Professor Heather Clark has won the Truman Capote Award 2022 to add to a list of prestigious honours for Red Comet, her acclaimed biography of poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.
The University of Huddersfield’s Professor of Contemporary Poetry published Red Comet – The Short and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath in late 2020, since when it has been on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize for biography, named in the New York Times’ Top 10 books of 2021 and a book of the year for the Daily Telegraph and The Times. Professor Clark was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for the biography of the American writer.
Red Comet has a different approach to previous biographies of Plath, many of which focused on her marriage to Yorkshire-born poet Ted Hughes, her mental health struggles and her suicide in 1963. Instead, it used a wealth of new source information to assess her literary achievements as well as address her relationship with Hughes. Some of her research was aided by the University’s Ted Hughes Network, who invited the professor to Huddersfield on a Visiting Scholarship in 2017 .
“It means so much to me to win this award, especially as a writer of biography — a genre sometimes met with hostility within academia,” Professor Clark told the Iowa Writers Workshop.
“When I was in graduate school, much of the literary theory that dominated English literature departments left me cold. The sentences were dense and gnarled, the ideas grand but illusory. I was more interested in literary influence, and felt then, as I still feel, that biography offers compelling insights into a literary work. Biography is a legitimate form of literary criticism. For me, this prize validates not just my biography, but the genre itself.
“We were both born and raised in Massachusetts, both ‘scholarship girls’, both educated at Oxbridge, and both mother-writers. I know what it’s like to work yourself to the bone to maintain your scholarship; to feel homesick during a cold British winter; to write before your children wake up. Those points of connection were important to me, though one need not possess such connections to one’s subject.”
Professor Clark is currently working on a book about the Boston years of Sylvia Plath together with Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich and Maxine Kumin, as well as a new biography of Anne Sexton.
The Truman Capote Award is, at $30,000, the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism and is awarded University of Iowa on behalf of the Truman Capote Literary Trust.