Belles Lettres

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The day after I read Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker essay on Edith Wharton, which painted her lack of beauty as the one thing that made her sympathetic, I was told I was too pretty to write. Specifically, I was too provocative, too thin, and too adherent to western beauty norms to write effectively on anything involving them: “It is not an accident that all women who write for Salon are either hot, or formerly hot,” wrote a commenter on a piece I penned there that touched on the beauty imperative. “We need a fat and ugly woman to break through and write about these things. Certainly everyone will say that she is an ugly harridan and dismiss her, but at least we would have a believable witness.” 

That believable witness, as Franzen would have it, is Edith Wharton. In his essay examining the role of sympathy in literature appreciation (“Without sympathy … a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering”), he wheedles us with his litany of reasons Wharton herself was unsympathetic. She reveled in born privilege, tossing pages of her writing on her bedroom floor for her secretary to collate; she breezily ignored most women around her, largely preferring the company of men. Yet she had “one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”

According to our critic, this colored the way she depicted her characters’ attitudes toward their own beauty. “At the center of each of her three finest novels is a female character of exceptional beauty, chosen deliberately to complicate the problem of sympathy,” which, depending on your reading of Wharton, could indeed be a fair description of The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence — three novels that also deal with questions of class, privilege, and women’s assigned roles in early-20th-century society. But never mind that, for what matters to Franzen is that “nobody was more conscious of [the] capacity of beauty to override our resentment of privilege than Wharton herself.”

As an author who has claimed to welcome feminist criticism of his work, Franzen should know better than to use Wharton’s looks as a portal to her words. But he did, so let’s get a few basics out of the way: Franzen’s remarks reflect the reality that female creators of all sorts continue to be judged largely on their looks. The only possible way to escape is by hitting the sweet spot in which one is neither beautiful enough to provoke criticism that she’s “getting by” on her looks nor homely enough to collect assumptions like Franzen’s. That sweet spot doesn’t actually exist, of course; for every commenter I’ve had claim I’m too “hot” to convincingly write on the beauty standard, I’ve had another take aim at my “mango-shaped face” that makes my forehead look “horrifying.” (But that’s another essay.)

The presumption is that women have no choice but to derive their interpretation of their characters’ looks from their own hall of mirrors. Under this reading, writerly imagination is beside the point, as is the author’s ability to read character through a lens better than that of female beauty. Men, being neutral observers of human experience, can make shit up left and right; women, forever serving as Other, are forced to draw solely from the well of their own experience.

Franzen claims that Wharton’s presumed relationship with her looks illuminates the privileges she’s missing out on, better allowing her to bestow those gifts and curses upon Lily Bart, the tragic heroine of The House of Mirth: “The novel can be read as a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be.” When Lily refuses to trade in her accrued beauty capital for financial security, instead participating in her own social downfall, her suffering is believable and sympathetic, Franzen claims, because a non-beautiful person made her both sympathetic and somehow deserving of punishment for her beauty.

The novel can also be read in a way that doesn’t rely on whether Wharton was genetically blessed. Lily’s fall from grace was precipitated by her unwillingness to use beauty according to the social mores of the day. Wharton’s concern was with the cruelties of a system in which it was understood that women ultimately could do little to autonomously improve their lot. She would have been keenly aware of beauty’s benefits and drawbacks for women — as a sensitive novelist and as a woman, she was attuned to the fact that beauty was the coin of the feminine realm. What Franzen is willfully ignoring — and what any woman writer of Wharton’s era couldn’t — is that self objectification as a route to security is a basic condition of patriarchy and that, simultaneously, beauty privilege is a masquerade of actual power. As Victoria Patterson at the Los Angeles Review of Books put it, Lily’s downfall “forces readers to confront the fact that her story cannot have a happy ending because, in this society, she has no other power.”

Once we understand that beauty is a mere stand-in for real power, we see that it’s impossible to view Wharton’s relationship with her looks as being about what she saw in the mirror; instead, it was about the ways a woman as privileged as Wharton navigated her world, and her nuanced understanding of beauty’s true position within that framework. Franzen willfully fails to recognize that position and mistakenly conflates scant beauty privilege with forms of true power — forms Wharton enjoyed to a degree but could never fully embody because of her sex — revealing the very problem at the heart of women’s social condition in Wharton’s era. It wasn’t about looks, even when it was; it was about power. The misunderstanding of the relationship between the two shows that women cannot write about beauty without writing about power, and in attempting to assert the importance of Wharton’s lack of beauty, Franzen creates his own best refutation to the argument he’s striving to make.

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The presumption of male neutrality lies at the heart of Franzen’s review of Wharton’s work. Certainly we’re not meant to extend his critique to his own work: We are not to see the tendency of Denise in The Corrections to be shrewd and occasionally cruel, or the dithering, punishing attitude of her mother, to be indicative of anything of Franzen’s self-concept or the women in his life. They are to be understood as the intentional manipulations of a great overseer of human existence ready to reveal the foibles of American family life. Wharton, on the other hand, is capable of no such distance between her persona and her stories. For her, neutral observance becomes impossible.

Franzen’s inability to conceive of women writers as neutral observers to the human condition goes beyond Wharton: In running down a list of characters he finds sympathetic, if not likable, Franzen neglects to mention a single female character besides Wharton’s that was penned by a woman. Under his construction, women may be sympathetic characters (Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair), and women may write sympathetic creations (Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch), but ne’er the twain shall meet — unless, of course, the authoress has a bone to pick with beauty.

Franzen never tries to say that this makes Wharton a lesser author; indeed, the piece exhorts us to read her. Yet his critique comes to mind when reading Shulamith Firestone’s appraisal of the male cultural establishment and its attitude toward female creators: “Even where it must be (grudgingly) admitted she is ‘good,’ it is fashionable — a cheap way to indicate one’s own ‘seriousness’ and refinement of taste — to insinuate that she is good but irrelevant.” Franzen similarly admits quality while managing to make Wharton unserious; the cheapness in his assessment lies in insinuating that she’s good because her supposed lack of beauty has made her sympathetic. It’s an old dichtomy — men can work from intellect, women only from personal experience.

The mistake here is that it’s her absent beauty, not simply her sex, that gives her this insight. For she, of course, writes from a perspective, and she is a woman. Women have been cast as the Other for so long that neutrality as we know it isn’t as much of an option for female creators. We might properly define “neutral” here as the blind privilege of the male author. The larger question is how to adjust culture to include women in its definition of neutrality, or indeed reconceiving the possibility of neutrality for anyone regardless of gender. In the meantime, though, the question of objectivity and subjectivity comes into sharper focus. We have been primed to interpret sympathetic women as objects, not subjects. Wharton is not a creative subject but rather an object of aesthetic opinion. Or take the case of Francesca Woodman, a gifted photographer whose recent retrospective at the Guggenheim would likely not have happened had she not committed suicide at age 22. Her work is compelling without being foregrounded by her story, but it was only in her becoming an object — the tragic, troubled talent we can cluck over and murmur words like “taken too soon” — that it received widespread notice.

The assumption of woman-as-object is so built into popular ideas about women and creation that it’s circled past the obvious feminist critique and has returned as a recurrent theme of many a successful female artist. If women are going to be seen as objects anyway, the thinking goes, why not turn it into material? Cindy Sherman, Laurel Nakadate, Marina Abramovi? — their work couldn’t resonate as soundly as it does without female surveillance being accepted as a norm.

A secret weapon may emerge from this longstanding history: Where “objective” male writers find the muse in the act of surveillance, female writers can serve as both surveyed and surveyor. That is, women can become our own muses. The muse in literature stems from the concept of the muse as being the “true speaker,” the author merely being the conduit through which she — and the muse is always a she — speaks. Wharton, by dint of womanhood, circumvents the third-party muse: Lily Bart, as Franzen would have it, is the embodiment of not just Wharton’s muse but of Wharton herself, albeit one with a different relationship to her own erotic capital. By assuming Wharton’s writing is derivative of her own experience instead of being filtered through the concept of the muse, Franzen denies her — and all women writers — the opportunity to play with subjectivity and objectivity, instead of recognizing that the true speaker of the embodied muse amply provides both. More important, the assertion denies women writers’ creativity.

Whether the presumed lack of muse makes Wharton’s work greater or lesser wasn’t necessarily Franzen’s point, but given the historic relationship between genius and the muse, it’s a question worth exploring. Take Wharton’s friend Henry James. Genius isn’t a word we’ve been shy to use about him, whether in biographies (Henry James: The Imagination of a Genius by Fred Kaplan), or the headline of Michiko Kakutani’s piece about an entirely different biography of his (“Rummaging in the Mind of a Genius Growing Up”), or a collection of his stories (“The Genius of Henry James,” containing two of his minor stories), or admiration from contemporaries such as T.S. Eliot. Edith Wharton has been described as a genius by the Telegraph, a number of blogs, and in the name of a seminar conducted on her historic Berkshires estate, “Edith Wharton: A Genius for Gardens.”

I bring this up not to question whether Wharton was a genius or whether James wasn’t; their actual merits are beside the point, for we apply genius only to creators whose works transcend them, something that is impossible for women unless neutrality is redefined.

James, in his cousin Minny Temple, had a muse. Her combination of sibling-like familiarity and the “glamour of female mystery” as described by Kaplan influenced James throughout his career, giving him a penchant for assertive female characters who rebelled against the social confines thrust upon them. Temple served as muse for the creation of Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady and Milly Theale in
The Wings of the Dove. Certainly James was insightful enough to have seen the character potential for rebellious young women on his own, but it was his devotion to Temple that spurred his longstanding exploration of the type.

The symbiotic relationship between (male) genius and the muse lies in part in the creator’s ability to properly select and assimilate their muse. They see qualities that, in the eye of the genius, cry to be teased out and spun into their own being — in clay, in oil, in words.

The concept of the muse allows writers to go beyond that dictate from Writing 101: Write what you know. With the portal of a muse, writers are not only able to write what they know but what the muse knows, channeling her experience as the “true speaker.” As Simone de Beauvoir writes in her analysis of five male writers and what their work says about the female condition, “Woman … as the other still plays a role to the extent that, if only to transcend himself, each man still needs to learn more fully what he is.”

By defining women writers as tethered to their own experience, as Franzen does for Wharton, we remove a wide road to what’s seen as a prerequisite to genius. If anyone recognizes that their muse is the mirror, instead of being treated as genius they’re seen as egomaniacally tending to a fractured self — or seen as unable to break free of the narrow lens of the reflecting glass. Women serving as their own muse is part of why “female genius” is still conceived as an oxymoron: The literary establishment is still subtly eager to recognize that behind every good man lies a woman.

Not every male writer dubbed a genius must have a muse. But we unquestioningly allow for the existence of the muse and intuitively understand the support the muse offers: the harbor of inspiration, the unharvested creative complexity that dwells within every human mind. Wharton may have had a room of her own. But her own experience was the only muse she could have.

Were Wharton writing today, she wouldn’t be unusual in having that room of her own, given the development of the female workforce since the publication of The House of Mirth. By embroidering his critique of Wharton’s work with strands of her physical presence, Franzen proves the essence of the beauty myth: that in direct proportion to women getting rooms of their own, our looks become an open target.

In Wharton’s time, her detractors referred to her as having “defeminized” herself, the idea being that her knowledge and articulation removed her from the feminine sphere. Franzen wouldn’t claim such a thing; he’s a modern fellow, right? More important, he doesn’t have to. To be unbeautiful — or even to be called such, regardless of its “truth” — is defeminizing and therefore simultaneously legitimizing (she’s more masculine, ergo neutral, that way) and denigrating (no matter her talent, she’s still not pretty, poor thing). All he has to do is look at the photo on the jacket of a hardcover edition of Ethan Frome and his case is made for him.

But let’s give Wharton, not Franzen, the last word on the matter. In The Touchstone, Wharton introduces us to Mrs. Aubyn, a successful older novelist who was known less for her beauty and more for her genius. “One felt that if she had been prettier she would have had emotions instead of ideas,” Wharton writes. “A genius capable of the acutest generalizations, but curiously undiscerning where her personal susceptibilities were concerned.” As we get to know Mrs. Aubyn, it’s hard not to imagine how Wharton may have been projecting the dual force of her own experience onto the character — the nonbeauty with undeniable gifts — while giving a prescient foil to critics like Franzen. Yet in the end, perhaps even she was buying into the myth of female beauty and the trap it presents — or perhaps in one line Wharton winds up fingering the very problem at the heart of beauty’s role as embodied cultural capital in a society where women had little other capital to trade upon. For Mrs. Aubyn’s gifts, it turns out, become irrelevant in the end: “Genius is of small use to a woman who does not know how to do her hair.”