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The Mortifying Private Lives of Great Writers

Like it or not, Edith Wharton's looks and Saul Bellow's sexual problems do shed light on their work.

Just how relevant is an author’s private life to our appreciation or understanding of his or her work? Many would argue that we should disregard it entirely. Others (myself included) might point out that while you can thoroughly enjoy a novel or poem without knowing who wrote it, any deeper grasp requires at least some basic information. It matters that Edna O’Brien is Irish, certainly, and it’s almost impossible to imagine how the writings of Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski could be separated from their life stories.

This question came up recently in the response to an essay about Edith Wharton that appeared in the New Yorker. The author of the essay, Jonathan Franzen, has been a tennis ball of sorts in recent debates about the relative prestige awarded to male and female novelists: batted around by the combatants as an example of male privilege, he’s mostly refrained from weighing in with his own views. The Edith Wharton piece has offered that rare chance to assail him for what  he has said, rather than what others have said about him.

The premise of Franzen’s essay is that he has sometimes found Wharton “unsympathetic” because of her own privilege — of class and wealth, rather than gender — and her fairly imperious enjoyment of its benefits, but that an assortment of misfit traits, above all her desire to be a writer, ultimately won him over. This inspires a long exploration of the ways that novelists use a character’s desire and pursuit of some goal to kindle sympathy for that character even when he or she is an unpleasant person seeking a shabby prize. (The example he uses is the vulgar Undine Spragg in Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country.”)

What most irritates critics of the essay, however, are Franzen’s references to Wharton’s looks: she “did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage,” he writes: “she wasn’t pretty.” Although Franzen means this as a tick in the plus column for Wharton, it has been widely — and most eloquently by Victoria Patterson in the Los Angeles Review of Books — interpreted as “ranking a woman’s beauty before discussing her merits.” Patterson goes on to write, “Do we even have to say that physical beauty is beside the point when discussing the work of a major author? Was Tolstoy pretty? Is Franzen? Wharton’s appearance has no relevance to her work.” Patterson also insists that Wharton wasn’t “preoccupied with her own looks” and that her “appearance wasn’t problematic” in her own milieu.

Not being as conversant in Wharton’s biography as these two writers, I can’t speak to the truth of those two final claims, but if Wharton’s looks didn’t have some significant impact on her life, she’d be a very unusual woman indeed, for any period of history. Is her life relevant to her work? I would assume Patterson thinks so, since she has read more than one Wharton biography. And if her life is relevant to her work, then I’m sorry to say that her looks probably are, too.

It is, indeed, aggravating that for many male writers, as for most men, looks have had relatively little influence on their fates or reputations while the opposite is true for women. (That said, it’s difficult to imagine an ugly Lord Byron having cut so wide a swath in the imaginations of so many readers.) For women, prettiness or the lack thereof has long been treated as the most important measure of feminine worth: Accusing a woman of being unattractive is the fallback weapon for anyone trying to inflict a particular brand of shame, one designed to invalidate her  as a woman. That’s why it’s seen as the lowest blow of all (apart, maybe, from calling someone a bad mother), an ad feminem tactic of last resort used by those who can’t win by fighting fair. Edith Wharton, a brilliant and successful novelist, could well have been the target of that sort of insult from her male contemporaries.

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