Writers in Love
The Gentleman Scholar on what authors ought to look for in a woman, and vice versa.
In general, however, it is a writer’s pleasure to treasure the same feminine charms and rhymes and mystiques as everyone else; the Homo scribens is remarkably similar to a normal well-adjusted human being when it comes to his preferences in a helpmeet or a bedmate or a dinner date or a hopeless infatuation. Which is not to mention that the most notable wives of the most notable writers form quite a diverse group, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov’s one-and-only (the former Véra Slonim, her husband’s typist, editor, chauffeur, pistol-packing security chief, and all-around co-genius) to Ernest Hemingway’s first-of-four (Hadley Richardson, who couldn’t even be trusted to watch the luggage).
But also sometimes a male writer convinces himself that he’s looking for a muse as opposed to a mortal. There is a kind of scribbler who thinks he needs a lot of Romance in his romance—a manic-pixie inspiration to greatness or a seraphic object of desire exerting divine influence or a bright star around which he may swooningly revolve.
Ladies: Consider exploiting these misguided beliefs at your peril.
Gentlemen: Adopt such beliefs at your peril. The real talents in the muse genre are the Ones Who Get Away. You meet her at a tender age, and then you go your separate ways—you, perhaps to bed co-eds in grad school—and you do not see her again until she’s guiding you through the spheres of Heaven, at which point she is dead.
No, guys, you’re seeking stability. This is one of those rare areas in which a literary fellow should resist the influence of Bellow; a life that involves five marriages seems in some respects unhappy, and fathering a child at the age of 84 sounds no good for either the kid or your back.
Marrying kinds ought to marry only once, most importantly because marriage is a moral contract and not least because it is a financial one. Divorce is expensive; that way lies the fast track to hackery. Reviewing The Essential Mailer, published soon after its author’s sixth wedding, Martin Amis wrote that "Norman Mailer's new book bears all of the signs—all of the watermarks, all the heraldry—of a writer faced with an alimony bill of $500,000 a year." It would be much sounder, in terms of the household budget, if things arranged themselves serendipitously so that you could pull a Thomas Pynchon and fall in love with your agent, thus keeping the percentage in the family. And if you are not the monogamous kind, if you are a bohemian interested in pursuing uncommon arrangements—Bloomsbury group-gropes, or what have you—you owe it to your partner(s) to state the desire early (and often).
(I am reliably informed that, contrary to statistics, the world abounds with female writers, many of whom also count the pursuit of romantic fulfillment among their hobbies. My editor was hopeful that I would be able to deliver “some delightful witticism on the difference or sameness between them and the men,” but all I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.)
Good luck in your search, Bianca. Stay in touch! When next you visit New York, I will try to snag you an invitation to a book party or some other event where writers, ever so similar to sharp-tailed grouses and hammer-headed fruit bats, manifest lek mating behavior: The same males routinely gather at a traditional place to perform elaborate visual displays and intricate vocalizations, such as namedropping Oprah while discussing lek mating behavior. If you do indeed go game hunting among book-party animals, remember that you’ll find the savvier young men taking up positions close to whatever means of ingress the caterers are using to bring passed hors d'oeuvres from the kitchen.
As to the question of whether I know any single writers: Yes, I do. Some of my very favorite writers never married. They include Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, and Truman Capote.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.