‘Deeper than a sexual betrayal’: what happens if your partner doesn’t like your writing?
‘Deeper than a sexual betrayal’: what happens if your partner doesn’t like your writing? –
There are no decapitations or dead girls in Nicole Holofcener’s sublime new horror film. The incident at the center of the writer-director’s latest movie is, to a certain set anyway, far more alarming. Beth, a happily married writer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) overhears her sweet therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) confide in a friend that her novel in progress is not shaping up to be a masterpiece.
The Pulitzer prize-winning author Benjamin Moser gasped when he heard the conceit of You Hurt My Feelings. Unlike most professions, where a person and their work can neatly coexist, being a writer involves stepping into an occupation that all but demands self-exposure and a heaping dose of vulnerability. Any piece of work – fiction, biography, poetry – is a document of the author’s hangups and preoccupations, flaws and shortcomings laid bare. How could anybody put their work out there for Goodreads evisceration and not find themselves feeling thin-skinned? And then there are the other professional circles of hell to endure: the rejections and iffy reviews, the degradation of self-promotion, the unsettling quiet of an un-buzzy publication.
“Writing can be extremely embarrassing. It can be more revealing than porn,” said Moser, whose next book is a personal meditation on Dutch painting. “Whenever you put yourself out there, you are allowing not just the possibility but the absolute certainty of criticism. If you’re not supported by your nearest and dearest, it would be impossible to go on,” he said.
To hear Moser speak of the unflagging support that he and his partner, the novelist Arthur Japin, provide each other, one can’t help wondering if their mutual appreciation society isn’t partly a reflexive bulwark against an all but inevitable unraveling. “It would be deeper than a sexual betrayal,” Moser said of what happened to Beth. “You could hook up with somebody at a party, and whatever, a couple can recover, but [learning that your partner doesn’t think you’re a good writer] is an attack on your being.”
Beth’s accidental encounter sets off a monumental crisis of self-confidence. She was already primed to feel terrible about herself: her agent is lukewarm on her manuscript, and the students she teaches confess they aren’t familiar with her previously published book, a quiet memoir that was light on the trauma that propels so many titles to top-tier status (“Maybe if Dad hadn’t just been verbally abusive, it would have been a bestseller,” she quips to her mother). Her husband’s unsolicited review ushers in an era of radical honesty that few couples would be able to weather.
“This can get really dark, because we’ve all been there,” said Arian Moayed, who plays Mark, an insecure actor and the confidant of Beth’s husband (you might know him as Stewy in Succession). “We’ve all had a moment where it’s like: ‘Oh, fuck, someone just told me the truth about my work.’”
“It’s an impossible situation,” Holofcener said of the breaking point where Beth finds herself. “It’s not just writers, I mean, actors, I think, really put themselves out there, as well as directors. I think anybody in a creative career is really vulnerable and needy, and wants validation and doesn’t want to look like a fool. It’s scary out there.”
Holofcener, who is happily dating a journalist – one who admires her work, thank you very much – pointed out that Beth’s husband didn’t object to her entire sensibility. He found fault with a single book of hers, which sets up a transgression that might be possible for two highly enlightened souls to overcome. “I’ve had friends that I thought maybe don’t really love my work that much, but they love me and sometimes it feels fine,” the director said. “And sometimes it doesn’t.”
While the day-to-day business of being a writer is boring (boot up computer, peck away at keyboard, hate self, repeat), the power dynamics that imbue writers’ personal relationships are anything but. The writer’s wife as selfless helpmeet has become a trope of the literary biography. Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sophia was something of a human Xerox machine, copying the entire text of War and Peace seven times over. Véra Nabokov was the faithful first reader, publicist and typist who memorably saved a draft of Lolita from a trash can when her husband Vladimir wanted to destroy it.
As the writer Claire Messud laid out in a piece on Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the New York Times, “the struggle in any marriage is over who gets to be crazy.” In the Woolfs’ household, the typical gender roles were reversed. Thanks to Leonard’s caretaking of their garden, household admin and the literary press they co-founded, Virginia was able to tend to the important business of being Virginia Woolf. “What is most remarkable, perhaps, about their marriage, was its extraordinary productivity,” Messud wrote.
More often, though, women in literary marriages did not enjoy such uxoriousness. Catherine Dickens, whose husband Charles once tried to place her in a mental asylum, had to live through his issuing a news release denying rumors about his household’s “domestic trouble” and taking up with a young actor. When critics raised eyebrows at how long it took Lorrie Moore between the publication of two books, she told the New York Times that juggling single motherhood, teaching and writing was not an inconsiderable task. “There are some men I know who are teaching and writing who are single fathers. But not many. Most of them have these great, devoted wives, some version of Véra Nabokov. Writers all need Véra.”
Linda Boström Knausgård long tolerated her husband Karl Ove’s depictions of her in his autobiographical My Struggle series. He told readers of her bipolar disorder, her suicide attempt and her breakdown, as well as his unflattering renditions of the minutiae of their domestic life. “She always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned,” he wrote. A writer in her own right, Linda’s career faltered until the dissolution of their marriage, upon which she published two books, detailing her side of the struggle. It’s all enough to make one wonder if Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You is more of a fantasy than its humdrum style suggests. Alice, the famous author protagonist, takes up with a warehouse worker whose brother tells her: “He seriously doesn’t have a fucking clue who you are. He’s never read a book in his life.”
The married writers and podcasters Jennifer Romolini and Alex Pappademas have been noodling around with a podcast called 15 Fights. As they envision it, each episode would be a vivisection of their greatest arguments. One of them would center on the time Romolini wrote a book proposal and her husband declared that he did not think it was wise for him to look at it and offer his criticisms. “I had to get over it,” Romolini said, adding that the pair established new boundaries in the aftermath. “We had separate creative lives.” That all changed during the pandemic, when they were both working on books under the same roof, along with their child. A 16th fight emerged: over what they call “the alone monster”, their term for whoever gets to steal off for a solitary work session while the other one takes care of the family. “Writers are always insecure and self-loathing,” Romolini said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of passing the self-loathing hot potato back and forth.”
A similar tension charged the household of the husband and wife fiction writers Paul Yoon and Laura Van Den Berg. They take turns being in the spotlight, which has been helped by the slow and unpredictable rhythms of the publishing world. At home, they share their drafts with each other, and Yoon taps into his knowledge of his wife to push her writing to a more intense level. “He’s really good at identifying what I’m avoiding and what I’m trying to wiggle away from,” she said. “Sometimes having that pointed out to you isn’t always a pleasant feeling. And sometimes I get salty and cranky. But when I sit with it, I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s totally right.’”
The married San Francisco writers Elizabeth Weil and Daniel Duane used to serve as each other’s in-house editors, until “it was just too much”, Weil said. “I was driving Dan insane.” One day she was working out at the gym when it hit her: she’d outsource the role. She reached out to the writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner, whose magazine profiles she admired, and proposed that they become “work wives”. For years, the two workshopped all of their assignments before they showed them to their editors. “You need so much when you’re a writer, and there just has to be somebody else,” Weil said. “For me at least, because I have too many needs in the equation. It can’t just be your spouse and your editor because neither one wants to take on all of your work feelings.”
Adriana Widdoes, a writer and editor in Los Angeles, is similarly wary of over-engagement with her spouse’s work. Her husband, who works at a used bookstore, has been working for years on an experimental novel about sex and religion set in an evangelical church in Tulsa. The manuscript has been sitting in an unopened folder on Widdoes’s desk for the past several months. “Delicate is the word I’d use,” she said, outlining the fears that play out in her head. “I don’t know if I would see him differently, or maybe he would see me differently and decide that I don’t have good taste.”
Moayed, the You Hurt My Feelings actor, recalled the time he was writing and directing a television show called The Accidental Wolf, and he showed a preliminary cut to his wife. “I’m watching her every move and anything that she didn’t laugh at,” he said. “And I just lost it, I was like: you don’t like it?” She explained that she was listening to his notes and trying to see the work through his eyes. “It just dawned on me that I am not the person to share with my loved ones.”
There’s another acutely painful moment in You Hurt My Feelings. It’s the last shot, when Beth crawls into bed with the script that her adult son, a pot store manager who moonlights as a playwright, has finally completed. There she is, holding her kid’s heart and soul in her hands. Whether the work is any good is anyone’s guess. But she’s about to find out. “You don’t need it to be amazing,” Moayed said, striking a less histrionic tone than many of the people interviewed for this story. “You just need it to be a B minus and you’ll be like, ‘OK, we’ve got something to work with.’”
Holofcener, whose tartly observational body of work isn’t for everyone, has written a twisted fantasy. “If that happened to me, I’d hope I could let it go,” she said. You Hurt My Feelings’ characters, a warmer bunch than most in the Holofcener universe, make every effort to process together, and move on. “I guess it’s wishful thinking.”