The Wife (a review of a movie about writing)

The Wife (a review of a movie about writing)

I love occasionally reviewing movies when they talk about creative or artistic themes. Generally, they romanticize the art and increase the conflict, by repeating harmful stereotypes. People – and most wannabe authors – *love* this stuff because it feels inspiring and reinforces their preexisting convictions.

But that’s why it’s worth taking a closer peek and what’s happening behind the camera.

The first great line from The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, is this:

There’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt.

And eventually we get a grand soliloquy, the big speech: impassionate but derivative. This is said by a male writing professor to room full of young girls.

“A true writer does not write to get published. He writes because he has something urgent and personal that he needs to say. A writer must write, as he must breathe, and he keeps on doing it despite the loneliness, the poverty, the piles of rejection letters, the parent or friend who call out you fool why don’t you get a real job. A writer writes because if he does not, his soul will starve.”

The beliefs are not the work

So here’s the important thing; despite his passion for writing and his need to write and be a writer… he’s not actually all that good. He’s trying, desperately for social recognition and approval.

He faces opposition from his family (it’s been awhile since I watched this so I may have some of the details wrong…) and a lot of negative opinions (honest opinions about how hard it will actually be).

“He shouldn’t need my approval to write.”

“Everyone needs approval.”

“You want to write? Don’t do it. Your books will end up on the alumni shelf. You hear that? That’s the sound of a book that’s never been opened. Don’t ever think you can get their attention – the men, who write the reviews, run the publishing houses, and edit the magazines. The ones who decide who gets to be taken seriously and put up on a pedestal for their whole lives.”

“A writer has to write.”

“A writer has to be read, honey.”

Meanwhile, his supportive wife gave up writing earlier because:

“I had very low expectations about what I could achieve as a female writer, and I didn’t have the personality for it. I’m quite shy, I don’t like to be looked at.”

But actually, the wife is doing a lot more of the heavy lifting than she’s given credit for, behind the scenes. Eventually a reporter starts digging deeper. He thinks, the wife has a story. The famous author is taking credit, the wife is the real talent behind her husband.

The wife starts speaking up.
When the father is saying “writing can be agony.”

She says “yes darling, it’s dreadful, you’ve suffered enormously.”

She gets a job at a publishing firm; starts with what they’re looking for, what they need in their portfolio, then deliberately writes the kind of books that will sell, AND uses her husband’s name and pedigree (Jewish) because she knows it’s not just about the book, it’s also about being the right kind of writer.

Her husband finishes a book and has her read it… but she doesn’t think it’s very good.
They fight…

“How can you love me if you don’t love my writing? Tell me you believe in me as a writer! Forget it, fuck this, it’s over, this relationship is doomed.”

“What are we gonna do? I don’t know, let me think.”

“It’s not a piece of shit, it’s a very compelling story. All the ideas are there. I can see it. I can fix it. Do you want me to fix it?”

And this is the moment. His ideas, but she edits. Heavy editing.

Writing so heavy it’s rewritten. Who is the author? The one who wrote it, or the one who edited it?

Which is the valuable part of the creative process – the idea or the work? The structure, or the individual sentences. Well on the one hand, both are important.

Writing versus editing

In some sense, these are two different kinds of creative production and all authors need to be both. But it’s also true, people will send out a rough pile of notes to be fixed, cleaned and polished into a product that sells, and it’s difficult to find exactly where the credit lies for that. The author is the brand, the name, the platform – even if the editor is doing the real work. The writer and the editor fight a creative war, because they have different aims and missions.

The book is a smash success. At the award people say he’s a master of the human condition, the humanity in your writing transcends the bounds of class and gender. But it’s based on a lie.

The son confronts them. “Is it your night? Because there’s a rumor that this is all based on a fraud. According to him, you ghostwrite Dad’s books.”

Her husband is jumpy, overbearing, jealous… because he’s worried his secret will get out, and ruin everything. In his speech he says, “My wife is my sanity, my conscious, and the inspiration for every decent impulse I have ever had. Joan you are my muse, my life, my soul.”

But once they get home they fight over the award and end up throwing it out the window.

They fight over the award, throw it out the window.

“You edit, that’s all you do. I’m the one who sits in the chair for eight hours a day.”

“What about all the times I gave you a backrub, brought you tea, cooked dinner, watched the kids, so you could work without distraction.”

“We’re writing partners, we’ve created a wonderful body of work together. And when I was too angry or furious or hurt to write you’d give me one of your famous backrubs and say use it.”

But she fights back, claiming her work.

“These are my stories, my culture, my family, my ideas. My words, my pain, my spending hours alone in that room turning your appalling behavior into literary gold. What compelling ideas did you ever have? The only decent story you ever wrote alone was about Carol, you stole from my life even then. Besides, you loved the travel and privileges of success.”

Just then, her husband dies (plot twist!) and, the wife decides to honor his legacy rather than coming forward with an expose, by burying the secret. The movie ends with a heavy handed metaphor of literally over a blanking page while flying into the sunset.