Few things can create as much pressure as being given the label "promising." One success usually isn't enough for any author. Phrases like what have you done for me lately? and you're only as good as your last book leap to mind. Once you achieve something in the world of publishing, you may expect all the doors to fall open for you. So when they stay closed, it can be a pretty brutal letdown.
This was the case for one very promising poet, flush with potential, who discovered that success doesn't immediately lead to more success...in an very harsh way.
Sylvia Plath was a very promising and talented poet, and she proved it with the publication of her poetry collection, The Colossus. The book was made up of 44 poems, and it didn't exactly set the world on fire right away...but it did give Plath the motivation to begin her first fiction novel.
Reportedly, Plath began writing the book in 1961 after being awarded the Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship. It was a rather prestigious grant attached to publishers Harper & Row, and it gave Plath the freedom to work furiously at her literary endeavors.
She was no stranger to awards. Plath went to Smith, where she edited The Smith Review, and won a position as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine. She even won a grant to attend Cambridge, and traveled around Europe when classes weren't in session.
So, after spending many months of working on her first (and what would be only) novel, Sylvia Plath sent a copy to Harper & Row, the benefactors of her Fellowship.
They hated it. They deemed the book "disappointing, juvenile and overwrought," and pulled her Fellowship.
Still determined to succeed, Plath submitted it to a different publishing house -- this time, under a pen name. The response? Another harsh rejection. The editor who read her work commented "there certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice."
Plath quickly responded, this time with the revelation of her real name. "I have now re-read --or rather read more thoroughly-- [the manuscript] with the knowledge that it is by Sylvia Plath which has added considerably to its interest," the editor wrote. "But it still is not much of a novel...there is no viewpoint." Of the plot itself, the editor wrote that "one feels simply that Miss Plath is writing of them because [these] things did happen to her and the incidents are in themselves good for a story, but throw them together and they don't necessarily add up to a novel."
Harsh...and stupid. The novel that Plath wrote was, of course, The Bell Jar. Today it is considered a classic, and it's been indelibly ingrained into popular culture as a representation of depression, suicide and teen angst, among other themes that deal in femininity and the pressures of having potential. It's still selling on Amazon to this day, and it's required reading in many high schools and institutes of higher learning. Plath's own sad story is hopelessly entangled with the book, of course...she died by her own hand very shortly after it was first published. Since The Bell Jar is about suicide, the parallels are inescapable. But Plath's voice lives on in the book, and it happens to be one of my very favorites.
Many brilliant minds struggle with emotions; genius and raw feeling do not make for happy bedfellows. Sylvia Plath worked in the fiction trenches and battled depression the best way she knew how: by writing about it. In the end, she couldn't overcome her own demons...but lucky for the rest of us, she managed to put them down on paper quite beautifully before she left. She weathered harsh rejection and suffered staggering defeats, and even after she died she was still winning awards for her brilliant work.