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the atlantic on women writers

The rarity of spouses like Vladimir Nabokov’s, who dedicated her life to supporting his career, may be hindering gender parity in literature.

Women writers can’t get ahead, because they don’t have a wife to help them out, says a story in the Atlantic. Vera Nabokov is the example the story uses of a woman who dedicated her life to her partner’s art. She edited Nabokov’s work – including the famous Lolita, sorted the bills, and ran the household.

There’s an element of truth to this argument: Writers are more productive if all they have to do is write. Certainly, I saw plenty of partnerships like this in academics. The men steadily ascended the academic ladder, publishing and doing research, while their wives kept the house and raised the family.

In a few rare cases, I met women whose male partners provided similar support. These women wrote and researched and went to conferences, and generally did all the things required for academic success, while their men stayed home, did the laundry, and got the kids to school on time.

The Atlantic offers Lorrie Moore as a counter-example: A single mother, she teaches at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has published rarely, despite her massive talent. Other writers such as Jennifer Weiner have hired “a wife” in the form of an assistant who looks after the practical details of their lives.

The argument seems to be that unless a writer has a full-time helper – either paid or married – she will never be productive.

And maybe this is so, but I am a writer because my partner has a job, not in spite of it. His salary makes it possible for me to live a creative life. In its absence, I’d almost certainly have a job in an office somewhere that paid out regularly and offered health insurance. I can be a freelance writer, because I don’t pay the rent in my household, pure and simple.

To me this argument is as much about money as it is about gender roles. If Moore won the lottery tomorrow, would she keep her teaching job? Or would she retreat to a cabin somewhere and write floods of fiction? Only she knows the answer to that.

But I think the Atlantic ignores the reality that a one-job household is a position of extraordinary privilege. Maybe the question isn’t whether women should have wives to take care of the pesky details of life, but rather, whether writers should be paid enough to make living a creative life financially possible.

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