The Wives Of Great Male Writers, Chapter 5,000


While in St. Croix, Paul Krugman wears the same plaid shirt for days. Another lesson from the this week’s The New Yorker profile of the Times op-ed columnist: Krugman has a symbiotic relationship with his (far-lesser-known) wife, Robin Wells.

(Image by Tina Barney for ‘The New Yorker’)

While there is plenty of substance about the evolution of Krugman’s worldview in Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of the Nobel Prize winning economist and Princeton professor, she found the lively dynamic between Wells and Krugman dynamic sufficiently captivating to print long passages of dialogue between them, and offer this description of how they work together:

When he has a draft, he gives it to Wells to edit. Early on, she edited a lot—she had, they felt, a better sense than he did of how to communicate economics to the layperson. (She is also an economist—they met when she was a postdoc at M.I.T. and he was teaching there.) But he’s much better at that now, and these days she focusses on making him less dry, less abstract, angrier….On the rare occasion when they disagree about something, she will be the one urging him to be more outraged or recalcitrant.

The two are co-writing an introductory textbook on economics that will bear both their names. Per MacFarquhar, Krugman’s “publisher told him that he had to get moving, that he should work with a co-author who was better organized and more highly motivated than he was, and suggested his wife.” Krugman also casually refers to “When Robin and I started writing about health care…” and it appears he’s talking about his New York Times columns.

(By the way, if New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar is particularly attuned to Krugman and Wells’ dynamic, well, she’s also married to a writer — outgoing Paris Review editor and fellow New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch.)

There is no evidence from the piece that Wells is anything but thrilled with their life together, which mostly takes place in their homes in the aforementioned U.S. Virgin Islands, Manhattan, and New Jersey. She teaches yoga. She edits. She co-writes, drawing on her not-inconsiderable background, which includes a Ph.D in economics from Berkeley and teaching at Stanford and MIT. When she explains why her husband is unlikely to take on a role in politics, she says,

“Paul is very good at protecting his sense of who and what he is,” Wells says. “I think that’s why he married me. He has a sense of what he’s good at and he sticks with that.”

The converse might also be inferred: that Wells has a sense of what she’s good at, and that it doesn’t need to be recognized with a byline regularly splashed across the pages of The New York Times.

And yet as unfair as it may be to any individual case, it’s hard not to see their relationship in the context of a larger pattern of famous male writers and their devoted, semi-invisible wives. It’s a familiar dynamic in literature; all that seems to have changed is that the wives are better-educated.

Dostoevsky’s wife Anna began as his stenographer and was considered a practical and stabilizing force in his life. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya — brought to life by Helen Mirren in The Last Stationfamously copied War And Peace by hand eight times, and managed his affairs between bearing 13 children. Of Vera Nabokov, who rescued Lolita from the fire, her biographer wrote, “We are used to husbands silencing wives, but here was a wife silencing, editing, speaking for, creating, her husband.”

A bit more recently (and outside Russia), media gossip types were alternately horrified and fascinated by ex-New Yorker writer Dan Baum collaborative arrangement with his wife, fellow journalist Margaret Knox, which apparently involved co-reporting all the pieces that appeared under his name. This is how Knox explained it to The New York Observer:

“Probably I am not as much of a competitive person and more of a cooperative person,” she said. “But the stresses have been, from the beginning, he was earning more….One of us gets fame and one of us gets a more, ummm, smell-the-roses lifestyle, staying home with the kid and being involved with a lot of community activity,” she said. “That’s a pretty good division.”

She added that she is beginning to shoulder more of the family’s financial responsibilities, recently editing for nonprofits and writing copy for a local business. But selling the Margaret Knox brand has been a challenge.
“I can’t just pop out of the box and say, I’ll write for $3.50 a word when I’ve never earned more than a dollar a word for anything,” she said.

When The Guardian recently asked writers to give their rules for writing fiction, children’s author Michael Morpurgo included among them,

Once the skeleton of the story is ready I begin talking about it, mostly to Clare, my wife, sounding her out.
…Once a chapter is scribbled down rough… Clare puts it on the word processor, prints it out, sometimes with her own comments added.”

Sheryl WuDunn has had a formidable career in her own right — as a foreign correspondent for the Times throughout Asia, graduate degrees (including an MBA) from Harvard and Princeton, a gig as a vice president advising on private wealth at Goldman Sachs. But these days, she is best known in connection with her husband, Krugman colleague Nicholas Kristof, such that in promoting Half The Sky Glamour breezily, and tellingly, referred to the pair as “Nicholas Kristof and wife Sheryl WuDunn” in their introductory blurb. As the Awl’s Shadow Editors observed at the time:

Tom Scocca: We could have an all-day seminar on the use here of the phrase “wife Sheryl WuDunn.”
Choire Sicha: You mean as opposed to “Pulitzer Prize-winning Goldman Sachs advisor”?

I don’t begrudge these women their choices, which from the outside appear to have been made with full agency. And maybe it’s unfair to consider an intellectually rigorous life balanced by yoga or childrearing automatically inferior to being the first-billed star. In the case of Krugman and Wells, they seem lucky to have each other, a case of two heads being better than one. But how many men have chosen a similar path? I can’t remember many, or any, cases of a man whose life was subsidiary to his wife’s brilliant career. (Leonard Woolf is a candidate, though.) Is it simply because women tend to be more “cooperative,” rather than “competitive,” as Knox put it? Or does it fall in line with expectation, as resources get concentrated behind the more quickly-rewarded or driven spouse? And is that spouse always the husband?

The Deflationist [The New Yorker]

Related: Where Is Knox’s Vox? [Observer]
The Shadow Editors [Awl]
Rules For Writing Fiction, Part Two [Guardian]
The Wife Of The Genius [NYT]

Earlier: Best Supporting Actresses: The Wives of Great Men Onscreen

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin