I laughed when I saw it: surely this was some kind of hilarious New Yorker meta-joke, an article by Jonathan Franzen, a writer with whom I struggle entirely on the basis of his privilege, about struggling to sympathize with Edith Wharton on the basis of her privilege? What delicious irony! For who could be less qualified to discuss the writing of women than a straight white male writer, purportedly worth $70 million at this point, who once expressed his distress that women, encouraged by Oprah, might read and ruin his manly, manly books? Could there be any better pot-kettle-black joke than this?
Unfortunately, it was not a joke, and Franzen was not only interested in criticizing Wharton's moneyed background, but also committed the following sentences to print:
Wharton did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty. The fine quip of one of Wharton’s contemporary reviewers—that she wrote like a masculine Henry James—could also be applied to her social pursuits: she wanted to be with the men and to talk about the things men talked about.
I do not think I need to point out the ways in which this is beyond horrific, as others have already done so, and I know I don't need to mention how INFURIATING it is to see the NEW YORKER writing about A WOMAN WRITER'S LOOKS, while CRITICIZING her for wanting to BE ONE OF THE BOYS, and going on to BLAME HER for the fact that her husband SPIRALED INTO INSANITY all thanks to her SEXUAL FRIGIDITY and SUCCESS. We don't need to talk about that anymore, because I already did, to myself, for two hours after I first read the piece, as I stormed around my apartment in a blind rage slamming doors and flinging dishes about, muttering under my breath and periodically sprinting back to my computer to send Le R another unhinged OH MY GOD I AM SO MAD CAN WE HAVE WHISKEY e-mail. No. We don't need to talk about that anymore, do we?
So once you've stopped banging your head against the desk, let's note that wealth and privilege interfering with a writer's sympathies is not a critique I believe women are (or ought to be) immune to; such a critique is at the root of my vague discomfort with Jennifer Egan and Elizabeth Gilbert. But Franzen's critique of Wharton's privilege could benefit from the context of another little book written by another lady, nine years after The Age of Innocence. I am speaking, of course, of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and in the half dozen or so times I have read it, I am reasonably sure that it sets out to prove that in order to write, one must have a.) privacy and b.) wealth, two things that all but the most privileged of women were (are?) consistently denied. J-Franz does our girl Edith a great disservice by contextualizing her work within the frame of her life, but not within the frame of what that life meant, what it meant to be a rich and ugly woman with a thorny personality in her time period. We can sneer at Wharton's leisurely existence and overbearing ambition, but it's essentially what enabled her to write at all. For Franzen to blatantly disregard this, and then to drag her looks into the argument too, is depressing, to say the least.
Beyond that odious excerpt currently available online, Franzen eventually abandons his obsession with Wharton's looks, finances, and sex life and talks about some of her books. He focuses on Wharton's proclivity for complicated, nasty heroines that we still care for, suggesting that we find them sympathetic because we are able to align our desires (to be prettier, to have more money?) with theirs. He seems genuinely amazed that the manipulative, scheming, shallow women who populate Wharton's novels elicit sympathy at all, suggesting that his idea of ladies is perhaps slightly less nuanced than hers, but whatever. His list of similar antiheroes that he's cared about, from Atticus Finch to Raskolnikov, includes but one woman--Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, who was, incidentally, written by a man. Unsurprisingly, as I have talked about this antihero lady thing before, I was less than pleased.
Franzen's conclusion--"As if aware of what an unlikeable figure she herself cut, she placed unlikable women in the foreground of these novels and then deployed the storyteller's most potent weapon, the contagiousness of fictional desire, to create sympathy for them"--is not even a statement I can completely disagree with. But in the context of his previous comments about her ugliness, her wealth, her persnickety and selfish nature, her frigidity ("heinous prude bitch who doesn't even need me financially") I found no consolation. I didn't feel any less angry than I did two paragraphs into the article, despite his ever-so-gracious concessions to her skill. I felt angrier.
To be honest, I felt hysterical: that Victorian word for the tantrums of unstable estrogen-addled women, but that I know actually describes a rage forcibly contained, the hot burn of the involuntary tears, the snap in your composure when you are told for the millionth time that what you feel or think or say or do does not matter. I thought that complex, nuanced, funny, difficult, despicably lovable characters were the emblem of a good writer, not evidence of the insecure woman thieving our sympathies through sneaky writer-succubus tricks. And yet one hundred and fifty years after Edith Wharton wrote a number of canonical, excellent books, some rich white straight dude gets paid--what does the New Yorker pay for that kind of piece, like ten grand?--gets paid like ten grand to come to the riveting, breathtaking conclusion that she might be human, and maybe even A Writer, like him?
As a woman with writerly delusions, I took it personally. It validated so many secret worries, the worries above and beyond "is my writing any good." Is anyone gonna care? Should I just keep trying to figure out what I want to do, even if nobody will ever pay me? Am I being a bitch for writing about this? Does this matter?Am I pretty enough for people to like me, or too pretty to be taken seriously? If I ever create anything noteworthy, will people spend the next century and a half critiquing my looks and my sex life, pelting me with insults for trying too hard to be one of the boys? If one of the most famous female novelists of our time is still critiqued for her looks and sex life, what the hell can I expect? And Wharton was straight! I'm not! It's entirely hopeless! Why even bother?
Which, if anything, is the only thing to take away from this debacle. That 150 years after the fact, Edith Wharton's work is still fighting the same fight I am, every day, and that I will for the rest of my life, and that every last woman I love and admire will as well, because to do otherwise feels like death. To be real and to be whole, to create and learn and celebrate and screw up and to be taken seriously with the boys, as a real human, to slam my head against every wall until it gives and to fight tooth and nail with every ounce of my skinny little girl body, whether it takes another century or not, for what I know I deserve and know I can do. To keep on, despite and in deliberate spite of what is said. To not give up.
Meg Clark is my friend and a writer and really fucking smart.