Release the Franzen

This week has been officially claimed in the name of Franzen. In case you hadn’t heard, he wrote a new Great American Novel, as has been talked about at exhausting length by journalists, bloggers, and other authors. On Tuesday, when his latest opus dropped, I ran out to buy it, partly out of obligation, partly out of curiosity, and mostly because I thought that even if it’s not brilliant, it’ll probably still be good. I started reading it on the subway ride home, and thought to myself after reading the first page, Damn you, media. This might actually live up to your crazy hype! I haven’t opened up the book since Tuesday, but its sitting on my coffee table, looking smug… and waiting.

Lev Grossman wrote a really great profile on Franzen in the now-famous Great American Novelist cover story. The article was written well enough to make me think that Franzen is like most other writers: socially awkward, reluctant to new technology, and is his own harshest critic. The underlying message of the article, of course (once you get past the heavy-handed bird metaphor), is that while Franzen is just a regular guy, he is a better writer than you will ever be. Ever. So why are you still trying?

Another story to come out of Franzen Mania Week that I found particularly important took a different approach in addressing the Franzen Is Our New Literary Master theory. Jason Pinter’s interview with commercial authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult spoke to a larger problem in what is considered “great,” at least commercially, which is that women writers are usually out of the running. While I didn’t agree with everything they claimed, I thought they made a valid point in saying writers like Nick Hornby and Carl Hiaasen, who write what I consider the equivalent of “dude lit,” are generally more respected, reviewed, and receive more media attention when their books are published. (This seems especially true in the case of Hornby; maybe because he’s British.) Women who write commercial fiction, meanwhile, are subtly denigrated by labels like “chick lit” and “beach reads.” In other words, books you wouldn’t mind seeing taken away by the tide. 

To me, the double standard in commercial fiction is blatant sexism and it degrades women by saying that if a large number of women buy something (hello, Elizabeth Gilbert), it must not be very serious or of high quality. Yet, while this occurs in the commercial world, how does it translate to literary writers? No one would call Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Mona Simpson “chick lit,” or try to downplay their abilities as serious writers. Even so, the literary world is still very much a boy’s club. Surprisingly, with my identification as both a feminist and a writer, I’m not too offended by this.

Would I love to see a pensive-looking Lorrie Moore on the cover of TIME with a Franzen-esque boastful headline? Of course. It is undoubtedly appalling that white men are still leading this fray. (Where’s Colson Whitehead, TIME!?) However, it makes sense to me that Franzen is being chosen as the natural successor to literary “lions” like Updike and Mailer. They’re just picking the next great white guy the same way the media used to call Denzel Washington the next Sidney Poitier, and not, say, the next Jimmy Stewart. This is one of those dumb realities that I’ve come to accept. The emphasis, obviously, is on the word dumb, but to me there’s no point in getting up in arms about it. Still, if anyone tries to call Toni Morrison’s next novel a “beach read,” I’m going to have to fight someone.

What Jonathan Franzen did more than simply writing what Mr. Bransford called a “blockbuster” is he got people talking about what it means to be successful. With great power comes great backlash. The Twitter account @EmperorFranzen and the hashtag #franzenfreude are evidence of the real Jonathan Franzen’s relevance. Personally, I’m just happy a literary writer is finally being hated and talked about as much as a commercial writer. (Take that, Dan Brown!)

Will Freedom change my life? Probably not. Will it change the way literary fiction is received by the masses? I’m going to say no. Will women ever get respect as writers without having to settle for gender-specific labels? Sigh… I’ll leave that one for another time.

Hope you all have a good Labor Day weekend. Anyone going to see what the Freedom buzz is about on your day off? Or maybe you’d like to pick up Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood instead… you’ll probably be going to the beach anyway, right?

16 thoughts on “Release the Franzen

  1. Long live Lorrie Moore! While her mug admittedly deserves to grace the covers of Vogue and Time, and many other glossies for that matter, maybe she's happy to about her (relative) obscurity. At least she can go about her business of writing damn fine books without having her nose hairs scrutinized by the masses… Somehow I feel like she would have said the same thing: nose hairs and all!


  2. It's true. I have recommended Middlesex to guy-friends and NOT mentioned that it was an Oprah selection so it wouldn't scare them off. Can't blame Franzen for the same.


  3. @Gregg With most literary writers, I overlook ego. If they have the talent to back it up, then it doesn't matter to me. Re: Oprah – he did scoff a little (which made me respect him more), but he never flat out refused to go on her show. The Almighty Oprah, however, took enough offense to his remarks and dis-invited him. (Oprah, by the way, is someone whom I cannot overlook ego.)


  4. Ditto, Jess. I've never met the man, but I've read enough about him to never want to line his pockets with any of my money. I can overlook ego for some artists–Ryan Adams, Kanye West, and James Cameron come to mind–but in Franzen's case, he simply wears too much of his greatness on his sleeve for my taste. I've never watched an episode of Oprah in my life, but turning up his nose at her selection of The Corrections was really all I needed to convince me NEVER to read anything this man writes.


  5. I’m thrilled that a literary book is FINALLY getting as much press and discussion as so much of the frivolous stuff that saturates our culture. Cannot wait to read FREEDOM!

    I’m also thrilled when women receive the honors they deserve. It makes me happy that Toni Morrison made the cover of TIME Magazine. I think Maya Angelou is fantastically brilliant. She’s won many high honors, been chosen as Poet Laureate, and is considered one of the most profound and influential voices of our time. Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for a book of short stories. J. K. Rowling, despite being a genre writer, received a tremendous amount of respect, became one of the richest people in the world, and has been officially knighted in France. Huzzah for rewarding both men and women who write brilliantly!


  6. Scratch that. Just read the Time article. I really want to read that book now. What hooked me was the statement at the end about how most literary books require a lot of work to get into, then you get to a payoff. How Freedom draws you in earlier. (Apparently.)


  7. I probably won't read it anytime soon. I'd need a friend to adore it first. It just looks like, exactly what you said, nothing that will change my life. 'Sides I'm reading Everything Is Illuminated at the moment, and I'm already going “I Can Haz Read Something Lite Now”?

    Interesting thoughts about the sexism. I agree. And it's a sad situation.


  8. I've had a love/hate relationship with Jonathan Franzen since reading The Corrections. It's one of the most creased and dog-eared novels on my bookshelf. But a glance at the back cover–“Genius.” “Marvelous…” “Astonishing.”–does tend to bring on a pretty profound feeling of personal failure.

    Jealousy aside, I’m happy to see such a terrific writer getting attention.


  9. Very thought-provoking. I think that the preponderance of men as Great American Novelists (TM) does speak to an inherent sexism in society. While a lot of strides have been made, it seems that, to many people, the “default” American perspective is still that of white, middle- to upper-middle-class males.

    When you ask, “Will women ever get respect as writers without having to settle for gender-specific labels?”, I think the answer lies in how willing the literary community will be to accept that a white, male perspective of a certain social class isn't “neutral”–that this perspective is unique.

    You can see this line of thinking in the way we classify our books. Whereas “A Catcher in the Rye” is often tagged in libraries under terms like, “adolescence,” books like “The Duff” also have the additional labels of, “teen girl” or “young woman,” which I think is based on how this book supposedly differs from the “standard” male template.

    And don't even get me started on labeling books as “African American Interest” or “Asian American Interest” just because the protag is a person of color.


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