Too young, too pretty, too successful

Hating Nell Freudenberger -- the 28-year-old writer celebrated in Vogue and Elle -- is a virtual cottage industry among ambitious literati. And I was ready to hate her too -- until I read her book.

Published September 4, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

First, the facts: In its 2001 "Summer Fiction Issue" the New Yorker printed four stories by "debut writers," a title defined by the magazine as "young writers who have not yet published a book." Among the four was Nell Freudenberger, then age 26; her contributor's note mentioned both that she was an editorial assistant at the New Yorker and that her piece, which was called "Lucky Girls," was her first published story. Author photos accompanied all the debut stories, and the three other writers had been photographed at, respectively, a park, a restaurant and a marina. Freudenberger had been photographed in her apartment, shot from above while sitting on what appeared to be a shiny, velvety mauve and silver bedspread. She had pale skin and shoulder-length dark hair; she wore a serious expression; it would be overstating it, but not by much, to say that you could see down her shirt.

On the June day the magazine appeared in my mailbox, I set aside what I was doing, which was, if I remember correctly, nothing (I had just graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and was still living in Iowa City) and read much of the issue, including the story by Freudenberger. I think I liked the story, though it's hard to say now -- a bit like having been given a hamburger by a man at a picnic and only later, after finding out the man was Ray Kroc, trying to evaluate that hamburger. What I do remember is thinking Freudenberger looked kind of awkward, but in an endearing way.

I was quickly disabused of this idea. Nell Freudenberger was, as one of my Iowa classmates announced at a party that night, completely hot. (If you'd like to verify this for yourself, she has appeared in recent issues of both Vogue and Elle -- go on, get to the newsstand.) A bunch of us were sitting on someone's back porch, drinking beer, and the other males present (of course everyone I knew subscribed to the New Yorker, and of course everyone had anxiously consumed that particular issue) concurred. A debate about the story's merits ensued; most people had, apparently, been less impressed by Freudenberger's writing than by her appearance. Naturally, there were cracks about her insider status as an employee of the New Yorker. Which is all to say that the conversation wasn't particularly flattering to Freudenberger, but still -- the assumption was that she warranted conversation. (Among the other debut writers in that New Yorker was Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel "Everything Is Illuminated" would come out the next year, but I don't remember any real talk about him.)

And yet I think I didn't truly understand the Freudenberger phenomenon until a woman at the party, a woman whom I thought of as gorgeous and brilliant and poised and intimidating, said she had gone to Harvard with Freudenberger and that Freudenberger was, basically, gorgeous and brilliant and poised and intimidating. Of everyone she knew, this woman said, it was utterly unsurprising that Nell Freudenberger should be the one to have a story in the New Yorker.

Probably that night, on the porch, some of us already hated Freudenberger. And yet, remarkably, this was before the things started happening that really made her hateful, or at least it was before all of them happened and certainly before news of them made their way out to us in Iowa. This is what occurred next: Amanda "Binky" Urban became Freudenberger's agent; a bidding war broke out, on the basis of that single story, for an as-yet-unwritten book by Freudenberger; she was offered a reported $500,000; she turned down the reported $500,000 and instead took a reported $100,000 in order to work with Daniel Halpern at Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. (Meaning she was, like, virtuous and un-greedy on top of everything else -- it was sickening!)

For a week or so, over e-mail or when we ran into each other in town, I exchanged Freudenberger tidbits with people who'd been at the party. (It was summer in Iowa. What else were we supposed to discuss?) And, apparently, Freudenberger gossip -- that is, schadenfreudenberger -- was not restricted to bored Midwestern MFA graduates: According to my friend J., a writer in New York who'd see Freudenberger at parties, "There was all this whispering, like, 'She hasn't even written it yet; she has no idea how difficult it is to write a whole book.'" Freudenberger's party persona, which according to J. was one of refined reserve, only perpetuated notions of her as charmed and undeserving. "She's just one of those people who always make me feel loud and drunk," says J.

Truthfully, among the people I know, the schadenfreudenberger tapered off pretty soon after her story appeared in the New Yorker, and I haven't heard a lot in the two years since. But on the occasions when her name is mentioned, it's guaranteed -- if at least one of the two or more people present is from either the MFA circuit or the New York media universe, someone will be compelled to announce, loudly and violently, "I hate Nell Freudenberger!"

And while my friends and I may have gotten distracted in the past two years, others have remained more vigilant -- a Web site called "The Complete Review" closely monitors Freudenberger's in-print activity and even features a play about her ascension titled "Whoa Nelly!" (A sample line, referring to her New Yorker photo: "I must say I do like the aluminum-foil skirt.") The site is, apparently, providing a much-needed service. As reported in an October 2002 entry, "Visitors to this Literary Saloon seem particularly curious about Nell Freudenberger -- 'Nell' and 'Freudenberger' remain (ridiculously) the two most popular search engine request terms that lead users here -- ahead of even 'literary' and 'saloon.'"

Now -- as of this week -- Freudenberger's collection, titled "Lucky Girls" after the story that appeared in the New Yorker, is finally out, and the mainstream media is working itself into a similar lather. In addition to her appearances in Vogue and Elle, Entertainment Weekly has declared her "the summer's hottest young writer." (Hotter, presumably, than Tom Clancy who also has a new book out but has not yet appeared in E.W., as Freudenberger did, sitting on the floor against the wall, hair falling over one eye, next to a bowl of cherries.)

None of which makes hating Nell Freudenberger fair. It isn't fair. Most of the circumstances leading to the hatred happened through no fault of Freudenberger herself -- which is exactly the problem. As my friend R., a writer living outside Buffalo, wrote in a recent e-mail, "It just seems to have happened for Nell's career -- sitting at the desk, playing assistant, and then, oh? This old thing? This little story I wrote on a whim? And $500,000 worth of dominoes start falling into place." As J. puts it, "She didn't do what you're supposed to do -- she sat in 4 Times Square until [then New Yorker fiction editor] Bill Buford came to her."

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that four factors could lead to one young writer's becoming the object of other young writers' loathing. Let's say these factors are that the writer in question is thought to be attractive, thought not to have paid her dues, known to have gone to Harvard (horrors!), and believed to be without talent. The bad news for Freudenberger is that she represents the overlap of all these factors, thereby becoming emblematic to other 20-something aspiring literati of all that's unfair and demoralizing about publishing. It's not any single thing -- after all, I know several people who have gotten book deals comparable to the larger one Freudenberger supposedly turned down, and they don't elicit the contempt she does -- but rather it's everything. And, largely because of age (Freudenberger and I both graduated from college in 1997), she seems overly accessible; she's not different enough from the rest of us to be enjoying such different circumstances. To put it another way: I've never looked at Jonathan Franzen and thought, But that should be me!

The problem is, Freudenberger actually doesn't represent the overlap of the four hate-inviting factors; the exception is the last and most significant one. She's not without talent. In fact, her new collection is really good. The five stories are well-written, well-plotted, intelligent and surprising.

Believe me: I didn't want it to be this way. I came to the book eager to uncover its most damning aspects. For instance, the title -- didn't it cry out to be incorporated into headlines in a mocking comment on Freudenberger herself? For God's sake, it was like calling a really wretched novel "The Big Disaster." And how about allowing just five stories to constitute an entire collection? Wasn't that a bit thin?

I was pleased when, on Page 8, an older man says to the young American woman who is the first story's protagonist, "You're extremely pretty." Aha! I thought, licking my chops. This will be the kind of fiction where other characters are constantly telling the disingenuously self-effacing main character, clearly a stand-in for the author, how alluring she is. (Such fiction is only slightly less odious than fiction in which other characters are constantly telling the disingenuously self-effacing main character, clearly a stand-in for the author, how witty she is -- especially when there's nary a funny remark to be found.) But the older man's remark in the story is offset both by the thrill it gives the protagonist, who is unaccustomed to such compliments, and by the protagonist's own apparently ingenuous admission that she is, in fact, not extremely pretty.

I still wasn't won over, though. The stories are set occasionally in the United States but more often in India and Asia (both Thailand and Vietnam), and in the margins of Page 21, I noted that Nell Freudenberger was probably the kind of person who had, during college, returned from a year abroad pretending not to remember the English words for things. But then something happened. It started happening in the second story, as the evocative details and vivid images and casually realistic lines of dialogue accumulated -- I think it was somewhere soon after the description of "orange and white carp [gliding] just under the green surface, like pale, fat feet floating in a lake" -- and I found myself spending less time trying to be appalled and more time just, well, reading.

It was on Page 80 that Freudenberger got me, with a sentence uttered by a woman who is grievously depressed: "I thought of going to bed, but what I really wanted was to be inside the bed -- inside the mattress, where it was warm and dense and silent, with the stuffing packed around my arms and legs." What got me about the sentence was both how weird it was -- weird in a sincere rather than quirky way -- and how understandable. And I am pretty sure that's the point of reading fiction -- so someone else can say in a way you never would have something you recognize immediately.

The publisher's press release I received accompanying the book describes Freudenberger's work as "exquisite." In some ways, though only bad ones, it is kind of exquisite: Her characters are the type of people who write poetry and use actual leaves and a strainer to make tea. What I ultimately admired about the book was not its precious moments, however, but its oddness and unpredictability, its willingness -- Freudenberger's willingness -- to make the stories messier in a way that also makes them more real. There are many moments of drama that are built up to and then don't happen, even when, at least initially, the characters believe they have. A father reminisces poignantly about his daughter as a 7-year-old, but instead of letting that section end in an achingly beautiful way, a way that would be truer to fiction than to life, the narrator reveals that she thinks her father's memory is inaccurate. In another story, an American girl living in Bombay tries to seduce her Indian tutor by dancing in front of him -- but, though the girl is attractive, "she was not a good dancer." The dialogue, which does an especially nice job capturing the cadence of both teenagers and close family members, features people saying things such as, "I'm sorry I'm all gross from tennis," and, "Scallops are weird. Do they even have heads?" The beauty of such lines is that they're not, thank God, exquisite.

The stories are thematically linked -- in addition to travel, they touch repeatedly on absent mothers, adolescent sexual initiation, and writing itself -- but they're not heavy-handedly so. There is something patient about Freudenberger's writing, a gradual build-up to the important moments so they really feel important. Or, in the writing workshop lingo that is both cringe-inducing and hard not to use, they feel "earned": "He looked at me directly, with a sudden focused intensity. It was a quality of attention I hadn't experienced before, an ability he had to suggest that everything that had gone before had led to this precise moment."

Both the individual characters, especially the stories' protagonists, and the stories themselves, possess an unusual knowingness. In many cases, the characters possess a kind of double awareness -- they know what they know, and they also know enough to try to protect others from their knowledge. When a child sees a deformed man in a slum in India, "I looked quickly at my shoes, to reassure whichever adult I was with that I hadn't seen [him]." Eventually, the double knowingness becomes a triple knowingness -- the final story, told by a teenage girl, concerns a famous writer and blithely mentions, in a discussion of the famous writer's work, the presence of "the one weird detail that makes you know it's real" as well as the commonplace assumption that the author and his or her characters are more or less the same person.

In these moments, it is hard not to think of Freudenberger herself, and, simultaneously, it's hard to locate where exactly she comes down on any given situation or idea. Which is not to say the writing is coy, more that it's admirably lacking in ego -- it's not an assertion of the writer's personality. I don't know, based on her writing, who Nell Freudenberger is, but the more I read her book, the more I saw that she was in control, that she had known all along what would happen. And I was forced to admit: Given the preponderance of characters who are young, female and privileged without necessarily being happy, "Lucky Girls" is exactly the right title for the book. And five stories, especially five longish ones, is exactly the right length. It's no secret that in collections with the more standard eight or 10 stories, three or four usually stink -- so why not preemptively cut the flab?

In Freudenberger's last story, the famous writer is revealed to be less than likable, and yet he is given what I thought (and I'm not particularly fond of fiction about writers) was the book's loveliest passage:

"For a few minutes after he'd finished [writing] a book, when he knew it was good but before anyone else had seen it, he felt no pressure to exist at all; the book existed for him. It was like being invisible in the silent woods, so strange a figure that someone passing on the trail above him would only with great difficulty focus on him and think: That is a man. Instead they would see a shadow or a storm-broken tree and move on ... He knew it wouldn't last, but for these few, charmed moments, looking at the frozen reservoir, Henry felt that things had been put in order; nothing could touch him; he was outside of everything, and at peace."

For me, this is it precisely -- Nell Freudenberger's book not only reminded me why I read, it also reminded me why I write. In my defense, I didn't love "Lucky Girls" (phew!), I didn't feel as though I needed it, but I did like it a lot.

So now that it seems I'm the newest member of the Nell Freudenberger fan club (you know, just me, Bill Buford, Binky Urban, and Daniel Halpern, hangin' out, shootin' the literary shit -- I suppose Richard Ford could be let in, too, as he gives Freudenberger a glowing blurb on the book cover), I'm not sure what's next. On the one hand, my congenital bitterness and envy feel unfocused, at loose ends. On the other hand, there are lots of MFA programs, conferences, literary magazines and anthologies, and every day they get filled by writers younger and cuter than I am. Plus, there's a lot of really bad fiction out there -- not just wish-it-was-bad fiction that's actually really good, but bad-bad fiction. Surely it's only a matter of time before I find someone new to detest.

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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