Just coincidentally, at about the same time I happened upon a BuzzFeed article called "16 Wonderful Photos Of Women Writers At Work." This was a charming and respectful piece, comprising (mostly) shots of famous women authors that gave a glimpse as to what they looked like when they were actually writing. As is often the case at BuzzFeed, not all the photos actually lived up to the intent - one was a publicity shot and another looked to have been taken at a signing - but for all intents and purposes, it was a pretty nice piece of photojournalism.
Because of the flap over the Vice fashion shoot, a thought occurred to me and I did some quick research into the authors featured at BuzzFeed:
- Sylvia Plath - suicide, carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Doris Lessing - alive
- Edith Wharton - stroke
- Virginia Woolf - suicide, drowning
- Anne Sexton – suicide, carbon monoxide poisoning
- Alice B. Sheldon - suicide, gunshot (killed husband as well)
- Agatha Christie – natural causes
- Dorothy Parker – heart attack (had attempted suicide)
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman – suicide, chloroform overdose
- Iris Chang – suicide, gunshot
- Marilynne Robinson - alive
- A.S. Byatt - alive
- Flannery O’Connor – complications from lupus
- Toni Morrison - alive
- Noel Streatfeild – natural causes
- Anne Frank – typhus, but actually Nazism
Out of the sixteen authors chosen (I presume) because they were famous and somebody had their photos, twelve are dead. Of those twelve, six were suicides, and another died of natural causes but had attempted suicide; four died of natural causes and one died tragically.
Let's say that again: half the authors who were dead committed suicide.
I might be guilty of the same sin as many of my writing students - creating an essay that has no thesis - but I just don't know what to do with this. Is it something about art and depression? That seems too simple. I haven't done the research, but I'd be willing to bet that you could create ten or twenty random sets of sixteen famous male authors and you wouldn't get close to these proportions in cause of death. There seems to be something gender-based going on, something about roles and acceptance of roles.
On top of that uneasiness, there's the distastefulness of the commodification of women; for every innocuous BuzzFeed list, there seem to be several fashion shoots dancing in the same ballroom as the Vice piece: women bound, women done violence to, women objectified (sometimes literally, as furniture). What is it about female misery that is commercial?
It feels like it's been a particularly rough week to be a human being; I think that the coincidence of these pieces was a little too striking in the middle of that malaise.
Next time: baby pandas. Promise.