Susan Orlean, Domestic Goddess
"I have a $2 million weekend house and you don't."
As the summer of 2005 drew to a close I had harsh words (here and here) for journalists who write about their summer houses. Although such writings tend to celebrate the anti-materialist glories of country living, nobody is giving away houses on Block Island free of charge. And although journalists usually like to pretend, at least, that they're regular folks, when it comes to summer houses their egalitarian impulses (I wrote)
are channeled into class resentment against a whole group of other summer-ers who represent the true elite. The squire who inherits his summer home feels morally superior to the arriviste who buys one because, well, it's not as though he's this rich person who slapped down a fat wad of cash. Meanwhile, the arriviste who buys his summer home feels morally superior to the squire who inherits one because, well, it's not as though he's some pampered aristocrat. He earned the money that bought this sylvan retreat!
The foregoing status analysis pertaining to money and class in America, and what those who prize these things tell themselves in order to reconcile their desires with their more democratic impulses, isn't particularly novel. But it's altogether too nuanced to process an article in the Jan. 19 New York Times about The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's weekend place in the Hudson Valley. The damn thing has choked up all my gears and brought my machinery to a stuttering halt.
Orlean is a marvelous writer, and when I met her many years ago at the wedding of a mutual friend I found her to be delightful company. But this Times piece, and especially the accompanying slide show that she agreed to narrate for nytimes.com, suggests to me that she has lost her mind. Orlean likens her house, which was built by the same architect who built Bill and Melinda Gates' mansion in Medina, Wash., to a "great piece of sculpture" whose modest entrance with its "small, beautiful door" gives way to "—and then, gasp!"
"Both of us wanted a house that felt spacious but wasn't pointlessly huge," Orlean narrates in the slide show, referring to her husband, John Gillespie Jr., the chief financial officer of a health-care organization, and a house that (including land) cost more than $2 million. "Our living room is like a people magnet," she says.
[O]ur son's room … is kind of a dream room for a little kid. … [T]he master bedroom is very open and has a wonderful soaking tub and Jacuzzi that has an incredible view of the hills and foothills of the Berkshires and the Taconic mountain range. Houses can be beautiful, architecture can be monumental and interesting and well-crafted, but for a house to have a story that it kind of leads you through and it's a subtle thing, but there's no question that you discover the house as a story being told.
I don't begrudge Orlean her delight in her new abode. But what possessed her to broadcast it to millions of New York Times readers? Yes, dozens of idiots do it in the Times "Home" section every year, but, perhaps naively, I've always expected journalists to show less inclination to flaunt privilege, especially when the privilege exists on this scale. Among other things, it puts the profession's habitual poor-mouthing in an especially unattractive light. And if we are to believe the growing body of evidence that the acquisition of real estate (especially in an overheated housing market) is somehow related to sex, then isn't showing the entire world your fabulous house a bit like opening your trench coat on Main Street when you've got nothing on underneath?
The main thing, though, is that an inclination to state forthrightly, "I have a gorgeous multimillion-dollar house in the country and you don't," calls severely into question the journalist's ability to identify with the ordinary people about whom one is called upon, at least once in a while, to write. The reverse (and entirely unearned) snobbery of Orlean's casual reference to "pointlessly huge" houses suggests that she maintains some shrunken vestige of this ability. But its true measure will be whether she woke up this morning feeling like a perfect ass.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.