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Franzen vs The Universe

Over the last several weeks, the “commercial women’s fiction” authors (note I am careful to avoid the dangerous term “chick lit”) Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have made internet names for themselves by complaining bitterly about the double glowing reviews in the New York Times for Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom.  The novel is the far-and-away the most-hyped book of the season – Franzen’s long-awaited follow up to his bestselling, 2001 National Book Award-winning, Oprah Book Club selection, The Corrections.  (***I would like to be the first to point out that I believe the upcoming Oprah pick – to be announced September 17th – will be Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  You heard it here first – I’m callin’ it.***)  Picoult kicked off the hate with her tweet: “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”  Ms. Weiner followed by labeling the love fest over Freedom “Franzenfreude” which she defines as “taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.”  In actuality, it translates to “Franzen joy” but that’s neither here nor there.

Last month, Time magazine did a cover story on Franzen – their first on a living author in nearly a decade – and the reviews in the Times followed soon after.  Notorious hater, Michiko Kakutani (whom Franzen has called “the stupidest person in New York”) called its prose “visceral,” “lapidary,” and “galvanic” and referred to it as “an indelible portrait of our times.”  NYT book editor Sam Tanenhaus wrote an even more embarrassingly gushing review, equating Franzen to Dickens, Tolstoy, Bellow, & Thomas Mann.  Really?

It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.

Put it back in your pants, Tanenhaus.

For the record, I have never claimed to be a fan of Jonathan Franzen.  I have not read The Corrections, partly because of the disgusting effusiveness of other 2002-era booksellers and also because I had no desire to read a 600-page novel about a dysfunctional family.  I had some mixed feelings about his spat with Oprah during that time period, although, honestly, that was mostly a one-sided spat on the part of O.  (After being selected for Her Book Club, he said in an interview that She had made some “schmaltzy” picks in the past, which was true, and She took affront & yanked Her endorsement.)  I kind of admired him for speaking his mind, rather than just kowtowing – especially after he won the NBA despite his Oprah-troubles.

However, as of right this minute, I am several hundred pages deep into his new book – a novel about, well, a dysfunctional family.  Maybe I’m a different reader than I was a decade ago when Franzen’s last book was published or perhaps I just wanted to read the book that was getting a huge amount of industry buzz even 6 months ago.  Maybe Freedom was what I needed after 117 Days of JPatt.

So I began reading this thing in the midst of the storm of tweets and hashtags concerning the Times’ handling of their heaps of praise.  Franzen may be a bit of a douche whose foot constantly resides inside his mouth, but his body of work seems to deserve neither the insanely glowing praise it has received, nor the unequivocal bashing hatred directed at both it and it’s creator.  It’s good, but I would be hesitant to put it above many, many other books I have read by some of his contemporaries.

Weiner & Picoult have directed their ire mostly at the fact that the Times reviewed Freedom twice in the week before its publication date – in and of itself not an entirely unusual practice for the paper.  Picoult has complained that “for every Danticat/Diaz review (in the NYT), there are ten Lethems and Franzens!”  This is a “fact” I have a hard time accepting.  (For the record, Lethem’s latest, Chronic City, was panned pretty hard by Kakutani last year.  I believe the word she used was “lame.”)  I hate to steal another man’s research, but this comment was left by “Jon from Brooklyn” on The NYTpicker’s story on the subject (which caused a massive reaction from Picoult) and I can’t see a better way of putting things:

The 10 authors who were given “Best Book” by the NYTimes the last two years are: Steven Millhauser, Toni Morrison, Joseph O’Neill, Roberto Bolano, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, Jeannette Walls, and Kate Walbert. That’s 6 women (4 white, 1 african-american, 1 indian-american), 3 white guys, and 1 latino author. Lorrie Moore and Jeannette Walls were both double-reviewed.

So is there really the over-arcing gender bias at the Times that Weiner and Picoult are talking about?  I believe they have made a valid point, even if they are not the ideal messengers of that point, since the level of praise referred to does seem to be reserved exclusively for male authors.  (I hesitate to say “white male authors” because the critical praise for Roberto Bolano and Pulitzer-winner, Junot Diaz is equally heavy, despite their Latin flavor.)  There is, however, a distinct tone of abject bitterness in both of their comments and tweets: “Why not me?!” they seem to screech.  How is this comment by Weiner to the Huffington Post’s Jason Pinter not sour grapes:

Super Sad True Love Story sold just shy of five thousand copies its first week in release, even after two very positive reviews, a magazine Q and A and the publication of Shteyngart’s essay on the perils of technology. I think that comes out to something like one copy sold for every word the Times lavished on him.

Just because a book isn’t as commercially successful as a Jennifer Weiner novel doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve critical praise.  She seems to be living in an alternate reality here – I can maybe forgive the Lethem barb, but by dragging poor little Gary into it, she has earned my eternal hatred.

The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction – and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author. I’m not commenting on one specific critic or even on my own reviews (which are few and far between because I write commercial fiction).  (Jodi Picoult)

Both, to me, come off as bitter for not having heaps of their own praise from the Times over the years.  Why does “commercial” fiction (whatever that is) deserve or need to be reviewed?  What if the reviews were all bad?  Would that be better?  Weiner’s last review (and the only one I could find at all) came last summer in the form of a communal “Girls of Summer” bit by Janet Maslin where her book was one of 11 discussed and didn’t make the accompanying photo.  Picoult’s last review was in 2008 when Maslin wrote “…not even the most cultish Picoult fans are likely to think Ms. Picoult broke a sweat while preparing “Change of Heart.”  And this telling tirade:

…she seems to have written her latest tear-jerker on authorial autopilot. When writers become this popular (Ms. Picoult’s books currently top both The New York Times’s hardcover and paperback best-seller lists), they can coast in ways not possible for the up-and-coming. The opportunity to be long-winded yet perfunctory, paradoxically daring yet formulaic, is available to only proven hit makers at the top of the heap.

That has to create a little bit of resentment.  And if in your own head you are a great writer of literary fiction (who has been unfairly labeled “chick lit” or “commercial”) then you will probably feel doubly slighted when Franzen comes along and writes a super-hyped novel about family relationships, just like you do.

But the point remains that the critical literary circles that the Times rolls in does tend to lean heavily on fiction written by male writers.  The “literary darlings” of our age seem to be almost exclusively male and it seems impossible that this is because women are not producing work on the same level.  (Like I said, perhaps Weiner and Picoult are not the best advocates for literary women’s fiction.)  Is there a critical gender bias amongst the literary critical journals in this country?  Or is it that they review what is literary & pass on reviewing what they consider “commercial?”  All literary authors tend to get reviewed by the New York Times – regardless of gender and despite what Jodi and Jenny say.  (Remember, Lorrie Moore and Jeannette Walls both received double NYT reviews for their last books, just like Franzen and Shteyngart.)  Because the critical establishment is excessively effusive over Franzen’s new book may just be because it is a great novel.  Weiner and Picoult have both admitted to not having read Freedom, so I cannot see how they can make such broad-sweeping judgments about the levels of praise it has received.  Perhaps it truly is “an indelible portrait of our times.”  How the F do you know without reading it for yourself?!  

So I say to you both, either go eat your sour grapes while lying on your bed made of money or write something worthy of being praised by the critics.

All of which brings me to a related note: it has been pointed out lately that I have not read a book in 2010 written by a woman.  In fact, the last book I read that was written by a female author was Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood which I read in August of 2009.  I am not proud of this fact and I have spent the last two weeks thinking about what is wrong with me as a well-read man that I do not read books written by women.  I don’t completely know yet.  Part of it, I honestly believe, is the packaging of novels written by women.  I know that this sounds like a cop out, but I think there is a great reveal to judging a book by its cover.  It may not be a conscious thing on my part, but I tend to glance past the covers with the soft focus and the wistful women and lonely, anonymous children on the covers.  I look at a lot of books every day and when asked straight-up to name a few “literary” female authors who currently have new books on the stacks, I draw a relative blank.  Is this because of their gender and my inherent gender bias?  Or is it because they are packaged like this:

Look at that Jane Smiley cover.  I would never pick that up on my own, even though I know for a fact that Smiley is considered one of the finest writers alive.

Lionel Shriver (who is a woman, by the way) wrote a brilliant essay on this subject for the UK’s Guardian last week. While she mentions that Jodi Picoult may not have the “literary standing” to complain about the Times’ handling of Franzen, she does point out that “publishers are complicit in ghettoising not only women writers but women readers into this implicitly lesser cultural tier” below the white male critical darlings like Franzen.  She shared her own experience:

Take the American reissue of my fourth novel Game Control – a wicked, nasty novel about a plot to kill two billion people overnight. The main character is a man, the focal subject demography. Yet what cover do I first get sent? A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels. Dismayed, I emailed back: “Did your designers read any of this book?” When I proposed a cover photo by Peter Beard of sagging elephant carcasses – perfectly apt – the sales department was horrified. Women would be repelled by dead animals. We settled on live elephants, but it was pulling teeth to get girls off that paperback.

So, I think it’s fair to blame the publishers, at least in part, for steering male readers like myself away from women authors.  That said, I have been trying to think of a way to alter my reading habits to include women writers.  It has been suggested that I read only women for one month, but this feels too gimmicky, like a 117 Days with estrogen pills.  I think this would just cheapen the experience and make it into a sideshow act to be enjoyed only until I revert to my normal reading programming.  Should I just try and work in those authors I have been meaning to read all along?  I have The Lacuna, Rivka Galchen, Elise Blackwell, and Lorrie Moore sitting on a shelf, ready to go, but have just not pulled the trigger for some reason.

I am going to start reading the ladies as soon as I’m finished with the Franzen – either Gate at the Stairs or Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen perhaps – but I’m open to suggestions on how to proceed.  Should I go the gimmicky, “one-month of women” route?  Or should I just buck up, be a man, and read some books written by women?

PS: I’m not alone in this regard, of course – just last month, Chris Jackson, editor at Random House, wrote this piece for the Atlantic.

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8 comments on “Franzen vs The Universe

  1. Amy
    September 9, 2010

    Great post here. I think you've really nailed a it. Yes, most of the literary darlings are white males, but please could we have some female authors of true literary fiction stand up for that fact rather than Weiner and Picoult? Over half my reading is female authors but I don't read either of them because it is commercial crap rather than literary and just not my cup of tea. In fact, I would lump them in with the likes of Patterson 😉

    Publishers are probably a big part of it, by pushing ridiculous covers on some of these books. But I also think that a lot of times we read what is familiar to us. If the prizes and glowing reviews are going more to the males could it be that it is simply the internal biases that we all have but don't acknowledge? How many women are reviewers for those magazines? How many women are on the panels for judging the prizes?

    I think if we don't look at our internal biases closely it's easy to write off what is unfamiliar or what causes us to examine our prejudices against the other. If that makes any sense!

  2. Magna
    September 10, 2010

    Buck up buster!

  3. aaryn b.
    September 10, 2010

    I left my comment over on FB but the amended version: Despite the cover (which is new), you really should pick up Lionel Shriver's “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” It's fantastic.

    Piccoult + Weiner = JPatt + Dan Brown

  4. Seth Marko
    September 10, 2010

    I'm pretty sure “Picoult-Weiner” is a euphemism for something…

    And Amy, that's the strange thing – and why I agree with your point – there are plenty of women reviewing books and judging on the award panels. (Hello, Michiko Kakutani, the most powerful book reviewer on the planet is a woman. A cold, scary woman, but still a woman.) Maybe it is an inherent bias within all of us that we don't even notice – or maybe they really are reviewing the best books and giving the most talented authors the awards.

    But if we are biased, then we'll never know the difference! Aaaahhhh! It's like a Hitchcock film!

  5. Amy
    September 10, 2010

    Hmmm yes I don't follow prizes or reviews very much, but you are probably right. I saw another comment somewhere that possibly women are used to reading books about men too because that is more common? I don't know. I give up, it is like a Hitchcock film 😉

  6. Scott
    September 15, 2010

    Really enjoy the blog however am I the only one who can't go past 2 paragraphs of white on a black background and have my eyes go crazy with after image?

  7. Anonymous
    September 15, 2010

    An avid fan of YOUR writing about JPatt, I continue to make your blog a daily priority…thank you for this post. After studying gender biases, I tend to believe we just do not realize we have biases. My suggestion would be – LISTEN to audio books by women – you don't have to carry around the 'covers' and depending on the storyline, there might even be a male narrator. You can read your 'males' and still enjoy 'females' – and you'll have instant answers when asked about FEMALE authors.

  8. Seth Marko
    September 16, 2010

    Scott, funny enough, you're the second person to mention the black background in the last couple of weeks. I've never heard a complaint before in the previous 4 years that the site's been up. I think it's probably the back & forth between white background sites & this one that messes with your vision. I've never had trouble, myself.

    I don't know if I could bring myself to remove the darkness from the Catapult… Maybe I should take a poll.

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2010 by in http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Jonathan Franzen, Women authors.
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