Not to be printed

So this: this is the worst thing.

There is already a lot of smart discussion about this fashion editorial, which had models reenact the suicides of famous women writers: see the Harriet blog for a post on writers and suicide, and Linda Holmes for an excellent take on the frustration of link-baiters. VICE has already pulled the online version of the spread, though it still appears in the print edition. And thus the endless cycle of internet misogyny continues: publish obviously offensive material, wait for the inevitable outrage, issue half-hearted apology, roll around in money from your advertisers. It’s sickening, and it’s predictable, and it sucks. This particular instance of misogyny also trivializes suicide, so that’s like a bonus level of being awful on the internet.

This sexy-suicide trope hits a much-abused nerve for me, because two of my poetic idols (and subjects of my critical scholarship) are Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser. Plath is, naturally, represented in the gallery; she might be the most famous writerly suicide of the 20th century. Here’s the oh so stylish version:

a model kneels in front of an oven

Sure, she’s about to die, but look at that dress!

The glamorization of Plath’s suicide is one of the strangest and most infuriating aspects of recent literary history. Plath was, it’s fair to say, a genius, and it’s easy to forget that she was only 30 when she died. 30! That’s younger than Kirsten Dunst is now, and your mental picture of her is still a baby vampire. Plath was a young woman when she died, a very young woman, and she had already written poems better than most writers achieve in a lifetime. Her poetry made her famous, but then, as it so often does, fame distorted her public image into something more suitably gendered than Poetic Genius: Suicide Blonde.*

Muriel Rukeyser, born a generation earlier than Plath, died a generation later. Plath’s death haunts the edges of her later poetry, most especially in the starkest two-line poem you’ll ever read:

Not to Be Printed, Not to Be Said, Not to Be Thought

I’d rather be Muriel
than be dead and be Ariel.

What’s the price of literary fame? For those of us trained in the pomo world of late-20th-century criticism, the author is supposed to be metaphorically dead, at most a representative of a historical moment rather than a historical person. But sometimes the “real” death of the author matters as much as the metaphysical one: women writers who commit suicide become fetishized to the extent that the words that come to many minds when you say “Sylvia Plath” are “head in oven” rather than “The lioness, / The shriek in the bath, / The cloak of holes.” And those people are being robbed (or robbing themselves) of reading some of the fiercest, most intelligent writing of the last century. And Rukeyser, who chooses to remain Muriel, sees her work fall out of print again and again in her lifetime. As Adrienne Rich once wrote, her books don’t have to be burned.

*RIP the hot guy from INXS. Kids: don’t try auto-erotic asphyxiation, even for a fashion spread!

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