Braverman published her first novel, Lithium for Media, in 1979, and went on to explore what one reviewer called “extreme female protagonists,” often revealing, and reveling in, the dark side of Los Angeles, where she lived for many years. A revolutionary from the start, she defined herself as someone who uncovers truths most people want to ignore. Black humor came naturally to her as a single mother and a poet—a combination that seems to mandate desperation. But she was not desperate; she was a sturdy survivor who deserves to be included in the heaven reserved for female heroes.
Just as powerful, and even more obscured by the passage of time, Rosemary Daniell, whose Sleeping with Soldiers startled and even shocked me when it was published, is now given the subtitle, In Search of the Macho Man. I remember the subtitle as To Take the War Out of Them—her explanation of her fearless sexual adventures. Having never learned as the daughter of poor southerners to ski, sail or play tennis, she became instead a sexual expert, explaining to one interviewer that all she needed to do was splash on a dash of perfume and pin a flower in her hair and any man she met was at her mercy. She considered sex a “pastime” she had mastered like any other accomplishment, hardly a recommendation in many people’s eyes. Her account of volunteering as a cook on an all-male oil rig scared me to death—she survived it—but now I want a book by her about what it is like to grow old as a sexual object.
Erica Jong has survived critical dismay with flying colors and can look back on her 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, with satisfaction; it has sold eight million copies all over the world. But few reviews neglect to mention that Jong has been married four times, although what that has to do with her literary accomplishments is unclear—certainly it is proof of her energy! The marital history of best-selling male writers is seldom included in their reviews.
And then there’s Edna O’Brien, whose first novel, The Country Girl, published in 1960, was a sensation because of its frankness; it might better have been a sensation because of the quality of O’Brien’s prose. Her recent novel, Girl, based on her research in Nigeria, is an account of rape on the part of the outlaw group, Boko Haram. Last week’s New Yorker carried a belittling profile—although many of O’Brien’s glittering short stories were published there. The reviewer even questions whether such rapes ever took place. And again, much of the profile is devoted to O’Brien’s looks and her difficulties with aging.
None of us ever realize when we start out as writers that reception of our prose will be colored by an unspoken belief that it is all autobiography. That women writers can create imaginative universes and characters who bear little or no relation to our lives is still considered dubious by many reviewers, which may explain the great profusion of memoirs by women: if people assume everything we write is autobiography, why not call it memoir? But the form, I think, is self-limiting, lacking the wide horizons of fiction.
Then we have to consider the impact of jacket photographs. All the writers I’ve mentioned are striking looking, and do not attempt to avoid whatever conceptions and misconceptions are based on that fact. Only Joan Didion, who shows the ravaged face of her eighty-some years, seem to have abandoned the pretense of eternal youth.
How would Sylvia Plath have been treated had she lived to middle age? Unfortunately, she is enshrined as that acceptable stereotype, the woman writer as tragic victim because of her suicide. That has obscured the interesting fact that she bit Ted Hughes’ neck on their first date, drawing blood—bad girl behavior for sure.
I hope all of us aging bad girls can manage to keep our teeth well sharpened.