My Favourite Author is Problematic
By Maia R. Becerra
Over the past two decades, there has been an increase in the revisiting of older literary texts through a political perspective in an attempt to highlight problematic components of the literary canon. Debates related to whether children should read To Kill a Mockingbird in schools or the removal of some of Dr. Seuss’s work have been making headlines internationally, and there are a plethora of opinions surrounding these topics. I believe these discussions were bound to happen at some point, and in a time of constant political upheaval like the one we currently live in, critically analyzing works of literature should be considered despite the cultural or historical importance a text might have.
This revisiting of older texts and their outdated language has also focused on Sylvia Plath, the author of The Bell Jar and Ariel, among others. Her work has been subject to criticism due to racist and antisemitic references throughout The Bell Jar, and people have been torn in discussions of whether her work still holds the same literary relevance as when it was originally published. In an article for The Guardian, writer Monisha Rajesh references Kate Clanchy’s memoir as having included racist stereotypes and dehumanizing language that were downplayed by the author, falling into the claim that “pointing out racist language is labelled as ‘aggressive’ and ‘instigating a pile-on’” (Rajesh, 2021), yet, Rajesh argues that accountability is necessary among literary circles, even if it does not lead to ‘disputing’ an author’s work. In Rajesh’s words, “freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences” (Rajesh, 2021).
How should one read an outdated piece of work? Texts like these can be analyzed through Hans Robert Jauss’s Reception Theory, which emphasizes the value added to the text through the reception of the contemporary reader rather than solely the text itself (Rockhill, 1996). The reader must be able to analyze a literary text through a historically conscious lens that allows them to be critical without holding the text to today’s standards. Authors like Plath hold great significance in the literary canon, and their work should not be disregarded due to ‘political incorrectness,’ though it should be criticized for it. Ultimately, in relation to Reception Theory, a text is not entirely complete until an additional layer of value is added by the reader’s interpretation of it.
Furthermore, texts like The Bell Jar should not be glorified as feminist manifestos simply because they were written by Plath. Just because an author belonged to a discriminated or marginalized group does not mean that their work can be employed politically in that sense, at least not entirely. The themes of marriage and womanhood in The Bell Jar are extremely compelling for women and people who can find aspects of relatability in them, but Plath’s perspective was highly limited due to her experience as a white woman. She had no knowledge of the intertwined experiences between race and gender, and how a feminist rhetoric has to be intersectional in order to form a holistic argument. This poses the question of whether The Bell Jar should solely be regarded as a piece of literature and not as a ‘feminist’ work. This does not discredit Plath’s oppression and the arduous circumstances she describes in the novel, but also acknowledges that her experience was significantly warped.
So, are we allowed to enjoy a text that has problematic undertones or themes? Yes. Absolutely. But we must do so critically; without excusing the author’s ignorance or deliberate behaviour. Understanding a text in its socio-historical context is extremely important for it to have any sort of meaning and value on a contemporary level. That gives us, the readers, an additional responsibility when deciding what texts to engage with and how we process them. Plath is one of my favourite authors, but it is my responsibility as a devoted reader to understand how her work has affected minorities and will continue to do so for as long as The Bell Jar is read. We must not shy away from criticizing prominent authors that had a key role in the development of contemporary literature, while keeping in mind that their work shouldn’t be entirely overlooked. Instead, these works should be read from a conscious and analytical social perspective, while considering how the publishing industry has not changed as much as it should have over the past decade, and racist or inappropriate works are continued to be published today.
Rajesh, M. (2021) Pointing out racism in books is not an “attack” – it’s a call for industry reform.
The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/aug/13/pointing-out-racism-in-books-
Rockhill, P. H. (1996) “The Reception Theory of Hans Robert Jauss: Theory and Application.”
Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5153. https://doi.org/10.15760/etd.7029.