Photo: Brian J. Green.

A profile of Helen DeWitt in New York magazine, which ran with a photo of her wielding a chain saw, said that, in the course of three days of interviews, “she used the word morons a lot.” Like her characters, DeWitt has an air of casual incivility that she says isn’t her fault. That she’s surrounded by idiots is more or less the plot. (From a short story on the sexual mores of Europeans: “Contact with grossly inferior minds leaves a smear of stupidity across brilliance.”) I’m not sure there is anyone writing now in English better at parceling out blame—namely, for preventing high-strung, well-educated women from enjoying the life of the mind.

So absolute is her scorn for the book industry she can’t keep her grouses out of her books. This crept forward with Some Trick: Thirteen Stories (2018) and continues in The English Understand Wool (New Directions), a sixty-one-page gripe wrapped in tissue and dressed up with a bow: Marguerite is a coolheaded seventeen-year-old ex-millionaire who knows how to live. (“Maman ordered a Pleyel from Paris because one wishes to play the pianoforte on the instrument preferred by Chopin.”) The crux of the book is she has to write a tell-all memoir about losing her fortune while her agent tries to exploit her—the nadir is a chapter on a faulty book contract. The rest is a treatise on connoisseurship: on how to spend money, on what, and where. (Her mother buys a beautiful bolt of fabric “to prevent it from falling into ignoble hands.”)

As far as I’m concerned, DeWitt can write whatever she wants, and it’s amusing to think of the terror her agent feels every time he sees the phrase “hotshot literary agent” in her books (always in quotes) or her editor’s dread every time she reads an interview (“Plato did not have an editor”). I didn’t want the book to end; I assume DeWitt finished it because she needed the money. (She talks about her money issues with some frequency: “I was making minimum payments on five credit cards, but my agent thought he could get a six-figure deal for a new book ‘bundled’ with the American reissue of my first book. . . .”)

You can buy her coffee on her website; seems like a few people do so each month.

Kaitlin Phillips is a publicist and writer in Manhattan.

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