Literary festivals don’t tend to generate much intrigue. But at last weekend’s Berkshire WordFest the close listener was rewarded with the thrilling crackle of whispered indignation.
Several hundred writers and fans had descended upon The Mount, Edith Wharton’s country house in Lenox, Mass., to celebrate the author’s 150th birthday with three days of panels and readings. The weather was crisp and clear, and everyone milled about the house and grounds uninhibitedly, as if Wharton herself had issued the invitations. Stacked here and there like so many party favors were glossy, staple-bound excerpts from Vogue’s September issue: a lavish, 18-page photo feature depicting a handful of actors, artists, models, and writers posing as Wharton and her circle lounging, couture-clad, in the very same rooms we wandered through. Shot by Annie Leibovitz and produced by Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington, with an essay by Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, the feature is a gorgeous, evocative homage to the estate Wharton designed herself. It even shares the title of Wharton’s most undeservedly under-read novel, The Custom of the Country. Devotees, not to mention The Mount’s representatives, are rightly thrilled with the fantasia—but the reaction among many of the women writers in attendance was…complicated.
“Can you believe it?” novelist Roxana Robinson asked me. She had spied me in the foyer and introduced herself, and in no time at all we were on to the topic very few of us there could stop whispering about: the fact that of the three writers serving as models in the Vogue photo feature all of them are men.
There is Jeffrey Eugenides in a bowler hat doing his best Henry James. There is a bow-tied Junot Diaz as Wharton’s (unrequited) love interest, diplomat Walter Berry. There is Jonathan Safran Foer, hair severely parted down the middle, posing as Wharton’s collaborator, the architect Ogden Codman, Jr.
The grande dame herself is played by 30-year-old Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova.
Robinson and I shook our heads in that incredulous way one does when confronted with something so obviously wrong (as if women writers aren’t underrepresented enough as is!) and yet so seemingly inconsequential (oh who cares—it’s just a photo shoot) and yet so obviously wrong (as if women writers aren’t underrepresented enough as is!)…that…well, what to do? As Robinson put it, “The message of the shoot seems to be that a man can become an appropriate subject for the camera by being a professional writer. But a woman can only be an appropriate subject for the camera if she is a professional beauty. Yet any complaint sounds like whining, so it’s hard to know how to frame the discussion.”
Instead, we ginned up suitable Wharton contenders. Novelists Claire Messud, Heidi Julavits, and Elissa Schappell, all of whom were there to participate in the festival, are in their 40s, the same age as Wharton around her time at The Mount. Perhaps one among them would have been available? “Vogue might have considered at least hiding Jennifer Egan in the hedgerows, or Lydia Millet by the fountain,” said Schappell. Age-appropriate Egan, not in attendance, turned out to be a popular suggestion—Julavits and Robinson both mentioned her, and she’d sprung to my mind as well. It’s her camera-ready cheekbones, obviously, but also the fact that, like Wharton, Egan is a Pulitzer Prize-winner. But Schappell ultimately decided she sympathized with Vogue’s plight. As she wrote to me yesterday in an email, “Female authors are notoriously dumpy and plain. Often obese. To find a female writer without a hump back and a mouth of tusk-like teeth is quite a task. Behind our backs they refer to us as The Beasts of the creative arts.”
Schappell’s joke called to mind Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker essay, “A Rooting Interest.” In it, he tries to unpack why readers like and sympathize with Wharton, even though her material privilege puts her squarely within the 1 percent. (Indeed, the way he describes Wharton as “pouring her inherited income into houses in rich-person precincts, indulging her passion for gardens and interior decoration, touring Europe endlessly in hired yachts or chauffeured cars, hobnobbing with the powerful and the famous, despising inferior hotels” makes her sound not unlike Vogue’s target audience.) Franzen’s argument for Wharton’s enduring appeal hinges on “her one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”
Was this, then, the answer to the riddle? Is it possible that the absence of a single female writer in a shoot celebrating a female writer wasn’t an oversight after all, but simply because Vogue didn’t want to risk insult by comparison? Or is it that Vogue did have a wish list and, as novelist Amy Bloom wrote to me in an email, “all the women writers, in an attack of screaming modesty and publicity-aversion, declined?”
I called Vogue to find out, but sadly didn’t get far. Grace Coddington was unavailable. Annie Leibovitz’s office declined an interview. I shook my social media trees to see what the boys had to say, but Eugenides begged general interview fatigue, and as of deadline I still hadn’t heard back from Diaz or Foer. So here, at least, a woman gets the last word, in the form of an email from novelist Katharine Weber: “It’s just sad that Wharton’s legacy is so casually appropriated and misunderstood at the same time.”