Top critical review
From Chaotic To Sugarcoating, Shirley Jackson Speaks From the Grave . . . .
Reviewed in the United States on July 13, 2021
There were two times while reading this ARC about Shirley Jackson that I wanted to cry. The first time was when I saw that the letters to Stanley Hyman, which cover the first 18% of the Kindle edition, are an unreadable mess. The second time was during the last 10% of the book when I knew the letters would end soon, because Shirley Jackson was going to die soon, and there would be no more letters to anyone.
Let’s look at the first part of the ARC . . . since Ms. Jackson often wrote letters without using capitalization, her eldest son Laurence Hyman thought they should be printed that way. Well, there is a reason that correct capitalization, grammar, and punctuation are important when publishing a book. Namely, those things help the reader to easily read what was written, which in turn helps the reader to better understand what the writer was saying and thinking.
Mr. Hyman obviously does not feel that way, but stated in his intro that the letters were not correctly capitalized . . . obviously as well as not correctly punctuated or grammatically corrected . . . for this book because: “Shirley’s habit of writing most everything in lowercase has been preserved here because it reflects her personality nearly as much as the letters’ contents.” It reflects her “playfulness”. Sure. While having such a difficult time trying to make out what was being said in the letters, I felt nothing but happiness as Ms. Jackson’s personality and playfulness shined through the mess. The heck with what she was actually saying in the letters! That’s trivial.
After trying to read the letters to Stanley Hyman, after then starting to skim them, I eventually gave up. Forget it. It’s the editor’s job to clean up messy manuscripts, not the reader’s job. In addition, should they have been published in the first place? Just because a writer becomes famous does not mean everything she or he ever wrote should be published. No writer would want that, except an extremely narcissistic one. Shirley Jackson never struck me as being that way. Instead, she seemed to be someone genuinely concerned about her personal privacy not being invaded by the public. It was her husband who repeatedly told her to make sure to tell her parents to keep her letters to them. One suspects he was thinking of future publication and payment, because he always seemed to see his wife as a cash cow and treated her accordingly. For example, since her letters weren't going to provide current cash, he repeatedly reprimanded her for using her writing time to write them in the first place!
Correct capitalization was also not used in the many letters to her parents, but those were usually not difficult to read, because she was not rambling in a free association way. It’s important to note, however, that those letters to her mother did not reflect the true relationship between them. Only one unsent letter in the book expressed Ms. Jackson’s bitterness about her mother’s lifelong criticism of her looks and weight. Same with the letters where Stanley was mentioned; from reading them you would think she didn’t mind him seeing her as a cash cow; and they didn’t have major marital problems, which they certainly did, as only one or two letters to him reflected. This is another sign that she valued her personal privacy, knowing her letters would one day be made public. She so often sugarcoated her correspondence.
Hence, it may be best to see this book, after the first 18%, simply as a nice time spent with Shirley Jackson, enjoying all her funny stories; the descriptions of her children growing up; the antics of her cats and dogs; the progression of her writings; the trips and socializing; the large house problems and joys; the friends and parents; the book, magazine and movie contracts; the music; the seasons in Vermont, etc. Getting towards the end of the book was truly sad, knowing it would soon state she died in her sleep during her afternoon nap one day. No more letters, no more stories, no more books, no more Shirley . . . .
P.S. For a better understanding of Shirley Jackson’s life, do read Judy Oppenheimer's "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson" and Ruth Franklin's "Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life". Unfortunately, the first one is no longer in print, so you will either have to find it in a library or buy a used copy. It is definitely worth the search. Years ago, I found it in my local library, and recently got a used copy at Amazon at a fair price and in excellent used condition.
(Note: I received a free e-ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher.)