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Guest Thinkers

A Killer: Can Writers Survive Writing About Marriage?

In Scott Turow’s Times Book Review cover piece on Adam Ross’s novel, Mr. Peanut, he recalls the time a revered Stanford writing professor cautioned students against writing about marriage, “the most complex and frequently unfathomable of human relationships.” If this analysis is true—or, as this is true—why do we find writers drawn to marriage today as frequently as ever, as if on trend? Ross’s novel is perhaps the most poetic (sublime?) recent meditation on the topic, but as no one seems to know what marriage means, perhaps it is the perfect place to concentrate the minds of our finest writers.

Shakespeare wrote about it; so did Flaubert. And Austen, of course. And Roth. In fact, what great writer has not attempted a portrait of a marriage? Still, the theory that it takes bravery to do so is a fine one to remember, or to tack up on local church doors. Just as writers are meant to write “what they know,” perhaps they are meant to ward of generalizing on the one subject social law tells us we cannot, axiomatically, ever know too well: the inside of someone else’s marriage. We may write about our own joy, or terror, in union, but to write about others’ marriages, as many fine novelists have done, is to write about something so delicate, and dangerous, that it risks exposing a lethal patent or clue.

In the non-fiction iterations of Writing About Marriage, we have self-help; we have Elizabeth Gilbert; we have Tara Parker-Pope. And we will have many more to come, it being an industry. It is unclear what separates fine writing on marriage and poor writing on marriage from fine writing and poor writing full stop, but we know this: it is a bit research, it is a bit experience. We don’t want to read about pirates from someone who has never seen an ocean. Or, do we?

Here is the complete excerpt from Turow’s review:

“Nearly 40 years ago I was a fellow at the Creative Writing Center at Stanford. The director, Richard P. Scowcroft, who had helped his revered friend Wallace Stegner establish the program, told those of us in the advanced fiction seminar that the one subject he had always feared writing a novel about was marriage, because it still seemed to him the most complex and frequently unfathomable of human relationships, notwithstanding his own long and successful marriage. Scowcroft’s remark is a testimonial to Ross’s bravery. In many ways it would have taken less courage to present a sympathetic portrait of Osama bin Laden than it did to write this novel, which flouts the treasured conceptions of love and marriage many of us depend on to make it through the day. “Mr. Peanut” is most harrowing in its bleakly convincing portrayal of the eternal contest that often passes for a marriage, with each partner holding the other responsible for his or her deepest unhappiness.”

What’s fascinating about many of the reviews of Ross’s book is that they center less on death and crime and more on marriage. When we think back to Turow’s early masterpiece, Presumed Innocent, this is what we remember: a perfect crime, an imperfect justice system, and a wronged—and rage-ful—wife. Presumed Innocent was ultimately the story of a marriage; this is why the Times selecting Turow to review Ross was perfect. “This is a brilliant, powerful, memorable book,” is the final line of the review. But what the reader takes away from it—aside from, I should read this novel—is a belief that Marriage is the Everest of subjects, and that readers should show respect to those who summit it in style.