I was reading an article by Evelyn Toynton in this month’s Harper’s about a biography of Jean Rhys that just came out (The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini) from Norton. My stance on Jean Rhys is one of almost unequivocal adoration. I love her early work, I love her late work, I love that there was such a long break between the two. I love that she was in love with and eventually cast aside by Ford Maddox Ford. I even love that she used to beat her second (there were three) husband, because I’ve never quite been able to set aside a certain romanticism for the drunken, violent antics of authors.
Do you ever get so protective of authors that you don’t actually want someone else to read them? Because you see your enthusiasm for an author as a singular characteristic of yourself as a reader? My first response to the review was one of dismay, because I don’t want a bunch of Harper’s readers to suddenly develop an interest in Rhys, to start rummaging for her books at the Strand and pontificating about her on their blogs; I’m not interested in a mass Renaissance of her work (à la Bolaño). Additionally, I seem to recall reading in the introduction to a volume of Rhys’ collected letters that she’d specified in her will that no one was to write a biography of her, so the publication of one (this isn’t the first) always makes me sad.
The reviewer held back a definitive stance on the biography for what seemed like a long time (a lot of Harper’s book reviews seem to spend 70% of their time talking about the subject and 30% on the book itself; I tend to enjoy the subject analysis even as I think it’s shitty reviewing) before eventually turning to negative criticism, which typically makes me feel a poignant sense of pity for the author of the book being reviewed, in the way Truman Capote said getting a book published was like taking a child into the backyard and shooting him. But I am completely in line with Toynton’s criticisms, which are criticisms of general ills in readership, to my mind. Namely, Pizzichini is apparently an enthusiast for including snippets of Rhys’ fiction as moments of introspection, taking things that her characters said or thought or felt and assigning them to Rhys’ own inner thoughts. Toynton doesn’t take her criticism, and at one point she insists on halting the psychoanalytical bullshit to question both the relevance and the possibility of making a personal inquiry out of something the author wrote about a fictional character. That tendentious revisionism, so irresistibly convenient in a culture that insists on a psychological origin for everything, is part of a general trend in how people read books that absolutely gets me down in the dumps about reading.
It’s true that Rhys grew up in the West Indies, moved to England, became a chorus girl and carried on a sequence of affairs with men who gave her various forms of monetary support, plot points paralleled in one way or another in many of her early (which is to say, not Wide Sargasso Sea) works (Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning Midnight, Quartet). But the shared facts between characters and creators don’t mean it’s a simple matter of drawing lines from one to the other, parsing some psychoanalytical connections and then offering startling new conclusions about either the book or the author. The fact that Jean Rhys lived some of the experiences in her text isn’t sufficient to explain her work. Plenty of autobiographical texts come out all the time that I couldn’t possibly enjoy, no matter how accurate the depiction, because the writing is shit. Similarly, I couldn’t care less about James Frey’s pulling a fast one on Oprah, because validating the plot of his text against his actual life is a false calculation, even for autobiographies. A text is a text, there’s never a one to one relationship where representation is in play. Toynton calls this technique “reductive psychological interpretations,” but I’d go further and call it quackery in the guise of insight. I’m protective of Rhys because she’s not well-known, because she wrote well in a period where women writers were scarce, because her books are dark and sad and savage. I like her books as books (from Wide Sargasso Sea: “Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin … All better than people. Better. Better, better than people”) and her persona as an author (From her diary in which an imaginary prosecutor asks about her feelings for others: “I do not know them. I see them as trees walking,”), and although there’s clear crossover between the two, I don’t confuse it for psychology, or a particularly interesting way of reading her work. If people must rob me of one of my library’s more singular distinctions (the entirety of Rhys’ published works), I hope it doesn’t start with Pizzichini’s new book.