Will “Vera” Be the Literary World’s “Normcore”?

A good way to get your work noticed in the era of the hashtag is to attach a sticky name to something in hopes of keeping the conversation going. You don’t necessarily have to have a strong idea attached to it, so as long as you have something people can causally drop in their conversation. One example would be “normcore,” a term made popular by Fiona Duncan at The Cut this past February. Meant to describe cool kids who dressed like “middle-aged, middle-American tourists,” the term has gotten so popular (New York Times-trend-piece popular), that people are using it to describe anything and everything that falls short of Comme des Garçons.

Everybody wants a normcore, and the latest attempt at making a term happen came yesterday at The Atlantic, when Koa Beck tried to make “Vera” a thing. Beck mentions the late Vera Nabokov’s name about 50 times in her piece, “The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse” — a Vera being a person who supports a writer on their writerly quest. The argument Beck tries to make left me thinking that it was written in hopes that we’d all read the piece and casually use the sticky name when feeling too overworked, e.g., “Sheesh, I sure could use a Vera right about now.”

“But not all gifted writers are blessed with Veras,” Beck writes, noting that spouses like Vera are a rarity. Yet what we get out of the article, and what Jennifer Weiner actually tells us, is that a lot of writers just really long for an assistant, and that it can be really difficult — married or not — to “do it all” and still create good writing. Beck also uses the example of Emma Straub and her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub, of who the author of the forthcoming novel The Vacationers says: “My husband does so much for me that I would be embarrassed to offer a list in fear that you would think me unable to tie my own shoes.” Whether or not the piece aimed to make this point, all the evidence supplied throughout seems to suggest that writers can’t do anything without the help of a Vera; if writers don’t have somebody helping them live their lives, then writers can’t write. Something that I’m not sure is really the case.

The other question is how gender plays into the Vera phenomenon. Does it matter whether this person is a man or a woman? The piece is prefaced with the observation that “[t]he rarity of spouses like Vladimir Nabokov’s, who dedicated her life to supporting his career, may be hindering gender parity in literature.” Although the example of Lorrie Moore as the divorced single mother who also happens to be a popular writer and college professor who could probably have any number of eager students as her assistant is used, gender parity isn’t the issue; it’s more that some writers can’t do all of the work by themselves. While finances play a part in it, Beck is more focused on the Vera as an “enviable asset.” Partners who will have more a hand cleaning up, paying the bills, and other household tasks that we’re made to believe will disrupt the creative flow so greatly that writers just won’t be able to manage without a Vera. Beck makes it clear that spouses, publicists, personal assistants, and anybody else who does the work that writers shouldn’t dare be bothered with all qualify for the Vera label.

Time will tell whether Beck’s attempt at making the term “Vera” a stand-in for support labor of all kinds is successful. You don’t marry a Vera, you gain a Vera. You don’t hire a struggling writer to do all your grunt work, you find a Vera. Essentially, what Beck is doing is twinning the American Dream: the dream of paying somebody to do the work you don’t want to do and, in Beck’s case, the dream of creating something all your own — a buzzword.