The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse
The rarity of spouses like Vladimir Nabokov's, who dedicated her life to supporting his career, may be hindering gender parity in literature.
When Lorrie Moore, acclaimed author of A Gate at The Stairs and Birds of America, released Bark, her first short story collection in 16 years, on February 25th, critics were dismayed to find that such a long wait had produced such a slim body of work. “I’ll admit that when I first saw its modest size and table of contents—eight stories? One every two years?—I felt let down,” David Gates wrote in The New York Times Book Review. Philip Hensher at The Guardian also lamented Moore’s production rate in crafting a modest volume of stories, writing, “Eight stories since 2003 is not a great deal, especially when three of them weren't worth publishing.”
Moore herself, however, explained to The New York Times that it’s difficult to both publish and maintain her day job as a writing professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moore, a divorcée and single mother, noted, “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 Vera Nabokov. Writers all need Vera.”
Twenty-three years after her death, Vera Nabokov remains a revered figure in capital “L” Literature—not necessarily for her own work, but for devoting herself fully to that of her husband, the great Vladimir Nabokov. Vera not only performed all the duties expected of a wife of her era—that is, being a free live-in cook, babysitter, laundress, and maid (albeit, she considered herself a “terrible housewife”)—but also acted as her husband’s round-the-clock editor, assistant, and secretary. In addition to teaching his classes on occasion (in which Nabokov openly referred to her as “my assistant”), Vera also famously saved Lolita, the work that would define her husband’s career, several times from incineration, according to Stacy Schiff ‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 biography, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). With Vera by his side, Nabokov published 18 novels between 1926 and 1974 (both in Russian and English). Through 1976, the year before his death, he also published 10 short story collections and nine poetry collections along with criticism, plays, uncollected short stories, and translations.
Schiff writes that “Even her detractors held that Vera Nabokov participated in her husband’s work to an unprecedented degree … The original Nabokovian, she was a full creative partner in everything her husband did.” According to Schiff, “Lawyers, publishers, relatives, colleagues, friends, agreed on one point: ‘He would have been nowhere without her.’” (And yet: “‘She was just a wife,’ remembered a publisher with whom she corresponded on her husband’s behalf, for three decades.”)
To some writers, Vera Nabokov remains much more than “just a wife,” but rather a template for an enviable asset. It’s undeniably easier to prioritize one’s art with a 24/7 writing coach who also manages “the mini-country that is home,” to quote novelist Allison Pearson.
As Laura Miller recently pointed out in Salon, Virginia Woolf and Edna St. Vincent Millay each benefited greatly from truly anomalous marriages of their time, in which their respective husbands assumed a Vera-esque role. Millay’s husband, Eugen Boissevain, reportedly described himself as a feminist and “married the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay with the express purpose of providing her with a stable home life and relieving her of domestic tasks so she could write.” By the time Millay died, she had written six plays and more than a dozen books of poetry. While Leonard Woolf cared for Virginia during her bouts of mental illness, he also managed the household, tended to the garden, and co-founded the couple’s literary press. Throughout his dedication to his wife’s craft—and her general well-being—he also managed to have a literary career of his own, producing both novels and stories while maintaining editorships at several journals. Claire Messud wrote in The New York Times that the Woolf partnership was one of “extraordinary productivity.” In her lifetime, Woolf published nine novels, two biographies, and several collections of essays and short stories—among other works.
But not all gifted writers are blessed with Veras (or Leonards or Eugens for that matter). At a promotional reading of Bark at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Moore clarified to me—and a room’s worth of fans—that she absolutely does not have a Vera. “I do every little thing myself,” she said.
Moore isn’t alone—and she’s not the only female writer who gets arbitrarily chided for her “slowness” in producing heralded work. According to the annual VIDA count, women’s bylines (both in fiction and nonfiction) increased again in 2013, and the number of works published by women is vastly larger than it was in Nabokov’s day, but published works by women are still in the minority. The conversation over women in literature continues to circle around a chicken-or-egg debate, as a lack of submissions by women writers, as The London Review of Books asserts, are the real culprit. So it seems likely that having, or not having, a Vera could be the missing piece in creating gender parity within literature.
Dr. Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of American history at Stanford and author of the forthcoming A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, says her male colleagues in academia do appear to have Veras. It’s difficult to know what goes on behind each couple’s closed doors, she says, but while some of her colleagues appear to have equitable partnerships in which each member is the other's Vera, she believes the traditional dynamic of a male Vladimir and female Vera to be much more pervasive. Though traditional notions about the importance of male breadwinning in husband-wife households are on the decline (as of 2013, four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family, up from one in 10 in 1960), one study found that in academia, when a fraction of tenure-tracked male professors did take paternity leave, most used the opportunity to research projects and publish.
For many women writers, then, the prospect of a Vera seems to offer the ultimate work-life balance solution. The protagonist of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation hints at a desire for a “Vera.” Early on in the novel, she confesses,
My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
Jennifer Weiner, New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, suspects that one dynamic has certainly changed since the era of the original Nabokov partnership: “Everyone wants to be Vladimir, and no one wants to lick Vladimir's stamps.”
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Some women writers are, indeed, married to a Vera. Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the forthcoming The Vacationers, describes her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub, as a “sort of Vera”: “My husband does so much for me that I would be embarrassed to offer a list in fear that you would think me unable to tie my own shoes,” Straub says. “I have cleaned our bathroom exactly one time. That is not an exaggeration.” Before Straub sold her short story collection Other People We Married, Fusco-Straub supported the couple financially. He accompanies her on book tour, semester-long teaching jobs, and research trips in addition to reading her work and giving her his frank opinion.
“Maybe he's my Claire Underwood in addition to my Vera Nabokov,” she muses.
Aimee Phan, author of the novel The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, says without hesitation that her husband is her Vera. Phan and the poet Matt Shears, both professors at California College of the Arts, have two young children (ages two and five, respectively). Shears prepares 90 percent of the family’s meals these days—a duty he took up after they welcomed their first child. And like the original Vera, Shears is Phan’s “first reader and editor.” But she tries to be his Vera too, referring to herself as the Google calendar mistress, household accountant, and laundress, and Phan says both she and her husband make personal sacrifices to allot as much writing time for one another as possible.
Other women writers, however, decidedly don’t have a Vera to speak of—of the spousal variety or otherwise. When I reached out to Jean Kwok, author of The New York Times bestselling Girl In Translation and the forthcoming Mambo in Chinatown, she initially emailed, “My life is pretty insane right now, partly because I don't have a Vera.”
Some hours later, after she had ordered groceries for her family, she emailed me from her home in the Netherlands, where she lives with her husband and two children. The following day, she would be hopping on a plane to New York City to start promotions for Mambo in Chinatown.
Like her fictional heroine in Girl In Translation, Kwok immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong as a child. She worked in a clothing factory in Chinatown for much of her childhood; while studying at Harvard, she worked as many as four jobs to support herself. “I grew up with the desperate drive to become Vladimir,” she says. “But when my to-do lists are having their own baby to-do lists … I've dreamed of someone else keeping the flying apparatus of our lives in motion, leaving me free to dive as deeply into my writing as I please.”
That's partly why other writers make this dream a reality by enlisting a paid Vera—like Jennifer Weiner did in 2006 when she hired an assistant. She credits fate (and privilege) with gifting her Meghan Burnnett, then a graduate student at Penn. “I needed someone to, essentially, be the wife, while I went about the business of being a writer and a mom,” she says. “Someone who would make sure the car got inspected, that the furnace filters got replaced, that there were school-lunch foods in the house on school days, and that I had itineraries and packing lists when I left on book tours or business trips.”
Her partner, however—writer Bill Syken—assists with shopping, cooking, cleaning, and pointing out grammatical errors in work that she reads aloud to him. “But it's not like he takes on all of those tasks to safeguard my precious time with the Muse,” Weiner adds.
Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Treasure and the New York Times bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, says that prior to committing herself to her own writing, she explicitly pledged to her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Chabon, that she would be his Vera. A former criminal-defense attorney, she decided to be a stay-at-home mother after having her children. But it didn’t last long.
“To say it didn't work out was an astonishing understatement. I hated being home,” Waldman says. “I'd fantasized that being his Vera was a way for me to deal with being stuck as a stay-at-home mom—I'd subsume my own ambitions into something ‘greater!’ But that lasted about 48 hours."
Since embarking on her own successful writing career, Waldman says a trinity of Veras have contributed to her success: her husband, who she refers to as her “literary Vera”; her personal assistant; and, at a different point in her career, her nanny. (Waldman acknowledges that she enjoys more financial security than many fiction writers, largely because she writes unproduced TV pilots on the side.)
Waldman finds the classic, unpaid Vera archetype to be nonexistent among her immediate community of both male and female writers, but she posits that such a traditional partnership model is perhaps more common in academia. Among her friends are other famously creative egalitarian couples like Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Daniel Handler and Lisa Brown, Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty, and Nick Laird and Zadie Smith (who did not return messages for comment).
Waldman says it’s her female writer friends with non-writer partners who usually encounter resentment in the home. “The women writers I know who are not married to male writers are quite often—but not always—fucked. If you're married to a guy who goes to work every day to a ‘real’ job, what you do seems like such bullshit.”
Even in writing this piece, it’s fairly easy to see which female writers have secured the economic means to afford employees who protect those sacred writing hours the way a Vera might. Isabel Allende’s assistant declined comment on her employer’s behalf, specifically citing that, “[Isabel] is retreating to write.” A.M. Homes was also too “swamped” to come up for air (or rather press), but I learned that via her publicity team—for-hire Veras in their own right. Jhumpa Lahiri and Toni Morrison were among other authors who were unequivocally unavailable for comment, as relayed through their publicity Veras.
For other female writers, though, hiring a Vera is out of the question. Katherine Hill, whose debut novel The Violet Hour was released last year, admits she can’t afford a Vera for hire, but “having a personal servant, which is a power relationship,” is something she’s “not exactly comfortable with.” Hill and her husband, a fellow writer and a historian, enjoy a relationship of mutual criticism, constant reading, and collaborative brainstorming. Domestic duties like cooking and cleaning are more or less split down the middle.
But Hill notes that she and her husband are currently in their early thirties and childless. She worries about what a child would do to their working dynamic.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., says she and her husband, also childless, could both greatly benefit from a domestic Vera, but she’s uncomfortable with the idea of another person always putting her needs first. Though Waldman’s husband—Evan Hughes, also a writer—is her “first, last, and best reader,” she clarifies, “I certainly don't have a husband who doubles as a private secretary or personal assistant. I absolutely mail envelopes and go to the grocery store and do laundry and the rest.”
Aimee Phan, like Ayelet Waldman and Moore, finds that her male contemporaries within academia usually have female Veras tending to the hearth and home while they tend to their genius. “It’s easier if you are male to have a Vera,” she says. “If you're a female writer, you feel like you’ve won the lottery to have found a Vera—someone who loves and respects you enough to help you find the time to write.”
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But although some modern-day male writers may have variations on the classic Vera, they hesitate in referring to them as such. Ben Greenman, author of Slippage and Mo Meta Blues, is reluctant to call his wife—Gail Ghezzi, an artist and art director at OnEarth Magazine—his Vera, even though she reads plenty of his work. While she does more housework, Greenman says he does at least half of the childrearing, which makes for an “equal contract.”
“I hope I Vera her at least a little bit,” he says when speaking of her work at birthdeathrepeat.com.
Scott Cheshire, author of the forthcoming High As the Horses’ Bridles, also cites his wife as an active partner but is careful about invoking the V-word. He credits his wife, Kate Cheshire, with the fruition and completion of his debut novel: The breadwinner of the family, she encouraged Cheshire to pursue a college education late in life, to quit bartending, to prioritize his writing, to then enroll in a graduate MFA program at Hunter College. Cheshire’s wife then suggested quitting his publishing job to write his novel.
Nevertheless, Cheshire also eschews calling his wife a Vera in the traditional sense. “If the question is, do I (as did Nabokov) have someone who cooks, cleans, and does the laundry, someone who more or less tosses fresh rose petals on my path, making a soft pretty way for my ‘genius?’ Then no,” he says. “But if the question is, do I have an essential support system, a non-stop cheerleader, a partner without whom I would pretty much die, or probably not make any more good art, while bartending weeknights … then absolutely.”
He adds, “That said, I also do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. “
Sigrid Nunez, author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, Salvation City, and A Feather on the Breath of God, believes some of her male colleagues have Veras, but not all. Like Moore, she specifies that she does not have a Vera of any kind, which she ultimately dismisses as a “fantasy.”
And outside the enclave of academia, perhaps it is.
Unlike in Vladimir’s day, a woman who throws herself—or a man who throws himself—at the feet of brilliance will expect to be paid for it. What remains in 2014, among our most celebrated authors, is a dynamic that is as unique and varied as the partnership itself: a rendition of a reciprocal creative relationship in which domestic duties, writing criticism, and professional support are generally shared or outsourced.
But Hill points out that the totalizing vocation of writing doesn’t “jibe well with the contemporary ideal of equal partnership,” suggesting that a writer’s work often makes a completely balanced relationship very difficult to maintain. Nor does the pressure to “produce” bode well for single writers without personal assistants.
“Marrying a Vera might not be possible,” Weiner concludes. “Hiring one, though—maybe that’s the new, politically correct dream.”