In 1925, when Anita Loos (born on this day in 1889) published Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady, it was an instant best-seller—in fact, in 1926, it was the second-best-selling book of the entire year (unlike, say, The Great Gatsby, also published in 1925). It was also a critical darling, drawing appreciation from some of the best minds of the time. Edith Wharton called it “the Great American Novel (at last!).” Aldous Huxley wrote Loos a bashful note—”I have no excuse for writing to you . . . except that I was enraptured by the book”—expressing his admiration and asking to meet her. Even William Faulkner wrote to her after reading the novel, though his praise was decidedly mixed:
I have just read the Blonde book, Bill’s copy. So I galloped out and got myself one. Please accept my envious congratulations on Dorothy—the way you did her through the (intelligence?) of that elegant moron of a cornflower. Only you have played a rotten trick on your admiring public. How many of them, do you think, will ever know that Dorothy really has something, that the dancing man, le gigolo, was really somebody? My God, it’s charming—best hoax since Witter Binner’s Spectral School in verse—most of them will be completely unmoved—even your rather clumsy gags won’t get them—and the others will only find it slight and humorous. The Andersons even mentioned Ring Lardner in talking to me about it. But perhaps that was what you were after, and you have builded better than you knew: I am still rather Victorian in my prejudices regarding the intelligence of women, despite Elinor Wylie and Willa Cather and all the balance of them. But I wish I had thought of Dorothy first.
There’s a lot to unpack in there. First, Faulkner offers his “envious congratulations” of the character of Dorothy, as portrayed through the eyes of narrator Lorelei Lee. Then he congratulates himself for getting the joke, as he expects Loos’s “admiring public” does not. Then he works in a little insult, supposedly directed towards the Other Readers but also subtly directed towards Loos: “most of them will be completely unmoved—even your rather clumsy gags won’t get them—and the others will only find it slight and humorous.” Clumsy gags, eh? And a lack of skill in communicating with the audience to boot. Then he supposes she probably didn’t even know what she was doing—”you have builded better than you knew”—and admits, as if it’s somehow her fault, that he doesn’t think women are as intelligent as men, despite all the evidence. Cool! I do have to say that I’m struck by the elegance with which he snakes back and forth here, but I’m even more struck by the willful self-deception. At least he knows enough to be jealous.