her own biases--even her errors, in the interesting endnote added after the original publication. Although this self-deprecation doesn't prevent her skewering various biographers, and sometimes readers, with rapier sharpness. On the other hand, it's also interesting the sympathy she has with women who came of age in the 50s--and in part this book is an indictment of 50s mores, and more broadly a defence of those pressed into impossible, contradictory positions.
Profile Image for Paul H..
819 reviews308 followers
January 1, 2020
The whole psychodrama of the "Hughes vs. Plath" literary industry is deeply boring to me, despite my love for the work of both poets, so I wasn't expecting much from The Silent Woman . . . but it turns out that Janet Malcolm is in agreement re: the inherent lameness of that topic, and so she instead produced a brilliant and original analysis of biography-writing, self-creation, the publishing industry, and literature as such (along with, almost as an afterthought, insightful readings of Plath's writing).
Profile Image for verbava.
995 reviews109 followers
November 12, 2016
розкішна аж до останнього речення післямови книжка.
на обкладинці вказано про сильвію плат і теда г'юза, але джанет малкольм не пише біографії. такого добра є чимало, щонайменше п'ять версій на 1993 рік, коли виходить "мовчазна жінка", і все воно доволі проблемне. ця книжка, яка занурюється в історію напружених спроб розповісти після самогубства сильвії плат про її життя, – радше метабіографія, дослідження того, на що ми маємо право як читачі й інтерпретатори, і уважне вдивляння в один конкретний випадок реалізації такого права.
Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.
однак маленька проблема з таємницями мертвих полягає в тому, що вони стосуються ще й живих (коли малкольм пише про "plath survivors", уяву наповнюють образи жертв катастрофи), і тому:
Relatives are the biographer’s natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes an explorer encounters and must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory.
біографам плат із родичами виразно не пощастило. з одного боку, історія її смерті змушувала замислитися насамперед про теда г'юза (згодом стало гірше, адже якщо в тебе накладає на себе руки дружина, це каже більше про неї, але якщо вбивають себе дві твої дружини поспіль, то це схиляє до пошуків системи); а з іншого, звертатися по будь-які рукописи сильвії треба було теж до нього – і його сестри олвін, братові цілковито відданої. спроби г'юзів контролювати наратив тільки нарощували недовіру до них: наприклад, коли жаклін роуз у The Haunting of Sylvia Plath відчитала в одному з віршів плат андрогінні мотиви, тед вимагав цей аналіз із книжки усунути, обґрунтовуючи це потребою подумати про дітей, яким боляче буде чути таке про свою матір; вік дітей на той час – 31 і 29.
натомість спроби розповісти історію з іншої точки зору, показавши плат не милою ластівочкою, а г'юза – не суцільним монстром, як, наприклад, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath енн стівенсон, викликали спротив у публіки, яка все вже для себе визначила. тому джанет малкольм іде на чималий ризик, коли з самого початку каже, що стоїть на боці (тоді ще) живих; це такий загальноетичний вибір, який, утім, не заважає відмовити, коли тед г'юз просить ознайомитися з повним рукописом "мовчазної жінки", і виторгувати для передпоказу тільки абзаци довкола місць, процитованих із дозволу plath estate. як на людину з позицією, малкольм доволі відсторонена – і через те справді цікава; вона провокує не співчувати, а думати.
Profile Image for Belinda.
Author 1 book20 followers
April 3, 2013
Not a biography but an essay on biography using the famous platform of Hughes/Plath. Way to market something most people wouldn't have read if it was called "Vagaries of the Biography."
Plath and Hughes were picked over again, nothing new here, the other 5 well known bio's have done it before.
It did interest me that Malcolm sided with the Hughes.
Olwyn may have been protective of Ted but she was also a bully and easily as difficult and unpleasant as Sylvia is accused of being.
And Ted, yes, he's had a horrible time of it but how much of it has been his own making? He hid behind Olwyn, berated people for putting their story about her "out there" (because he chose not to does this mean no one else should've publicly discussed their relationship with her either?), he burnt her diary and "lost" another.
If he did hate all the hoop-la why didn't he and O bundle up all of Plath's writing, hire an academic who could be trusted to preserve and manage her estate, and tell everyone to bugger off?
Hughes did a good job of collating and marketing Plath's work for perpetuity but, as her ex, handing over the reins may have been wise.

Malcolm goes on to say Plath herself could be mean. Well, darn, how mean was she? I've read lots of her work and don't see it as any worse than the rubbish you read in today's bitchy women's mags and we gobble them up.

But I digress, despite Malcolm's position she doesn't come across as very anti or pro anyone. She has a gimlet eye, she is thorough, but she told me nothing new. Still, it was interesting reading, a fresh, well written perspective.
Profile Image for Grace Kao.
287 reviews24 followers
March 29, 2018
I am blown away by this book. Janet Malcolm is a hell of a writer. This is not so much a book about Sylvia Plath as it is a book about the nature of biography, and what it means to die and have everyone you have ever known (and many you have never known) construct and reconstruct and entirely fabricate your life from fragments. This is a book about the creation of the legend of Sylvia Plath, genius housewife poet, wronged woman, Lady Lazarus who rose from the dead and ate men like air, patron saint of every young misunderstood teenage girl with literary inclinations (um, me). This book is about what happens when people stop being people, and become textual entities (thank you for the Jacqueline Rose shout out, and now I really must read The Haunting of Sylvia Plath) - characters on a page, that you can argue over and create multiple interpretations and narratives around. This book is about Ted Hughes, left to live as a human being as Plath reached her apotheosis as a god; Hughes who burned Plath's final journal to spare his children (kept during the time she wrote her "Ariel" poems, which would cement her importance as a literary figure); Hughes who answered Malcolm's call in the afterword sounding "sad and baffled" as they attempted to untangle the accusation of his dead mother-in-law that he had published The Bell Jar in the U.S. in order to buy a third house (all was, in the end, a mistake).

I took a star away for precisely the reasons that Malcolm herself warned against: while introducing the flawed genre of biography, she stated that biographers necessarily stake out a bias (which they attempt to mask under a facade of neutral objectivity). In the interest of transparency, Malcolm openly admits that, in the struggle over Plath's legacy, she has come down on Ted (and Olwyn) Hughes' side. Which - fine - except, whenever Hughes comes up, that tragic, Byronic Prometheus figure, doomed to be torn to shreds by the circling vultures, Malcolm can barely contain her schoolgirl flutter. I still find it hard to be sympathetic towards Hughes, who tore through women with a particular callousness, who implied that Rose's lesbian reading of Plath's poem "The Rabbit Catcher" would shatter his adult children, who in "Birthday Letters" revealed a deterministic (and self-exculpatory) point of view of Plath's suicide as inevitable, who was unmistakably a total and complete asshole. I didn't need Malcolm to make excuses for Hughes, who kept a stranglehold on Plath's literary works, who omitted poems and journal passages that were damning towards him, who destroyed a journal and lost another. The book is literally called The Silent Woman. I find Hughes has done his fair share of the silencing.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
February 15, 2014
This is a kind of meditation on biography, on the impossibility of the enterprise in any serious sense. I mean, we crave them, we study celebrity, but even with the journals, the drawings, the poems, the essays, and novel, we see different people, contradictory, and the plain of public and critical opinion is so heated that we realize with her help that we have no idea who she was, and no idea what her marriage was to Hughes. This doesn't stop us from obsessing about it, me included, we seem to be compelled to do it. Some works, like the Ariel poems, cry out to be seen in the light of her life, obviously. The Bell Jar, too. How can we not invent a Plath and Hughes in our heads? Then I read Hughes' The Birthday Letters recently, and some of the poetry, in the process of reading The Bell jar for a class I am teaching and I am back in the swirl of thinking about her as person and writer. This Malcolm meditation I first read in The New Yorker, I think, when it first came out in the mid nineties, I think, and I re-read it now. I guess I already got this point about our essential unknowability, about the impossibility and inevitability of biography as a project, but this book amazes me still in many ways, as do Hughes and Plath, I find!
Profile Image for mae.
12 reviews
January 30, 2021
This book is wildly biased against Sylvia Plath as a human being from the beginning. The writer openly loves Ted Hughes to a point of fangirling. She spends an entire page criticising someone for telling her that he didn't think Sylvia was attractive and then opens the next paragraph by telling the reader that the author also doesn't think Sylvia was attractive.

Weirdly blase about the overwhelming mountain of bad behaviors and questionable life events of Ted Hughes. Feels sympathy for a man, rather than suspicion and horror when *two wives in a row* kill themselves, and the next is *two decades his junior*.

This book convinced me that Ted Hughes is a creep while making it abundantly clear that the author really loves Ted Hughes.

Profile Image for ~.
12 reviews
January 23, 2016
Some quite refreshing perspectives on the art of biography but the writer clearly is, as she states, for the Hughes side of the story which leads to unevenness and at times an attempt to vilify Sylvia Plath and romanticize Hughes and gloss over his affairs.
Profile Image for Bert.
487 reviews56 followers
December 11, 2022
Where do the images we have of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes come from? Are they made by their writings, the marks their work has left behind? Or maybe by their way of living, the way they acted and presented themselves in the outer, actual and factual, world? Or is the image we have of both of them, separately and as a famous couple, rather made by their biographers? What is a biography anyway? Who can, and may, call himself a biographer? Can a bioghrapher be truthful? None the less a biography? Doesn't it reveal more about the biographer than about the subject of the biography? Can one write a biography about biographies? And if so, how much of it should be biographical? How much of it should be true? How much of it should be sensational? How much of it should be about its author? How much of it should be about the reader? And who should be most silent?
Profile Image for Paula Arostegui.
14 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2022
Es la primera biografía sobre Sylvia Plath que me leo, y como introducción a su vida ha estado interesante, aunque la verdad es que este libro promete desenmascarar las medias verdades que se han escrito sobre el matrimonio entre Sylvia y Ted, y tras acabar de leerlo siento que no acaba de esclarecer ninguno de los recuerdos o especulaciones que existen entorno a la relación de ambos.
Lo que mas me ha gustado han sido las citas a varios de sus poemas y a varios fragmentos de la Campana de Cristal y algunas de las conversaciones con testigos que conocieron a Sylvia. Siento que este libro es un quiero y no puedo.
Aun así, tras leerlo, me muero de ganas de leerme la Campana de Cristal y varias biografías sobre Sylvia que se citan en el libro, sobre todo The Haunting of Sylvia Plath.
Profile Image for Michael.
544 reviews51 followers
March 17, 2019
“In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction … only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.”

This book confirms it: I am an unabashed Janet Malcolm fanboy. I can’t get enough of her sleek little letter bombs, masked by the genteel New Yorker house style, all dressed up in her patented, surgical prose: erudite, witty, cutting, and ever-so-elegant. Ostensibly about the biographers of Sylvia Plath and their run-ins with her literary executor/gatekeeper Olwyn Hughes, Plath’s sister-in-law, it quickly evolves into the kind of meta-textual psychodrama for which Malcolm is famous — and always an active participant thereof.

In her most famous book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm compared the journalist to a “confidence man,” preying on the vanity and insecurity of his subject, who invariably believes the transaction will result in her favor before learning her “hard lesson” when she sees her story appropriated in print. The journalist-subject relationship is inherently fraudulent, Malcolm argues. Deception and betrayal are baked into the cake.

The Silent Woman goes even further: the biographer is effectively a “professional burglar*,” ransacking her subject’s drawers for life details while hiding behind the artifice of the genre, for which readers, in a “state of bovine equanimity,” naively extend substantial literary credit, turning the whole experience into an act of “collusion.”

*Malcolm is never shy with her metaphors.

The reader, who believes the biographer has been holed up in libraries poring through archives and neutrally weighing boxes’ worth of evidence, is blissfully unaware of the simple politics underpinning most biographies, namely those of access: Who controls your life story when you’re gone? Who gets to tell it and what makes their accounts authoritative? And what does it mean for those still alive, who are not characters in a novel but living, breathing people, to see their human foibles and human contradictions as mere writer’s material?

If you’re the biographer, what compromises are you willing to make to secure that access? In the case of a major writer like Plath, that means being able to quote from her works at length. It means being granted access to her inner circle, who are only too happy to oblige you with their (ever-partisan) stories: The Silent Woman is filled with people all jockeying for their rightful position within the Official Plath Narrative, however tenuous. And, like always, Malcolm is not able to exempt herself from her own withering gaze; she too becomes one of the burglars.

Does this all sound hopelessly academic, too inside baseball? It’s not, I promise you: I’ve only touched on a couple of the layers of this endlessly fascinating book, which I read twice this year and will give your highlighter an active workout. Malcolm writes this like a literary detective story, and its implications, particularly when social media has rendered our stories even more expendable, are worth anyone’s consideration.
Profile Image for Henry.
419 reviews12 followers
September 26, 2020
a biography about biographies and specifically about the Sylvia Plath cottage industry.
what is truth? The responsibility of the biographer vs the irresponsibility of the journalist. and that the reasoned 'truthful' 'responsible' biography is paint drying dull; dishwater dull, when compared to the salacious memoir.
Extra complicated when Plath herself presented so many versions of herself; so many 'selves'.
I am just a vulture. A relative newcomer to the Legend that is Plath and Hughes/Hughes and Plath. I studied Hughes for A Level and tried Bell Jar at 19 and utterly loved it at 47.
I worry that the mystique of Plath is part of my love; her suicide - and that her only novel (and poetry) is about Darkness and Despair - is all bundled together. she is a Jim; Jimi; Janis; Sid and Nancy; Kurt; Amy figure.
What this book unearths is the essential 'unlikableness' of Plath; she wasn't Biographyreally very nice. The Bell Jar charts this; at the beginning she is witty (sexy) by the end she is unwashed and bitchy. Unlikable.
We shouldn't really write biographies when there are relatives to be wounded. And Malcolm's book has its cake and eats cake (let it eat cake)
This book blurbs like it'll be desert dry but it skips along like detective fiction (literary detective fiction ... obviously! )
Profile Image for AB.
69 reviews36 followers
June 20, 2017
"The questions raised by the passage only underscore the epistemological uncertainty by which the reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is always and everywhere dogged. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. When James reports in The Golden Bowl that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, we have no reason to doubt him or to wonder whether Maggie is "overreacting" to what she sees. James's is a true report. The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist's and the playwright's and the poet's word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer's or the autobiographer's or the journalist's. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios -- there are none." (p. 154-155)
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 32 books1,198 followers
November 24, 2018
"In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. When James reports in THE GOLDEN BOWL that the prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, we have no reason to doubt him or to wonder whether Maggie is 'overreacting' to what she sees. James's is a true report. The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist's and the playright's and the poet's word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer's or the autobiographer's or the historian's or the journalist's. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios--there are none That is the way it *is*. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open."
Profile Image for James.
297 reviews69 followers
August 1, 2011
I've read several of Malcolm's books,
I like the lucidity of her writing,
and I like how she includes information about the process of writing.

This book isn't so much about Plath, a trivial figure in the world of literature,
as it is about the battle between waring camps of biographers,
and the process of writing.
And some of the rules and ethics of the various types of writings.

Much of her work is in the genre of Tracy Kidders book,
The soul of a new machine,
which is about the process.

And the many books by Michael Lewis, which are of similar style.

Profile Image for Kimberly.
Author 13 books51 followers
December 2, 2015
I loved this book! In exploring the process of biography & the Sylvia Plath legend, it teaches you a lot about her and Hughes but also about both the difficulties of trying to tell someone's life story--fact, fiction, truth, speculation, etc.--especially when that person is dead and people close to him/her are still alive. Great read!
Profile Image for Ananya.
132 reviews6 followers
August 11, 2021
i came to this book wishing to know sylvia plath and perhaps ted hughes. in the process, i learnt a bit more about ted hughes but almost nothing new about plath herself. it is, in fact, a biography about biographical writing. but even then, this was enjoyable. very much so. except now i will have to read the other biographies since clearly this is not going to help me in my research much.
Profile Image for Terri.
291 reviews2 followers
September 5, 2014
This is another book that I associate with a particular moment in my life. I read it all in one night, I think, in my dorm room.

The prevailing theory in my class about this one is that Ms. Malcolm was er... interested in Mr. Hughes.
Profile Image for Wendy.
258 reviews4 followers
July 14, 2021
How is it that I never read Janet Malcolm (beyond the occasional New Yorker article) before? I was prompted to do so by Malcolm's recent passing.

The Silent Woman is Malcolm's look at the thorny, problematic nature of biography. What better subject than Sylvia Plath and, by extension, Ted Hughes (Plath's husband who has been routinely vilified in most of the biographies written about the his poet wife)?

The widely accepted narrative is that Plath, a tortured, unhappy artist, was pushed over the edge by Hughes's extra-curricular activities outside their marriage and opted out of life itself. Thus Hughes is the adulterous villain who was indirectly responsible for the loss of the supremely talented Plath.

Malcolm doesn't take this story on face value. She bravely cozies up to prickly Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes's sister and executor of the Plath estate. Olwyn Hughes was the gatekeeper, the woman many a biographer either tangled with or were cowed by, the sister who tried to protect her brother's tarnished reputation and name. Malcolm also tracks down Plath's biographers to ascertain how they drew the conclusions they did and in the end comes to readings of her own. I won't reveal those here. I will say, however, that reading this book made me want to read more of her work. She was a brilliant, perspicacious writer. I'm glad to have encountered her work at last.
Profile Image for Wouter.
286 reviews16 followers
October 13, 2021
The Silent Woman is a book about writing biographies, specifically the industry of writing biographies about the American poet Sylvia Plath (and inevitably, about the disintegration of her marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes, which led her to ending her life). As Plath's writing was strictly autobiographical, Malcolm's book ponders the ethics of writing a biography about someone whose family and friends are still alive at the time of writing (even though the subject herself is dead) and raises the question if there are boundaries to treating into the lives of Plath's family and friends when one is bound to overstep their privacy. It's an intriguing premise, and the author lets her readers know at the outset where she stands in the discussion, which is in the camp of the Hugheses (the living).

As with her other books on writing, I love Janet Malcolm's metaphysical musings, even if I didn't necessarily see why she would need to take sides (as she stresses that one is always bound to take a side). A very lovely book! 3,5*
Profile Image for BookishStitcher.
1,154 reviews44 followers
December 21, 2022
I don't think I have ever given a book a one star before, maybe once or twice. This book was so pointless that I should have just stopped reading. It wasn't anything like what it claimed to be. The author just really used this as a space to talk about herself with little bits about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes thrown in. I wouldn't recommend this book.
Profile Image for Cammi.
61 reviews193 followers
August 17, 2023
It’s less about Sylvia Plath / Ted Hughes and more about who has the right to tell which story and the ethics of it all. Extremely readable and captivating
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