Edmund Wilson encouraged his second wife Mary McCarthy’s first forays into fiction by shutting her in a room for three hours and asking her to write a story. Author Shirley Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic and writer for The New Yorker, devised strict writing schedules for her. And with the money from Jackson’s royalty checks, he purchased a dishwasher to make more time for her writing. Alice B. Tolkas tended to domestic duties so that her partner, Gertrude Stein, could pursue her literary endeavors. As Stein said, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around and do so much nothing, really do nothing.”
Stein’s statement sounds like an exaggeration, but is it really? While most writers don’t have the dispensable time to become geniuses of Stein’s definition, writing requires a certain amount of intellectual autonomy. One common bond linking McCarthy, Jackson, and Stein—three women featured in Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers—is that their spouses allowed them the time and solitude required to imagine, write, and produce. Even if their spouses’ approaches were controlling or their motivations questionable, the writing flourished.
Showalter also profiles Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a popular writer from the early 1800s who never married. Sedgwick felt deeply ambivalent about remaining single, which is reflected in her story “Cacoethes Scribendi,” in which a group of four sisters, one married, take up writing as a hobby. The daughter who refuses to write seduces and marries the only eligible bachelor in town. With his proposal, Sedgwick writes, the girl’s mother and aunts “relinquished, without a sigh, the hope of ever seeing her an AUTHOR.” Sedgwick implies that marriage and writing are antithetical, and that a woman loses hope of becoming an author, and perhaps even remaining one, once she’s married.
Of a contemporaneous writer, Fanny Fern, Nathaniel Hawthorne critiqued:
The woman writes as if the Devil was in her and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked… then their books are sure to possess character and value.
While social mores have changed, books written by women about marriage and other domestic topics continue to crowd Hawthorne’s categories of “feebleness and folly,” and flourish. We need not look far for proof. Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed, topped the New York Times Best Sellers list last week. The book’s narrative wrestles with the issue of whether or not Gilbert should remarry (she does). While some women writers and collections featuring their stories, such as This Is Not Chick Lit, attempt to thwart expectations of the usual modes of feminine domesticity and decency, they remain a minority. At least these women are no longer considered possessed.
Likewise, the anxiety of maintaining the distance and time to write within a romantic relationship continues to plague women (and men alike). Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” touches on this conundrum from the male perspective. In James’s story, the fledgling writer Paul Overt takes advice from the esteemed “master,” Henry St. George, and chooses his writing over pursuing a potential paramour. Overt travels abroad and pens a well-regarded novel, but returns home to find that the happy and unproductive St. George nabbed his girl. Overt wonders if he made the right choice by following intellectual passion instead of romance. Or if he really needed to make a choice at all.
Speaking of romantic choices, at HTMLGiant Nick Antosca recently posted a provocative list of reasons why writers should not date writers. He claimed that writers are less likely to let their significant others use writing as an excuse to avoid social obligations. But I’m wondering if he’s wrong, and that writers should date writers, who will likely understand the importance of clearing time and mental space to write. In spite of the control McCarthy’s and Jackson’s husbands exerted, their marriages show that liaisons with other writers can help make the space to write within the constraints a relationship. What matters most, it seems, is the agreed upon arrangement.
Katie Roiphe (of recent note for her New York Times essay about the sad state of male sex writing, which Sonya responded to here) wrote about unconventional couplings in her book, Uncommon Arrangements, which profiles seven unusual marriages in Britain between 1910 and World War II. Roiphe calls them “marriages à la mode” (a name she borrowed from a Katherine Mansfield story) to underscore the ways these couples, triads, and more complex entanglements sought imaginative, and at times almost untenable, set-ups to fulfill their needs and romantic desires.
These arrangements didn’t provide equal satisfaction for everyone involved, but for the writers who flourished a few common foundations aided their craft. Having money helped matters, of course. The young journalist and novelist Rebecca West was seduced by the older, established, and very married H.G. Wells, who fathered her child. He provided a house for West and their son, but he also chose to stay with his wife. This may have been a wise decision on Wells’s part—because it also helps as a writer to have a wife. By wife, I mean a partner who tends to the cleaning and cooking, watches the children and oversees the social affairs. Gender doesn’t matter, although in these cases a woman always occupied the role. An extremely devoted friend also suffices.
Take Katherine Mansfield as an example. Her on-again, off-again and highly impractical romance with the writer and editor John Middleton Murry developed out of a sense of mutual respect but offered little stability. When Mansfield contracted tuberculosis and had to spend winters abroad due to her health, Murry remained at home in England. Instead, Mansfield’s friend Ida Baker accompanied her, cared for her, and even woke to toast her in the middle of the night when she completed a story. These were some of Mansfield’s most productive years.
Retaining separate residences, a room of one’s own if you will, also provides space for lovers to write. The writer Vera Brittain married the academic George Catlin, who offered her “as free a marriage as it lies in the power of a man to offer a woman.” When he found a teaching position at Cornell, she moved with him across the Atlantic, but after the first year she returned to England and stayed. Roiphe writes: “It was [Vera’s] elaborately articulated position that a woman must be productive, and if that productivity was compromised by her domestic arrangements she had an obligation to change them.” And so Vera enlisted her dear friend Winifred Holtby as a third party in their marriage. Winifred would share the London residence, the expenses, and travel as she liked. She was Vera’s housemate and back-up nurse. Mary Wollstonecraft’s unlikely marriage to William Godwin (unlikely in that both opposed matrimony in their writing) never resulted in cohabitation. According to Cristina Nehring’s account of their romance in Vindication of Love, Wollstonecraft and Godwin kept separate flats, twenty doors apart, and sent notes to each other via a messenger.
In contrast to these rather dated romances, Chris Kraus’s epistolary novel I Love Dick depicts an even more ostentatious arrangement between a husband and wife named Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer, the Columbia professor, editor, and philosopher who is also Kraus’s real-life husband. As Chris’s infatuation with her husband’s colleague Dick develops into an all-consuming obsession, Chris devises ways to seduce him. She talks candidly with Sylvère about her obsession in hyperbolic exchanges reminiscent of those shared by teenage girls.
Chris and Sylvère are no longer having sex, but the external charge Dick supplies reignites their passion, at least temporarily, as husband and wife start collaborating, by writing love letters to Dick on Chris’s behalf. Sylvère makes phone calls; he imagines he’s Charles Bovary to Chris’s Emma. Chris continues to write, passionately and desperately. She turns her love-induced graphomania into performance art, and then into an epistolary novel. We as readers are led to believe that the letters she wrote to Dick, in turn, form the foundation of this book. For Kraus, love wasn’t just inspiration, it was art, it was all.
Chris’s obsession with Dick is central to the novel, but he also remains removed. Her husband, in turn, provides encouragement, companionship, and, surprisingly, acts as a collaborative accompanist within her fantasy.
If I Love Dick portrays a contemporary marriage à la mode, it also reflects the ways that the feminine role has changed—and resisted change as well. Kraus admits that in spite of her husband’s renown in the art world, at the time she wrote the book, no one took her seriously. Her anonymity gave her freedom to take risks.
Falling in love didn’t stunt Kraus’s writing. It inspired her. She said in an interview, “when you fall in love with someone the greatest rush is that you can be so many more sides of yourself with them than with anyone else in the world.” Dick’s distance allowed her to imagine, to fantasize, to write her fantasy into existence. Kraus has certainly thrown off the restraints of decency, and of privacy. No doubt, Hawthorne would pay her the compliment.
[Image: Virginia Woolf’s writing desk in her study in Rodmell, England.]
I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak. Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything. But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs. It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake. It’s that they aren’t enjoyable. They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter. Perhaps I ask too much. And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).
I think it’s the books. Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:
A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say. After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River. It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV. Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me. It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me. Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention. More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference. I did really like the last page. So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages. Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.
London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read. Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel. (Uppers, maybe.) To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore. It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you. You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime. When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov. I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for). It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.
The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing. I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained. Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days. The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining. I found it powerful, but unpleasant.
I really admired what Lessing did in this novel. Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious. It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit. I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus. When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun. What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady! How about that?
Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately. Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites. First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them). When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.” But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion. As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too. Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.
The Skating Rink: Sigh. I was so looking forward to this. I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order. But it was lacklustre. It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student. Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat. If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think. Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty. So does pre-ordering.
Those are my companions in the rut, friends. I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable. First, The Black Book. I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak. The man is married to melancholy. Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central. But it looks heavy (like, heavy). I’m going to the beach next week. Will my location be incompatible with my reading material? I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight. I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions. What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck? Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her? Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington? How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?
I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.