A marriage annoucement in today’s New York Times caught my eye: between Kathleen Rubenstein, 22, and Hays Golden, 23, who met at the University of Colorado. After trumpeting the impressive pedigree of the bride’s parents—the dad is the strategic-planner and fund-raiser for an autism society and the mother is the founder/CEO of her own management-consulting firm—the Times briskly identifies the bridegroom’s father, Arthur Golden, as “a freelance writer and the author of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (Knopf, 1997)” and then expends five-times as much ink on the credentials of a cousin of the bridegroom’s father, Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and the brother of the bridegroom, Michael Golden, Times vice honcho.
Now I’m not ragging on the paper for covering what is essentially a Times family affair, but for its description of the bridegroom’s dad as, first, “a freelance writer.” Was that phrase necessary at all? Wouldn’t it simply be sufficient—and far more informative—to identify Arthur Golden straight out as the author of Memoirs of a Geisha, a brilliant, bestselling first novel, for which Golden received oodles of well-deserved praise for beautifully and empathetically telling the story of a Kyoto geisha in the 1930s from the woman’s point of view.
Maybe someone at the Times felt it important to say “freelance writer” to forestall any impression—since the novel was published ten years ago—that Golden has been sitting around in a kimona fussing over tea ceremonies and sipping sake.
Writers like me bristle at the description “freelance” because it sounds like a synonym for “had a four-paragraph piece published in a minor airline magazine seven years ago.” For that matter, if someone I just met in a coffee shop asked me what I did and I replied that I’m a writer, the next question would inevitably be, “Have you published anything?” But to say off the bat, “I’m a published writer,” would sound too defensive or, alternatively, too snobby, as if I’m distinguishing myself from the other caffeneited scribblers around me who are struggling to get published.
Such is the writer’s ambiguous lot. If I said I was a doctor, my questioner might imagine that I owned a stethoscope and listened to congested people’s chests—she wouldn’t ask me if I had ever examined a patient. If I said I was a gardener, she wouldn’t wonder if I had ever pruned a hedge.