It’s common to think of great writers as congenital loners -- the iconic isolated genius too egotistical or socially inept to have fulfilling personal relationships. If a writer does have a spouse or partner, we imagine they would choose someone wholly different from themselves, preferably someone entirely uninterested in writing so that the genius can work undisturbed.
Yet, as The Guardian observed in 2007, despite the competitiveness and jealousy that may arise when two writers fall in love, literary-minded people tend to be drawn to each other. Whether it’s two brilliant authors or an author and an insightful editor/advisor, astute literary minds have always found ways to each other, and these pairings aren’t always disastrous. In fact, sometimes these partnerships result in even greater artistic productivity.
These 13 couples, though not always personally stable or successful, likely produced even better work due to their unions:
Vladimir Nabokov and Véra Nabokov: Vladimir Nabokov’s classic works such as Lolita and Pale Fire have entranced generations of readers. While Lolita was met with considerable controversy for its “obscene” and “pornographic” content, Nabokov himself was quite straight-laced and conservative. He was married to Véra for over 50 years, and they were constantly together. Moreover, his wife was a brilliant woman whose significant contributions to his oeuvre are easy to overlook, but ultimately undeniable. She was his first reader, helping to polish and perfect the flawless prose for which Nabokov is famous. She conducted his negotiations with publishers. She occasionally filled in for him as a lecturer at Cornell during his tenure there. Above all, she was an ardent champion of his work, pushing him to publish Lolita rather than consign an early draft to an incinerator, as he threatened to do during a fit of frustration. Without Véra, Vladimir’s authorial career might have looked quite different, and possibly far less distinguished.
George Eliot and George Henry Lewes: George Eliot’s genius as a novelist has been firmly established over the past century and a half, but one person believed in her well before that -- her partner, George Henry Lewes. An accomplished author himself, Lewes worked as a philosopher and critic as well as publishing some fiction. However, Lewes was no egomaniac; despite his own literary career, he was happy to foster the authorial talents of his partner in a time when women's careers were rarely taken seriously. During the many years they lived together (they were never able to marry due to Lewes’s inability to obtain a divorce from his first wife), he encouraged her to write. She began to compose novels after their relationship began, and during their partnership she wrote such masterpieces as Middlemarch and Silas Marner. His own novels suffered by comparison, but he continued to have a robust career as a philosopher throughout their relationship. At that time, it surely took a very secure man to remain supportive as his literary fame was eclipsed by that of his female partner, but Lewes and Eliot managed to maintain a wonderful relationship that lasted until his death.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: F. Scott and Zelda’s famously tumultuous relationship dominates the public’s image of Zelda. While F. Scott is fondly remembered for The Great Gatsby and other novels, Zelda’s reputation rests on her struggles with mental illness. Their relationship was troubled by jealousy, bitter fights, and a shared wild lifestyle, but Zelda’s presence did more to fuel Fitzgerald’s writing than to smother it. He frequently lifted excerpts from Zelda’s diary (uncredited) to include in his fiction, and this casual plagiarism eventually led to a deep resentment on her part. However, her support was often valuable to his writing career. Despite festering anger about his theft of her work, she tacitly allowed his drawing on her writing for his celebrated books, insisted on the title The Great Gatsby over some of his dreadful other options (Trimalchio in West Egg?!), and defended his legacy after his early death. The same can’t be said of him, however; Fitzgerald was brutally critical of her novel, Save Me the Waltz, and forced her to rewrite it so he could use shared material in his book Tender Is the Night instead. Despite the volcanic and frequently destructive nature of their marriage, it remains one of the most remarkable literary unions in recent memory.
Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf: Like Lewes, Leonard Woolf was not merely the helpmeet of a brilliant partner. He might more accurately be described as a Renaissance man, dabbling skillfully in writing, editing, politics, and business throughout his life, though none of his work has been well remembered. Virginia’s talent was more concentrated and more uncommon; during their marriage she published modernist classics including To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. And while Leonard had his own fine career, he also sustained Virginia through an adulthood that included a bitter struggle with depression and mental illness, providing her with the stability she needed to continue working. The pair founded Hogarth Press, which published not only Virginia’s work but also books by T.S. Eliot and other associates. When Virginia tragically died by suicide, she left a heartwrenching note for Leonard that expresses the great strength she found in their marriage: “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good... I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne: Though Joan Didion’s star now shines brighter than that of her late husband, both halves of this famous marriage were great literary talents. Both distinguished themselves as novelists and essayists, as well as screenplay composers. Dunne once told The New York Times that he and Didion were each other’s “first reader, absolutely.'' After Dunne’s death, Didion wrote a memoir about her grieving process entitled The Year of Magical Thinking, which quickly attained classic status in the memoir genre and eloquently depicted a shared writing life that sustained both their careers. Didion writes of reading together, sharing honest criticism, and even writing down a note for his current project at dinner because he’d forgotten to bring his usual notecards. Of their complete lack of competitiveness and sense of shared purpose in marriage, she writes: “There was nothing I did not discuss with John... I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted.”
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: Both were giants in the world of letters, particularly philosophy, and their highly unconventional partnership spanned decades. The later part of their relationship was not sexual and both engaged in many other affairs, yet they maintained a romantic bond that centered around an intellectual and emotional intimacy unmatched by any of their other liaisons. They told each other everything about their other flings -- often in contemptuous and dismissive language -- and developed a pattern of sharing lovers, as Beauvoir began seducing her teenage students and then passing them along to Sartre. Their relationship was often seemingly held together by the cruel, even predatory way they treated other intimates. However, personal faults aside, both published seminal works of philosophy and fiction and shared an intellectually stimulating partnership throughout most of their lives. It’s hard to think of a more equally imposing literary couple than Sartre and Beauvoir.
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley: Percy and Mary’s marriage was not always stable, but their staunch support of each other’s writing was crucial to both of their accomplishments and enduring prestige. Mary’s most famous work, Frankenstein, was conceived of and largely written while the Shelleys were summering in Geneva with Lord Byron and a party of friends. Her story of a patched-together, reanimated corpse was thought up in response to a challenge from Byron that each member of the party write their own ghost story, and Percy encouraged her to expand Frankenstein into a full novel, and also offered editorial feedback. Wrote Mary in later years, “But for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world." After Percy’s early death, Mary promoted his reputation as a poet; she maintained a vibrant writing career and frequently cited his poetry in her own work, and, in addition, edited it and pushed for its publication.
Stephen King and Tabitha King: Stephen and Tabitha are a literary power couple with a literary power family. The King family is bursting at the seams with successful writers; both of their sons have also published books. The Kings have been married since 1971, and both have published multiple novels. Though Stephen King’s reputation and output has far exceeded his wife’s, her nine novels also garnered positive attention. Moreover, Tabitha has played the often unsung but invaluable role of the supportive spouse. When Stephen first began writing his breakout hit Carrie, he felt he couldn’t write convincingly from a girl’s perspective and threw out the first pages he’d drafted. Tabitha urged him to keep trying, aiding him throughout the process of getting inside the mind of a woman. Without her insight, Stephen’s glorious career as a horror writer might never have taken off.
Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss: The marriage of these all-star novelists inspires jealousy amongst the literati -- and curiosity. These two prefer to keep the details of their union under wraps, but we do know that they live together in Brooklyn, have two children, and publish finely crafted, critically acclaimed, and commercially successful novels. Is there anything they DON’T have going for them? The pair married in 2004, in between the publications of each writer’s first and second novels. Though they rarely speak publicly about their relationship or how much they rely on each other during the writing process, there is a family resemblance between their books that suggests a mutual influence.
Zadie Smith and Nick Laird: Zadie Smith’s husband has said he “discovered” her, as they met when Nick Laird read and admired her submission for a short story anthology he was editing. Both were in their second year at Cambridge, and they became close friends and, several years later, a couple. The two are now married and have two children. Though she rocketed to literary fame in her 20s, early in their friendship they competed for the same writing prize and were a part of the same crowd of budding student authors, and Laird edited her breakout debut White Teeth. Now Laird may seem to struggle with being in Smith’s shadow, but he’s emerged as a talented novelist and prize-winning poet in his own right. And while being married to such a celebrity can’t always be easy, he and Smith have made it work splendidly, supporting and editing each other’s writing as well as occasionally collaborating. With two such talents pulling for each other, it’s not surprising to see that each has continued to blossom as a writer.
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman: These two prolific writers have no particular reticence about sharing their personal lives with the public. Both have written books detailing their parenting experiences, and Waldman has stirred up controversy by asserting that she loves her husband more than she loves their children. In her Modern Love column making this claim, Waldman describes the couple as “desperately, ardently in love.” The couple has four children and co-parent equally, but both also have vibrant writing careers. Chabon is famous for his literary fiction, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Telegraph Avenue, while Waldman has written lighter mystery fare as well as several more literary novels. With Waldman’s Love and Treasure, a novel centered around the looting of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, recently released, the Chabon-Waldman juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down.
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky: Allen Ginsberg, a celebrated poet and leading member of the Beat Generation, met Peter Orlovsky in 1954. The two fell in love and remained partners until Ginsberg’s death in 1997. Ginsberg rose to fame in the mid-’50s with the publication of his seminal work “Howl,” a poem deemed obscene at the time due to its rough language but also celebrated by critics for its virtuosity. Meanwhile, Ginsberg urged Orlovsky, who had considered himself a poet, to begin writing. While he never became a literary powerhouse on the level of Ginsberg, he went on to publish his work and receive grant money for his poetry projects. These two writers were central to the Beat movement that altered the course of American literature. Their sometimes-rocky relationship was open to allow affairs with other men and women, but their bond to each other held through over 40 years of what both considered to be a “marriage.”
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Olivia Clemens: Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens, met Olivia Langdon in 1867. Very early in their courtship, Clemens escorted Langdon to a reading by Charles Dickens, setting an appropriately bookish tone for the rest of their relationship. They married in 1870, and Olivia Clemens became her husband’s editor, assisting him with finishing his books and articles. Though frail and frequently in ill health, Olivia was well-educated and intelligent, making her an ideal spouse for a prominent author. She also offered a strongly moral and female viewpoint, influencing Clemens to tone down the irreverence of his work and add a dash of seriousness and delicacy to his later writing. Her edits contributed to his post-marriage oeuvre garnering even more respect and acclaim, and she continued to give feedback on his work until her death in 1904.