Franzenfreude: A Lulz Story
Two weeks ago I listen to an interview with “the Great American Novelist” Jonathan Franzen when he stopped by for a snack-n-chat on Fresh Air. I steady myself with a steaming mug of haterade as I waited for Franzen to say all kinds of mess that would piss me off. Instead – much to my chagrin – I found him to be thoughtful and reasonably humble for a guy who critics liken to the proverbial, “all that and a bucket of chicken”. The New York Times reviewer said, “Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.” I don’t know; last time I checked Franzen was white male whose literary universe seems to explore reasonably comfortable white folks who seemed unnecessarily burden by all that reasoned comfort; and that’s cool. I read plenty of Unbearable Whiteness of Being Ordinary People literature.
I got no beef with Franzen from an artistic standpoint. Have I read him? Yes. Did I enjoy it? The Corrections was pretty tight. Does his work speak to me or “gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life”? Not really . I don’t know; what are his thoughts on Sydney Pollack? Nevertheless, that has little to do with his position at the summit of the kyriarchy, but I personally find his work doesn’t take the chances I like to see taken in literature. I like my fiction edgier and transgressive. Again, that’s cool. Some people like green apples. Some people like green apples with razor blades. And after the interview was over and I scored some really styling $.97 flip flops I moved on to the business of Perry Mason TV Movies on Netflix Instant View and casting 80s television show reboots in my head.
Then I stumbled onto a fantastic blog post by Michelle Dean entitled, “Behind the Franzenfreude” where Dean’s brilliant analysis of the three way dust up involving Franzen and novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, where the women (via Twitter) rightfully stated the praised lavished on Franzen was as much a product of sexism as it was legitimate acknowledgment of his literary talents. When asked by The NYTPicker to elaborate on her provocative statements, Picoult said:
“It is my personal opinion that yes, the Times favors white male authors. That isn’t to say someone else might get a good review — only that if you are white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems.”
Hopefully, it’s not a big secret that male literary explorations (let’s not get cute. white male literary explorations) are universalized while everyone else’s are marginalized. And honestly, as long as there are copies of Another Country by James Baldwin in existence, I’m not sure it’s the wisest choice to run through the lifetime limit on hyperbole for Franzen’s work; Picoult, Weiner and I are partially in agreement. That said, I’m not about to break out in a rousing chorus of, “Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves” just yet. From where I’m sitting – wait for it – as a black, female writer I find it a bit rich and terribly ironic these two marginally talented Nice White Ladies™ decided they ought to be the ones to call out Franzen.
Both of these novelists enjoy tremendous privilege as white women and their works aren’t exactly the stuff of great literature. Yet other than blistering reviews, which theoretically could be avoided if they either: wrote better books or stopped writing all together, I’m not exactly feeling the sisterhood. The ability to both write so-called “Chick Lit” or Shop and Fucks (as the great mystery writer Marcia Muller described the genre in her Sharon McCone novels) and enjoy tremendous success is not always an opportunity afforded to writers on the margins. On some level their criticisms of Franzen apply equally to themselves. Would we even be having this conversation if the two had been POCs/non-white or trans* or queer or disabled or working class writers? (or, of course, any and all intersections and identities I neglected to mention). Of course not. Would the feminist and lady-vectored blogosphere taken up the mantle if these weren’t two nice white ladies? I suspect not. Without the benefit of race and class privilege (among others things) neither writer would be afforded platform to voice their criticisms (which I’ve already stated are where we are in agreement), much less receive such an outpouring of support. Moreover, it’s a reality, which I haven’t exactly seen either novelist acknowledge.
The controversy, which came across as incredibly childish to me, illustrates an example of the kind of disingenuous some-timey feminism, which is more about some nice white ladies feeling entitled to that, which frankly, neither deserve, while disguised as some kind of Rosa Parks moment. Nowhere did either women cite examples of marginalized folks – like Alice Walker, Percival Everett, Dorothy Allison or Sarah Schulman – whose works languish in sub-section ghettos bookcases near the bathrooms at Barnes & Noble. Nor was there mention of the disparities in career prospects favoring white folks higher on the kyriarchy irrespective of gender. Sexism is very much a factor in determining whose stories get told. However, it’s not the only factor, a point completely missed by Picoult and Weiner, one of which was too busy crying into her “royalty statements”. Oh yeah remember the bookshelf ghettos housing novels by marginalized folks who actually do get great reviews and win prestigious awards; Picoult’s and Weiner’s novels aren’t shelved there. Their novels occupy the same bookshelf space as works by Jonathan Franzen.