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    Thursday, January 27, 2005

    Words & Women-the muse factor-what a double standard

    I find this article in The New York Times to be interesting. Interesting because the focus is all about men and their sex appeal no matter their age or physical appearance. What about literary women? Aren't we considered attractive and sexy because of what we write (and I'm not talking sex books) rather than what we look like? Case in point: I do have an interesting story, much like the one mentioned in this article, about a friend developing a crush on Joan Didion after reading A Book of Common Prayer. When I mentioned to him that she was like 70 or so, he went seeking out her other books and I swear just bought one based on her very sexy, alluring author photo. It then became I have a crush on the Joan Didion of 1963. Although, I do have to say his initial gut reaction was one of an almost rock-star-crush calibor just based on her words. Ah, if only Joan Didion was younger.... Of course, I predict that this particular friend once he gets a book deal will be privy to exactly this type of muse double standard. His prose is so fantastic that women will be lined up around the block just to get a look at him. I suggest he not post an author photo, leave the women guessing.

    I'm glad this writer took the time to step up and point out the strange double standard that alas even exists among writers.

    ESSAY; You Can't Get a Man With a Pen
    Published: December 19, 2004, Sunday

    Correction Appended

    DURING my first year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a few of us were sitting around one afternoon when several of my male classmates announced -- with far less irony than you'd imagine -- that they had become writers in order to attract women. I believe the word they used was ''babes,'' as in, I'm in it for the babes. A few years later, my friend Jeremy told me he was waiting until his first novel was published to try finding a girlfriend; it would be, he felt confident, a lot easier then.
    These remarks -- I should note here that, in spite of my name, I am female -- left me feeling less offended than baffled: yes, I realize that Norman Mailer persuaded six separate women to marry him, but for the rest of us, writing a book as a means of finding either love or sex seems to me about as efficient as the also-popular idea of writing a book to get rich. And yet I have to concede that, as anyone who has earned an M.F.A. or attended a writing conference already knows, a surprising number of those over-the-top rumors about writers and their torrid affairs are actually true. If books aren't aphrodisiacs, then what else can account for a guest opening the coat closet at a post-reading party a few years ago in Greensboro, N.C., to find Mr. Very Famous 60-Something Poet and a young blonde, with whom he was not, apparently, discussing ''Ode on a Grecian Urn.''

    I, too, have had my moments as a groupie, though they've been comparatively G-rated. In the late 1990's, after reading David Foster Wallace's essay collection, ''A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again,'' I concluded that Wallace and I were soul mates, sharers of the same neurotic, despairing mirth. When I went to hear him read at the Boston Public Library, I planned to take a seat in the front row, and I presumed that based on my facial expressions alone, Wallace would understand our connection. Instead, as I fought for a seat nowhere near the front, I looked in disbelief at the crowd. Who were all these other people, and what were they doing on my date with David Foster Wallace?

    The thing about groupie stories, and this is especially true of the salacious ones, is that they always seem to feature men in the starring roles. What I've been wondering lately is, has any woman writer -- ever, anywhere -- had a groupie? Does, say, Barbara Kingsolver get phone numbers after the bookstore closes? Do 20-year-old boys throw their boxer shorts at Toni Morrison? And finally, if women do indeed have groupies, might I acquire some for myself?

    Based on conversations with editors, booksellers and fellow writers, I've come to believe women can have groupies, or at least there are plenty of female writers who strike the fancy of male readers. The catch is that typically these women fall into one -- or both -- of two categories: either the woman is very attractive or she writes a lot about sex. In the first category are, from the 70's, Jayne Anne Phillips; from the 80's, Susan Minot; from the 90's, Donna Tartt; and, most recently, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith and Nell Freudenberger. The more sexed-up category includes writers from Erica Jong to Amy Sohn.

    These are skilled writers, and some I admire greatly, but I'm pretty sure that their talent isn't the only reason men have a thing for them. Basically, I'm not convinced that female writers can transcend their hotness, that they can elicit lust based on literary prowess alone -- not because they're women, that is, but because they're writers. In an exception that proves the rule, my friend Antoine read the works of a well-known novelist and critic and developed ''the most epic crush of all time'' on her. ''Something about her prose made me think that she was of such companionable intelligence that I felt deeply attracted to her, whoever she might be,'' he said. Or at least he felt that way until he saw her picture and realized she's in her 70's, 40 years his senior. Of course, that's about the same age difference as that between a much-lauded male novelist I know of and the dewy-eyed students he dates in the New York program where he teaches.

    Groupie inequity applies not only to age but also to self-presentation. Jim Behrle, who has directed events at three independent bookstores in Boston and now works part time at BookCourt in Brooklyn, told me: ''There's something charming and forgivable about the slacker rock star literary guy who shows up in his AC/DC shirt and hasn't washed in a couple days. But I don't think women can pull that off as easily.'' Behrle explained that the slobby-cool aesthetic was pioneered by, among others, my own beloved David Foster Wallace, and is now practiced by cult favorites like the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In fact, the casual mien of these writers pales in comparison with that of the forefather of contemporary slovenliness, Charles Bukowski, who in his poem ''The Great Slob'' celebrates his fondness for hanging out in a stained undershirt and belching. Of himself and his paramours, he writes, ''I really loved myself, I / really loved my slob- / self, and / they seemed to also.'' To look at old photos of Bukowski is to know that what the ladies loved must have been his mind.

    Behrle, who has orchestrated readings by hundreds of writers, agreed to offer tips in my own quest to acquire groupies. Don't get a facial tattoo until after the reading tour, he advised, and don't publicly admit to having a boyfriend. ''There has to be the illusion of availability,'' he said. ''No one wants to hear that you're in a happy relationship -- fake break up with him right before you go on tour.'' Above all, use a come-hither author photo; any doubts about the power of this publicity tool were put to rest by the movie ''The Orchid Thief,'' in which the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage, demonstrates a particularly self-gratifying type of ardor toward the author photo of Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep. Behrle himself recalled a British writer whose photograph made him ''fall to my knees, howl and surrender'' -- but he also cautioned that ''nine out of nine authors look better in their photo than in real life.''

    As it happens, it's too late for me. Last spring a co-worker at the school where I teach part time took the photograph that will appear on my novel's jacket, and I'm afraid the picture suggests less ''Let's have a drink after the reading'' and more ''Ninth graders, your 'Macbeth' papers are due on Friday.'' Besides, the truth is that I kind of admire the Bukowski tack. I mean, where's the victory in getting people to love you because you're cute? Put on lipstick and a short skirt and, hell, you can get hit on without even going to the trouble of writing a book. But if I can show up for readings belching and reeking, arranging myself in unbecoming positions, and still manage to win adulation? Now that would be equality.

    Published: 12 - 19 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 35

    Correction: January 9, 2005, Sunday

    An essay on Dec. 19 about literary groupies supplied an incorrect title for the movie based on Susan Orlean's book ''The Orchid Thief.'' It is ''Adaptation,'' not ''The Orchid Thief.''


    Blogger Michael said...

    What about literary women? Aren't we considered attractive and sexy because of what we write?K, are you really wondering this?

    4:05 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Well, I have plenty to say about crushworthy women as well. The novelist Thisbe Nissen is tops on my crush list again this week. But you know, the nytimes only has so much space.

    be well

    Jim Behrle
    nytimes article chode

    8:59 PM  

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