Some conversations, not always with friends.
At certain kinds of parties I have stopped going to, I used to find myself at the mercy of ugly conversations about beautiful women. There was never enough bad wine to hand to make those negotiations tolerable. They arose chiefly through the sustained influx of models, actresses and pop starlets who have re-marketed themselves as avid readers of highbrow literary works.
Perhaps you have seen the media fodder that accompanies the phenomenon. Kendall Jenner photographed on a yacht reading Chelsea Hodson; Kendall Jenner recommending short stories by Lydia Davis and Leonora Carrington. Emily Ratajkowski, in Interview, discussing Adrienne Rich and bell hooks with Oxford’s Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory. Kaia Gerber telling Vogue that Raymond Carver and Marguerite Duras changed her life. Dua Lipa interviewing Douglas Stuart at Hay Festival. Pamela Anderson on Twitter, announcing a book. Britney Spears on Instagram, announcing a book. Julia Fox on TikTok, announcing a book. In the week it has taken me to write this essay, Megan Fox has announced a collection of poetry. Among the party guests, disbelief would abound at the ability of these women to appreciate or potentially produce the kind of literature that those guests made their living on as writers, academics, members of the book trade or journalists.
It was regularly accompanied by the suggestion that it could not be the beautiful person herself who read those texts. Rather, these women’s engagements with highbrow literary culture were PR stunts, wherein a lowlier figure – an assistant, a production manager – was likely the person selecting novels; the books themselves were probably props.
I would carry these conversations home with me like hangovers. I would think about them while I removed whatever dress or eyeshadow I had used to make myself feel good for the party.
That these women were beautiful and made their money, at least partly, through the sexualisation of their image never came up as a discussion point in regard to determining their supposed lack of intellectual prowess. It was too crass a piece of logic to make explicit in a post-MeToo era. But last year I watched that judgement invert itself palpably, painfully. I saw the following, now infamous, tweet by Marie Terese Mailhot rip through the socials of people I work with, or am in proximity to:
Joyce Carol Oates shouldn’t have written Blonde. What could a literary non-hottie know about the exploitation of femme, highly sexualized women: women who look and act like Oates have no compassion or love for women like Marilyn. They’re just as bad as men at writing them.
Sex and beauty have nothing to do with literary output, was the rebuttal. And more than once in the fray of bookish discourse, unpicking everything wrong with Mailhot’s take was an anecdote regarding the lasting sting of having once been judged a ‘non-hottie’.
If you care to dig deep enough, there is a correlation, I think, between the wariness members of the literary world show towards the standardised forms of beauty that have been commodified for mass appeal, and the wariness they show towards a book trade which increasingly pursues a consolidated market. In the latter case, profitability lies in fashionably jacketed, easily digestible, trendy books. A successful novel, in other words, presents much like a successful model: it has a viral social media presence and its palatability depends on its ubiquity in appearance and content. And yet, this project of a sexy, beautiful woman aspiring to be publicly intelligent – I want to believe in it.
My interest in the idea holds only a limited investment in the notion of feminist camaraderie. Of course, a lifetime of objectification makes the reclamation of one’s thoughts and the ability to declaim them an important prospect. More beautiful women than I have written on that subject with experience I cannot lay claim to. My dilemma is ordinary, and somewhat veiled by shame. The female writers and academics I know have limited recourse to ideas of beauty should they wish to be taken seriously. I have wondered about the impoverishment of imagination that an intellectual life devoid of sex appeal and fun has wrought on the institutions I work within.
Currently popular in the literary market is a trend dubbed ‘sad girl lit’. Its protagonists are wan, unlikeable women who carry some form of trauma. Sad girl lit has taken into its arms the varied bundle of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. But wasn’t it Woolf who once, in To the Lighthouse, dedicated one of the most breathtaking passages of literature I’ve ever read to the idea of a woman’s appeal – Mrs Ramsey, ‘with stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets’ at her breast? Wasn’t Tolstoy’s Anna at her most natural, at her happiest, entering a party, adorned and admired ‘in a black, low-cut, velvet gown, showing her full throat and shoulders, that looked as though carved in old ivory’?
I do not want to be sad, or wan, or trauma-laden. Truly, who does?
As a mixed-race girl, my impetus to read was sustained by my inability to be seen as attractive in the set of almost entirely white schools I attended as a child. Playgrounds operated on a crude in-group, out-group system at the time. I remember a boy named John telling me that I had to be thought of differently from other girls because I was a ‘negro’. He had probably only just learned the word. In a sense, however, John had a point. In that school, the right kind of beauty meant social acceptance and ease. I had little of that currency, and therefore little company, so I compromised by reading books. Why? It seems almost too clichéd to suggest that it was an effort to imagine better on my own. I don’t write this to elicit pity. When lockdown hit in 2020 and I found myself living for months on end with no recourse to friends, sex or parties, I read furiously in the same vein.
Of course, neither attempt worked. At their core, reading and writing are practises which require time that cannot be spent having sex or making friends. Reading and writing are done in isolation. The mind is split from the present moment and taken elsewhere. Touch and conversation are a form of intrusion. It is possible, I suppose, to say that the rewards of reading and writing can exist in isolation, too – the text as a mirror for the individual handling it; the text as a form of emotional stimulus, or education. There are people who say that reading and writing betters their character. To what end?
Much as there is a way to look like a woman who earns money through the sexualised beauty of her image, there is a way to look like a person who can negotiate certain literary texts and circles. Within a portion of the book trade, unquestionably, there is a uniform of neutrally coloured brushed cotton or linen, black trousers, woollen jumpers, fisherman’s beanies, canvas tote bags and Cawley Studio dresses which legitimise one’s appetite for writers like Lydia Davis, Leonora Carrington, Adrienne Rich and bell hooks. Perhaps if Kendall Jenner wore kaftans instead of bikinis while enjoying whatever short story collection she was last papped reading, we’d believe in the sincerity of her actions.
I don’t mean to sound glib. This kind of rationale doesn’t begin or end at the idea of a woman in a bikini reading a book. To prefer intellect packaged in a particular form, to see anything which opposes that form as mediocre, unworthy or false, is a conceit which can manifest itself in many ways. Last year, when writer Derek Owusu walked into a central London branch of Waterstones and offered to sign his own book, he was asked for proof of identity. I remember the years between 2015 and 2018, when I worked at another central London branch. It was my first book-related job. Management was, at the time, skewed in favour of skinny, middle-class, white men in their thirties. Their kind was sometimes accompanied by skinny, middle-class, white women in their thirties.
To whom do intellect or beauty belong? Both are socially engineered projects. Possession of either concept happens only by virtue of the term being bestowed on a person by someone other than themselves. I would not have to waste parties defending the plausibility of a world in which Emily Ratajkowski can cite John Berger otherwise.
I discussed this point some months ago with a colleague of mine. At the time, she shrugged. Beauty is a genetic lottery, she told me, and intellect is worked for. I found this hard to swallow. I have seen morons hailed as geniuses and beautiful women called hideous. I have written a novel the Times called a ‘phenomenal achievement’ and which most people on Goodreads call unbearably dull. I have worn enough hair extensions and mascara to be given, unprompted, free goods and drinks, and, in the same week, been labelled an ugly bitch. At best, I could allow that beauty and, by extension, sexiness require a lack of inhibition and strain, while intellect requires discipline. What we should have been talking about, really, was taste. And taste works on an exclusionary principle. I did try to raise this point with my colleague at a later date, but in her eyes, that was a completely different conversation.