In June 2017, while Americans were furiously debating former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill, the writer and critic Francine Prose offered a staid, almost schoolteacherly response to the hearing. In the New York Review of Books, she presented a close textual analysis of Comey’s testimony and his exchanges with the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dissecting word choices and rhetorical tics. What did he mean by the word honest, what did former president Donald Trump mean by the word loyalty, and why exactly did Republican senators repeatedly assert that Trump was “not under investigation”?
At times, Prose wrote, the hearing served as a reminder that politicians could still “speak in complete sentences” and “strive for linguistic and moral clarity.” At other times, it reflected what she described as an “impoverished and debased public discourse: cryptic, incoherent, evasive, designed to prevaricate.”
Prose’s interest in the uses and misuses of language, both political and literary, drives her forthcoming novel, The Vixen (Harper, June). In it, she asks, how can language be used to reveal truth, how can it be used to obfuscate, and how can we—readers, citizens—parse the difference?
Over the course of her nearly 50-year career, Prose has emerged as a kind of guardian angel of the written word. (Like Usain Bolt and Anthony Weiner, she was born with a last name that practically spelled out her professional destiny.) A distinguished writer in residence at Bard, she is also a former president of the PEN American Center, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the author of more than 30 works of fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and criticism, including Reading Like a Writer, her now-classic primer on literary analysis.
Speaking via Zoom from her home in Upstate New York, Prose says she wrote The Vixen as a way of thinking through the “horrible polarization of our era, the threats to free speech from everywhere,” and Americans’ sense of being persistently “lied to.”
The Vixen takes place in the 1950s and centers on a recent Harvard graduate named Simon Putnam who, thanks to a well-connected relative, lands a job at a prestigious book publisher called Landry, Landry and Bartlett. Simon, born to a working-class Jewish family on Coney Island, feels out of place at the company, where the people highest on the totem pole tend to be “Protestant and rich.” But, with his Gentile last name and WASP-y good looks, he manages to blend in, and he labors in the hope of one day entering his superiors’ ranks.
Simon’s sense of alienation is also political. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have just been executed, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy is still conducting his anti-Communist reign of terror. Simon takes umbrage at the treatment of the Rosenbergs—in large part out of sympathy for his mother, who went to school with Ethel and who believes “McCarthy is the devil.” But he understands that, given the paranoid climate, one word of even mild skepticism about the Rosenbergs’ guilt could spell his doom.
Simon’s political loyalties are soon put to the test when his boss, Warren Landry, gives him his first book to edit. The novel, titled The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, is plainly a work of propagandistic trash. Written by a mysterious debut author named Anya Partridge, it depicts Ethel Rosenberg as a scheming, traitorous nymphomaniac. Warren concedes that the book is bad, but he hopes that, given its topicality and sensationalism, it will sell well and shore up the house’s ailing finances. Simon senses that his job, and by extension his career, will hinge on his ability to shepherd the book to readers with its terrible prose polished but its odious politics intact.
Prose has long been in interested in the ways history can be distorted. Her novella collection Guided Tours of Hell, for example, touches on how the Holocaust has been commodified. “Turning historical tragedy into something kitschy—I’ve thought about that a lot,” she says.
In a sense, The Vixen is of a piece with Prose’s time-hopping, peripatetic oeuvre. To review her bibliography is to undergo a kind of geographic, temporal, and perspectival whiplash. She’s written about a rabbi in 17th-century Poland (in Judah the Pious), a creative writing professor navigating contemporary sexual politics (in the National Book Award–finalist Blue Angel), and a female race-car driver who collaborates with the Nazis (in Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932).
In another sense, though, The Vixen is Prose’s most autobiographical novel. Like Simon, she was born in Brooklyn and attended Harvard. And, like Simon’s mother, hers knew Ethel Rosenberg.
“They graduated from Seward Park High School together, so I would hear about her,” Prose explains. “And I’m old enough to remember her execution. It was a big thing in our house. It was always in the back of my mind.”
Given how upset her parents were by the Rosenbergs’ executions, Prose was wary, she says, of centering a novel on the case. “In a way, I had to write about something that was exploiting it to feel that I wasn’t exploiting it,” she adds.
Prose litters The Vixen with passages from the novel Simon is editing, showcasing the exploitation at hand. In one excerpt, Esther—as the Ethel stand-in is called—wraps her arms around the bars of her prison cell “like the serpent in the Garden of Eden” and flaunts her “ample, shapely breasts.” Prose also leaned on her own experiences in publishing to inform Simon’s.
“The most directly drawn-from-life incident in the novel is when Simon goes out with his uncle to lunch and he drinks too much,” Prose says. “That happened to me. My editor, Harry Ford, took me out to a restaurant. I wasn’t a drinker. I ordered a whiskey sour and we split a bottle of wine. And then I fell over.”
As Simon tries to refine the novel—largely by deepening Esther’s character in a bid to do Ethel a kind of justice—complications accumulate. He falls in love with the novel’s erratic author and eventually discovers that Warren’s motives for publishing the book aren’t strictly commercial: Landry, Landry and Bartlett isn’t the only institution that stands to benefit from the release of an anticommunist bodice ripper.
Prose sees resemblances between Simon’s era and our own, with their shared partisan mistrust, divisive misinformation, and scapegoating. Being in a time similar to the McCarthy years is partly what enabled her to write about them. “Here we are, and there we were,” she says. “The fact that the Rosenbergs were being executed and it wasn’t entirely proven what they’d done—that they were just being executed as some example of what could happen to you if you did a certain thing—was horrifying for people. I think that the cascade of horrors wasn’t as fast and intense as it has been in the last few years. Horrors had a kind of resonance that they’ve lost, because now we’re on a kind of 24-hour horror cycle.”
Like Prose’s essay on the Comey hearing for NYRB, The Vixen makes an implicit argument for good writing, and even good editing, as a form of political defiance. As Simon revises Anya’s novel, he begins to see his clandestine editorial effort as “my protest, my low-key revenge, my barely visible act of resistance.”
At the same time, Simon comes to realize that writing, whether it seeks to reveal the truth or distort it, is ultimately a method of persuasion with a single rhetorical toolset. In a climactic moment, one character tells Simon that the most effective political lies are the ones that make use of a memorable “detail”—that shibboleth of the creative writing workshop.
“One of the things you think about when you’re writing fiction is, how do you make things believable?” Prose says. Peddlers of political misinformation ask themselves the same question.
By giving her own novel the same title as the salacious one Simon is editing, Prose forces the reader to consider the fine dividing line between literature and propaganda. She also illuminates the dangers inherent in writing both—in writing, period. After all, the fate-sealing charge against Ethel Rosenberg was that she’d typed up some notes for her brother.
As one character in the novel puts it, “How bizarre, that typing can get you in so much trouble.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.