In the September issue of Vogue, yes the 916-page one, there is a feature on Edith Wharton, including a 2-page essay from Colm Toibin and a 16-page fashion layout shot at Wharton’s former estate in Lenox, Massuchusets. While the concept of the piece isn’t terrible, the execution of it was a total missed opportunity to highlight the literary women who are carrying on Wharton’s legacy today.
The fashion spread features a name brand model — Natalia Vodianova — as Wharton, surrounded by some of today’s most revered male writers playing various figures in Wharton’s social circle.
We have Junot Diaz as diplomat and Wharton crush Walter Bery, Jeffrey Eugenides as Henry James, and even Jonathan Safran Foer makes a brief appearance as Wharton’s architect. By casting these men there is an implication that they are James and Wharton’s literary heirs. By casting a beautiful model as Wharton the implication is that when telling Wharton’s story the most important thing is that she appears beautiful. This is a clear contrast from the men, whose most important trait was clearly their literary gravitas.
And then there was the failure to feature a prominent female writer in the spread. I understand that the ambition of the piece was not just to showcase Wharton’s life and house, but also to feature this season’s must-have ankle-grazing skirts and high-neck blouses. Though surely there are a few female fiction writers who could rock this modest ware. While I would like to refrain from playing “hot-or-not” with the women on my bookshelf, I’ll just say that I can think of least five off the top of my head that would look marvelous in a wide-brimmed hat and flowy skirt.
Of course, should female fiction writers get the same attention that male writers do overall, perhaps Vogue’s use of a model as Wharton would not have stung so much. But the fact is, female fiction writers get the short end of the publicity stick all over the place. This is well-documented by VIDA’s count of the disparity between male and female reviewers and reviewees in prominent literary reviews and the number of men and women whose work is published in literary journals. Add this to the masters of the universe like-status given to writers like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, and it is clear that women writers are still not afforded the same respect as men.
So, Vogue, the next time you run a fashion spread on a famous female writer and decide to cast contemporary literary stars, please try to include a few women. When lady writers can’t even get love from lady mags, things start to feel pretty helpless.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Vogue's Edith Wharton Mistake