“Okay, Mr. Shteyngart, can you please remove your pants?” Ever compliant, the Super Sad True Love Story author drops his designer jeans to reveal that he is wearing…what?
Does a certain contemporary Pushcart Prize-winner still wear Underoos? Does the latest Pulitzer-winner prefer the silkiness of Victoria’s Secret panties against his hairy nether regions?
Wouldn’t you like to know.
Recently the Financial Times and the New Yorker featured profiles of writers and their libraries, hoping to unlock some great secret about what book collections say about their curators. Voyeuristic bibliophilia at its geekiest. Yet we don’t learn anything new about writers: they own a lot of books; like to talk about books; think Chekov was a genius (fair enough); and feel like they haven’t read enough books.
So rather than invade writers’ libraries, why not launch a literary panty raid? Invasion of privacy issues aside, analyzing undergarments might reveal far more about our favorite writers and expose what kind of creative stuff they are made of. “Scandalous!” cries Oates. “Okay,” mumbles Roth, loosening his belt. “Undergarments?” queries Boyle.
Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, supposedly changed his underwear only once a year. Evidently his underwear became a type of protective second skin he was reluctant in shedding. And Jane Smiley writes in a robe—or perhaps even less. She’s rather vague about it.
Looking back, I imagine that Hemingway went commando or strapped on some sandpaper. Something rough and uncomfortable yet oddly liberating, the feeling of which helped him keep his prose economical. Tolstoy, too, probably free-balled it under his coarse peasant garb—a vain attempt to rid himself of impure sexual thoughts.
Other writers, however, must have required some type of confinement. Jean-Paul Sartre probably preferred Gauloises-singed tighty whities, something that undoubtedly irked Beauvoir’s more refined sensibilities. And I like to imagine Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf shielding a secretive sensual side, burying sexy lace buried under heavy woolen skirts. Much like their prose, both women harbored fiery passions beneath stoic veneers.
Or there’s the curious case of John Cheever. As a young and poorly paid writer, Cheever donned his only suit in the morning to commute to the building where he rented a room in which to write. Upon arriving, he would undress and carefully hang his suit. Then he would sit down and write. “A great many of my stories were written in boxer shorts,” Cheever wrote in1978.
Our contemporary literary giants should be as forthcoming about their unmentionables. What was Underworld written in, or IQ84? Given the massive girth of his latest tome, I imagine Murakami required something roomy and durable. Perhaps a simple pair of cotton Hanes boxers or, ideally, his awesome red running shorts.