Talk about red in tooth and claw. Even Ted Hughes, the great nature poet who wrote without an ounce of sentimentality about those wild things out there, might have winced at the mauling dished out to his biographer in February’s The New York Review of Books.
American writer Janet Malcolm, reviewing Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate, has this to say:
“Bate’s malice is the glue that holds this book together – malice directed at other peripheral characters but chiefly directed at his subject. Bate wants to cut Hughes down to size …”
A couple of paragraphs later:
“The stage is now set for the examples of Hughes’s sadism that give Bate’s book the sensational character that caused the estate to withdraw from it in horror.”
Just to explain the latter: Hughes’s estate originally offered their full co-operation with Bate’s project. But after repeated refusals to show them the manuscript, the estate withdrew its support, an action that garnered a pre-publication article by Bate in The Guardian here.
Ms. Malcolm goes on to say that, “beyond tastelessness there is Bate’s cluelessness about what you can and cannot do if you want to be regarded as an honest and serious writer.” She then quotes his barely altered paraphrase of an article in the Daily Mail (no one’s idea of a trustworthy source; the article was called “Ted Hughes, My Secret Lover”).
Perhaps even more damaging to a professor of English Literature at Oxford is Malcolm’s assertion:
“What Bate writes about Hughes’s poetry … is of staggering superficiality. He tells you what he does and doesn’t like. When he likes a poem he uses terms like “aching beauty” and “achingly sad.” When he dislikes a poem he will talk of Hughes “operating on auto-pilot.””
She ends her review/battering with this: “Surely Hughes’s family … deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.”
Biographers often live in a hinterland of enmity and angst, sullied friendships and precarious allegiances (google “Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul spat” for a taste of fully marinated bile). How could it be otherwise when your job is to delve into someone’s life and tell the unvarnished truth? But it’s been a long time since I read such a literary trashing.
To complicate matters, it turns out that Malcolm is a slightly controversial figure herself. Craig Seligman wrote of her: “she discovered her vocation in not-niceness … Malcolm’s blade gleams with a razor edge,” and Tom Junod, writing in Esquire, said, “Very few journalists are more animated by malice than Janet Malcolm.”
So what’s the truth about the book? As reported in a Guardian article here, Hughes’s widow, Carol, attacked it for its “damaging and offensive claims,” and her representatives say there were “18 factual errors or unsupported assertions in just 16 pages of the book.”
Meanwhile, HarperCollins, the publisher, busily defended the work, stating that the author “regrets any minor errors … which are bound to occur in a book of over 600 pages that draws upon such voluminous and diverse source material,” and stated that the book “has been written in good faith and facts verified by multiple sources including family members and close friends.”
Anyway, if the book is half as entertaining as the vicious review it garnered, it’ll be a hit.