Sponsored by My Husband vs. Sponsored by My Wife

This blog was started, in part, by a desire to continue, broaden, and deepen the discussion brought up in Ann Bauer’s Salon piece, “Sponsored by My Husband.”  In the essay, Bauer makes the following confession: Her husband pays the lion’s share of the bills, while her writing career does not.  I would be misleading future young writers, she argues, if I led you all to believe that writing is my bread-and-butter, providing for my comfortable lifestyle.

Sure, it’s damned hard to make a decent paycheck as a writer.  But income disparity is nothing new between partners.  After all, one partner is bound to make more money than the other, and as “a marriage” transforms into “a family,” the pot becomes more and more shared.

So why did this article attract so much attention within the writing community?

I propose the answer to that question lies in writing’s long and fraught history with “sponsorship.”  Writers are often – and often very comically – portrayed as deadbeats, people who hang around the house in their pajamas, throwing crumpled up balls of paper into a trashcan.  There is no guarantee, either, that the “work” a writer does will have valuable output.  The assumption is that the writer in question has a powerful belief in him/herself (which in turn invites ridicule – “what ego!”).

After Bauer’s article turned up on Salon, a few other writers came forth to chime in about the various ways in which they are “sponsored.”  None of them were men.  “Just once,” I complained to a friend, “I would like to see one of these articles written by a man.” 

Are there no sponsored men out there?  VIDA has provided ample statistics illuminating the ways in which male writers still dominate literary fiction, and are published more often in “venues known to further one’s career.”  And yet, I still know quite a few guys who would be hard-pressed to pay their bills solely by writing.  It’s a struggle all writers face, and I would argue that lingering assumptions about gender roles only makes this subject more complicated.

 In Ann Bauer’s case, her message is clear: Back off feminists, my man may bring home the bacon, but I have Virginia Woolf’s proverbial room of one’s own; I’m quite content with my situation and find it empowering.

Certainly, one can argue the relative feminism of Bauer’s position, but what happens when the gender roles are reversed?  When a male writer stays home while his high-powered wife works, how is he viewed?  Even in same-sex couples where, ostensibly, the division of labor is not dictated by traditional gender roles, there is still “the one who stays home” (that is, in the case of writers, who work from home), and hence, the one assumed to be in charge of all matters domestic (hot tip: not all writers are natural Martha-Stewart types).

And there is the issue of child-rearing.  Bauer’s essay only skirts around this component (yeesh, no pun intended there).  She picks bones with a “glamorous” female writer born to a pair of literati parents, who advises serious writers not to have children.  Bauer responds, “I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. ‘Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!’…But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions.  It was about connections.  Straight up.  [The female writer in question] had them since birth.”

It’s worth noting that Bauer’s children from a previous marriage are grown; she is married to a second husband during the period of happy sponsored productivity she describes. One of the dangers of working at home is the lumping together of different “jobs.”  Writing is a full-time job (or can be when approached seriously).  Raising children is a full-time job, and we already know domestic work has been historically and chronically undervalued.  Lumping the two together risks implying that neither job requires or deserves one’s full attention and effort.

Going back to my earlier complaint (“Just once I would like to see one of these articles written by a man”), the fact that there is no “Sponsored by My Wife” article circulating out there begs the question whether most men would feel emasculated – even in our postmodern age – to write the kind of confessional essay Bauer writes.

What of historical precedent?  When I close my eyes and try to think of the most manly-man writer I can imagine, I think of Hemingway (this is no accident; journalists and academics alike have long posited that Hemingway took pains to cement this link between masculinity and his image in the public eye. Lillian Ross's 1950 New Yorker interview reveals a man deeply invested in posing).  During his early career, Hemingway and Hadley subsisted mostly off her income (modest returns from her family money), enabling him to publish short stories and journalistic pieces, so it stands to reason that the “Sponsored by My Wife” dynamic has existed, and likely – somewhere out there – continues to exist.

 In a future blog post, I’m aiming to get a male writer to weigh in on why there’s no “Sponsored by My Wife” essay, so stay tuned.