August 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
There’s a wonderful scene in “The Wife” that will probably win Glenn Close an Oscar. As her Nobel Laureate husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) delivers a sappy paean to her role as his literary muse and helpmate, Joan Castleman sits silently while an array of emotions–disbelief, regret, betrayal and rage–pass across her face like fast-moving clouds. It’s a master class in acting that no viewer will ever forget, and a capstone of Close’s distinguished career.
Unfortunately, it occurs in a so-so movie built on a false premise: that Joan, whose literary brilliance is already in evidence during her undergraduate years at Smith in the late 1950’s, must choose between failure as a woman writer and success as her husband’s ghostwriter. After falling in love with Joe, her married English professor, Joan chooses the latter path while working for a New York publisher, whose editors are seen rejecting all manuscripts written by women. Meanwhile Joe, whom she’s supporting (because their adulterous affair has blackballed him from Ivy League teaching jobs, he says–which never happened back then) is more than happy to encourage his wife’s self-defeating attitude. Soon she’s rewriting his turgid, rejected first novel, which is promptly published and becomes a literary best seller. After this coup, Joan continues ghost writing for Joe for the next thirty years, producing a shelf of acclaimed novels under the name of a man who barely reads them. Then he wins the Nobel Prize, and the trouble begins.
I call bullshit, but not on screenwriter of “The Wife,” Jane Anderson, or its director, Björn Runge. The responsible party is Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the novel of the same name and whose premise so far has escaped scrutiny. Critics who are unacquainted with the period could simply search online for American women writers of the 1950’s and find Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Patricia Highsmith and Mary McCarthy, for starters. Or they could look at the Wikipedia page on 20th century American women writers, which has nearly four thousand entries. But apparently no one has bothered, so it falls to me.
[/caption]In the film, Joan is first glimpsed (in a lovely portrayal by Annie Starke, Glenn Close’s daughter) as a Smith student in 1958. At the time Smith was probably the best possible college for woman writers, with a faculty that included Mary Ellen Chase, one of the most famous English professors and literary critics of her generation. Recently Smith had graduated a literary star: Sylvia Plath, class of ’55, who was a nationally published writer of short stories and poetry at twenty, won a Fulbright and earned a graduate degree at Cambridge. Guess who was back at Smith teaching in 1958? Plath, who no doubt would have taught Joan Castleman if Joan weren’t fictitious. With her slew of prizes, publications and fellowships, Sylvia Plath would have been a much better role model for Joan than Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern), the film’s lady writer, who tells Joan that even if she’s published she’ll never be read, so why bother? The fact that Elaine strongly resembles Mary McCarthy, Vassar ’33, makes this assertion even more bizarre, since by the mid-1950’s McCarthy had accomplished all of Joan’s goals: literary success, fame, massive book sales, marriage and family. Far from being lonely and unread, McCarthy recently had spent two years on the New York Times best seller list (with The Group) and would remain a leading literary figure for the rest of her life.
Baffled by this counterfactual history, I did a little research on Meg Wolitzer. It turns out she went to Smith–before transferring to Brown, from which she graduated in 1981. The Wife therefore might be interpreted as a slam against her orignal alma mater. Still, there’s little doubt that Wolitzer was aware of Mary Ellen Chase during her time there, and none that she was well-acquainted with Plath, who arguably is Smith’s most famous alumna. Another striking biographical detail is the literary career of Wolitzer’s mother, Hilma Wolitzer, a novelist who, despite being close to Joan Castleman’s age, has somehow managed to publish a number of books.
It’s a shame that one of the rare films that deals with literature is hollow at its core, but that’s what sinks “The Wife”. The idea that Joan is forced by sexism into thirty years of fraudulent literary servitude is so absurd that even Glenn Close’s bravura performance can’t redeem it. As for Wolitzer, she should be glad that Mary McCarthy, a master of the literary put-down, isn’t alive to deliver the sharp-tongued rebuke her premise deserves.
September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
Beyond the films and moving house, why did it take me so long? There isn’t any simple answer, but it’s clear that reading novels doesn’t teach one to write them. And writing novels doesn’t equal finishing them: a previous attempt ended in frustration. (Recently I learned that Joyce Carol Oates’s late husband left a novel–his only novel, chipped away at for decades–unfinished when he died. It was not reassuring.) From a practical standpoint, the work would have gone faster if I had revised printed drafts rather than doing it on my computer. Because the novel existed only virtually, a number of gaps and errors went unnoticed for too long. But the biggest setback came during the summer of 2013, when a Time-Warner technician cut the power and crashed my computer. (He had assured me that I could keep working while he ran new cable to the house.) When everything went black, I lost the draft I was working on, including a substantial part of the last section. Although I had saved a previous draft on Dropbox, I was never able to recover what had disappeared. Worse yet, I was afraid to look at the manuscript, much less work on it, for several months.
But eventually I did. This summer I knew I had to finish so I soldiered on, finally getting to the end on Labor Day. This month I’ll send the manuscript out to some friends who have kindly volunteered to be my first readers. After that, I’ll work on selling it. One way or another, it will be published. But let’s face it: we’re not living in the Age of the Novel and no one really cares. So why did I bother? Because, with the exception of my (easily fulfilled) goal of motherhood, all my ambitions have paled in comparison to my desire to write a novel: it’s a dream I’ve had since the age of twelve. Accomplishing it has taught me many things, one of which is to love the process, not just the result. And even if only my friends and family read it, my reward has come already: I’ll soon be starting two new projects, neither of which would have come my way if I hadn’t persevered on this one.