In Praise of Strong Women: The Expert

Behind every great man—or miles ahead of him—is a great woman. Here, six celebrated writers talk about the powerhouses they’ve known and (sometimes cautiously) loved

By Walter Kirn
Photograph: Geof Kern

I WAS 26 WHEN I STARTED studying her, peering into her office from my cubicle at the magazine where we worked. She must have been in her forties at the time, with lavish red hair and freckled Irish skin and a pair of reading glasses on a chain. The glasses sat on the tip of her nose as she scanned the first drafts of stories she was editing. Sometimes the writers of the stories stood over her, anxious to know her thoughts about their work. Finally, in a soft voice, she’d offer her verdict. “It needs a little . . . Oh, I don’t know. More darkness.” Or maybe she’d say, “It’s thin here in the middle.” They were like that, her comments—brief, impressionistic—and they were also, invariably, perfect. That’s why she intimidated writers. And why they loved her. All that interested her was the truth about their words.


From Pat, whom I’ve known for almost 25 years now, I’ve learned that a gentle, measured manner joined with uncompromising, unerring taste can be a terrifying combination. I’ve watched her silence world-class egomaniacs at stuffy Manhattan dinner parties with a softly uttered “I’m not convinced.” I’ve also been on the receiving end of her minimalist criticisms, whose impact is somehow related to their mildness. Once, as a way of angling for a compliment, I asked her if she’d read a book I’d written, and all she said in response was, “Did I? Yes, I did.” She didn’t mean to be hurtful—she was sparing me lethal criticism—but I was quietly devastated. Because I agreed with her: The book was lousy. Years later, I mentioned another book I’d written, and Pat said merely, “I liked it quite a lot.” This would have been muted praise coming from most people, but from her it was like a serenade.


We live in a loud, chaotic, bombastic time. People who express themselves subtly are rare. People who holler and pound their fists are not. That’s why Pat is so important to me, even though I find her slightly spooky. She reminds me that understatement, truthful understatement, delivered with tact, will always have the last word.

 

Click here to read Junot Diaz’s essay on a strong woman in his life he admires.

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First Published April 25, 2011

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