Thursday, August 26th, 2010
144

Behind the Franzenfreude

AT LEAST ONE OF THESE THINGS IS SOMEWHAT NOT LIKE THE OTHERS?Time's recent declaration of the obscure and notoriously media-shy writer Jonathan Franzen as our "Great American Novelist" was met, at first anyway, with shocking equanimity, it seems to me. Sure, he has a new book, Freedom, coming out. Sure, Sam Tanenhaus declared said novel a "masterpiece of American fiction" in the New York Times, though he did so nearly a month before regular readers would be able to challenge that view. Sure, such is the confidence of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in this book that it is pre-selling as an ebook at the unusually-high price of $14.99. Me, I read The Corrections, enjoyed it, and promptly forgot about it. I haven't read the new book. (It's not out until August 31st.) But really, we're still doing the thing where we elevate a fiction-writing white men as the Greatest Thing In American Writing Today? And not blushing a little when we do this?

A writer friend to whom I was recently talking-okay, complaining-about this, noted that probably people were just resigned to the praise he's getting because of the inevitability of the anointment, or the fact that in many ways it had already happened. Critics have always loved Franzen's work. (Also, this writer friend said: "Franzen's the guy who wants it the most, isn't he?")

But of late I've had company in my objections, anyway. The novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner began complaining on Twitter last week that the Times only liked books by "white men from Brooklyn," starting the hashtag on Twitter #Franzenfreude, by means of which people could recommend good and, one supposes, comparatively obscure novels by women.

Both Picoult and Weiner are the kind of writers who, to use Saul Bellow's phrase, are free to stuff their ears with money if they don't like what they're hearing about their own books. And while I hadn't time to look up every interview they've ever given, I have a hard time believing that in their heart of hearts, they envision themselves as even writing literary fiction, or at least that they aim their work at the same critical audience Franzen does. (Would Franzen's website have as a title "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love"?) So I think it's overbroad to claim that they are themselves being treated differently solely as women, in this instance.

And yet, they do have a point. And it's a point that brings us right up to the edge of the precipice of having to re-evaluate what it is we think is worthwhile about literature, and why it might not be what current standards say it is.

There are a number of levels on which one can analyze this problem of literary merit. Only the first and most superficial is markets. From that perspective, this entire discussion is little more than wankery. First of all, not a day goes by where we're not being reminded by publishers that the collapse in transaction costs related to publishing writing (thanks in no small part to websites like this here fine publication) is absolutely destroying traditional publishing. Whatever the former gatekeepers to literary fame think, in short, is becoming more irrelevant by the day, because if they don't like what you're writing, you're perfectly welcome to self-publish (or to work with a progressive change publisher) and potentially earn a higher income, proportionate to sales anyway, than you would have if you'd signed with a major publishing house, by cutting out the middleman.

Furthermore, as Lorin Stein notes over at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, if we're gonna get all statistical about it, women in particular consume fiction at a much higher rate than men, at least today. (I've got no more than anecdotal evidence to back this up but it seems, if Jane Austen was accurately reporting her era, women have been the prime consumers of novels for quite some time.) That fact is often held up to explain why writers like Picoult and Weiner are so successful, but it bears mentioning that women consume a lot of what might be called "serious fiction."

Thus, to the extent that we're talking about how fiction sells, the whole issue of whether book critics are biased towards white men is sort of a wash. I don't wish to overstate that, of course. There are undoubtedly some black/female/gay/etc. literary fiction writers who have never made big sales as a result of bias. The main justification for the continuance of highbrow book reviews might indeed be their role as a marketing engine for literary fiction. But such reviews have never driven the market as a whole.

But let's get beyond money. And also beyond the mere ego stroke of getting praise in a good review. Writing, at least of the kind you don't bury on your hard drive, is a communicative act. It wants to be read. It is at least partially motivated by hope that your work will be grappled with by other people who take the subject as seriously as you yourself do. So when you are a lady writer, or an African American writer (sometimes you are both, whee!) and you write something, and it is met with silence by those you see yourself as writing to, or, perhaps worse, a shrug or faint praise, well, that does seem to undermine your project. It makes you feel like your voice is worth less than someone else's. It makes you wonder if you should bother to keep speaking at all. Perhaps that cri de coeur doesn't garner much sympathy in an age where everyone's getting fired from soul-destroying day jobs they nonetheless desperately needed for the health insurance. But it doesn't make it less sincerely felt.

And the silencing and devaluing of those voices has consequences, particularly when it tends to happen disproportionately to certain populations. What is praised today may very well make it into "the canon," might very well be on some future high school syllabus, will shape somebody's imagination, In a post I didn't much otherwise like, because it's appalling that in this day and age you can be engaged with the production of literary fiction and still evince innocent surprise that women are actually writing novels worth reading, Chris Jackson of Spiegel & Grau pointed readers to the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's speech at last fall's TED, called "The Danger of A Single Story."

You should watch it, she'll put it more eloquently than I can, but one of her main points may be briefly stated as follows: when your canonical literature speaks only to one experience-the "single story"-it actually, in a very real way, begins to limit people's imaginations, and limits the kinds of experience literature can and should expose you to. "Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person," she says, around the 10-minute mark, "but to make it the definitive story of that person."

Which brings us to the question of why praise does tend to aggregate around white men, still, in a way that it doesn't for other kinds of people. I obviously don't think that Tanenhaus, and Michiko Kakutani (not precisely a white guy herself) sit around their little cubicles by the atrium plotting how they're gonna keep women and people of color (and trans people!) out of the halls of literary power. As in most cases where social prejudice is really firmly entrenched, there is no Man Behind the Curtain. Otherwise, this would be a simple issue to solve: we could just fire the people in cubicles like theirs, and sexism and racism, and transmisogyny and ableism and every kind of unfairness under the sun would be over.

But life isn't like that. Instead of men in rooms we have timeworn, and as such unquestioned, ways of thinking and evaluating.

So let's look at the phrases that have been used to justify the effusive levels of praise being directed at Franzen. Tanenhaus, for example, says that Franzen's book was great because it spoke to "our shared millennial life." Grossman, the Time critic, admires the way Franzen "remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel." Even the Brits agree that Franzen has tapped into some kind of shared experience psyche: the Guardian called The Corrections "a report from the frontline of American culture."

It seems a fair question, in that context, to ask: "What's this 'we,' white man?"

What collective American experience do these critics envision Franzen as describing? I have a suspicion they simply imagine their own white, male, middle class experiences as the "American experience," because it's always been presented that way to them, not least in the novels of Updike and Mailer and sometimes Roth that they so often list as favorites. And since Franzen does seem to have a knack for describing that particular strain of the American experience, the critics elide all the issues.¹ As an American resident for just five years, what I left there with was a profound sense that there was very little one could generally say about American culture without profoundly ignoring certain communities, without writing them right out of existence. And I lived in Brooklyn, which, it bears mentioning, is a far more diverse borough than these middle-class white narratives about it might have you believe. And I suspect there are a lot of people there, never mind in the rest of the country, who don't relate to Franzen's work, or Jonathan Lethem's, or David Foster Wallace's.

That doesn't mean that people answering to other demographic characteristics can't like these books. You can relate across chasms of experience and even prejudice-no one can tell you this better than, say, a person of color who's spent her life studying and loving E.M Forster's work. But should she always have to? Isn't it fair for her to ask critics to value for something that speaks more closely to her actual life?

And of course it isn't necessary, for an individual writer trying to write one good book, to make sure that it represents, in every significant respect, every experience out there under the sun. Yes that's demanding too much. But it might, indeed, be the task of literary fiction as a whole to continually be revising it's standards to be sure it's being as inclusive as it can be. In the age after we've realized that white men are not the end-all and be-all of humanity, it seems worth trying to build a canon that says if we are separated from one another by class and race and gender and any number of things, the very least we can do is recognize that in a literature that's really about "what it is to be human," every single one of those experiences must be given airtime. It's not a request; it's a requirement.²

This, literary fiction and its defenders do not do particularly well. These people are often fond of quoting David Foster Wallace's affirmation that "literature makes you feel less alone." So view it as a prescriptive and not just a descriptive statement. It has to be about making people feel less alone, not just yourself, and people, inconveniently, include women, for starters. It'd behoove literary critics to start listening to them.

¹ I'm not even sure Franzen himself is unaware of this, of course. In a famous essay in the April 1996 Harper's-also available in How to Be Alone-he questioned the continuing role of the social novel in the age of American pluralism: "Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society to help solve our contemporary problems-seems to me a peculiarly American delusion." But he has to accept critics' praise on those grounds now, in any event.

² It's also probably good business.


Michelle Dean has written for Bitch and The American Prospect. She blogs at The Pursuit of Harpyness.

144 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#713)

"I have a hard time believing that in their heart of hearts, they envision themselves as even writing literary fiction, or at least that they aim their work at the same critical audience Franzen does. (Would Franzen's website have as a title "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love"?) So I think it's overbroad to claim that they are themselves being treated differently solely as women, in this instance."

Wait, isn't dismissing someone's work as non-literary because they have a Website title of "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love" essentially treating them differently because they're women — or, I guess, because they write for (and/or are marketed towards) women?

Also, isn't it kind of funny that we read "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love" and immediately think "marketed towards women"? Doesn't a healthy portion of the list of "legitimate literary novels" revolve around exactly those themes? Can you name an important novel that doesn't feature at least one of them?

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I'm not dismissing them as "non-literary." I am saying that they are marketing them at a different audience than the people reading high-flown book reviews.

I think it would be wrong to assume that ladies only like novels written at the same level of literal bluntness that Picoult et al position themselves as, i.e. Novels that need to make sure you understand that they are about "Family, Relationships and Love." Women as a class don't require that the themes of novels be announced to them in such brutally literal fashion. In other words, this is not about gender: this is about dumb. And dumb marketing. Both of which, personally, are words I might employ here.

So while I get that you're trying to call me out on dismissing ladystuff, the thing I'm wondering is why this is categorized as ladystuff at all. Lady =/= stupid, blunt marketing.

HiredGoons (#603)

I was going to say 'The Metamorphosis' but no, even that is about family.

jfruh (#713)

Yeah, sorry, I know I was overreading you a bit (is that word? you know what I mean). I just think it's interesting that on-the-nose marketing phrases like "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love" are so strongly gendered, and, I suppose, -browed (i.e. low- vs. high- vs. middle). Because, I mean, who doesn't like novels about love, family, and relationships? There are plenty of high-falutin' literary novels and high-testosterone pulpers that revolve around those themes.

I guess the thing is that the marketing has created this separate ladyspace. You can say that it's about dumb, or dumb marketing, but it's hard to deny that the category they're in is very strongly gendered. I have no idea whether Picoult and Wiener are any good ('cause their books are for ladies, and I'm not supposed to read them, I guess?) but I can see how they might come to resent the fact that the marketing construct from which they have handsomely profited also prevents them from being considered serious (assuming the marketing construct is somehow separable from the books themselves, which I suppose is a big assumption).

I mean, genre fiction of all kids has this same problem (how many people have escaped the genre ghetto? Stephen King, maybe?), but it's a larger symptom that "books for women" (women being half the population) is a genre, along with mystery, sci-fi, apocalyptic Christian lit, etc.

blily (#1,411)

Yeah — what's funny to me is that while Franzen wouldn't title his website "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love" — that's exactly, and exhaustively, what The Corrections was about (not an Oprah pick for nothing). And I haven't read Freedom yet, but the synopsis seems to indicate the same.

jfruh (#713)

Also also! As a non-New Yorker who, when visiting New York, generally stays in the Caroll Gardens/Park Slope nexus, I am amused that over the past decade or so "Brooklyn" has, for a certain literary set, become a shorthand for exactly the sort of people I hang out with when there — middle class mostly white artsy-to-one-degree-or-another 25-to-40-year-olds who can't afford Manhattan and are now rather reverse-snobby about that. I feel like I know "Brooklyn" pretty well (my brother-in-law lives there and we go up several times a year) but it's amazing looking at a map and seeing how little ground I actually cover.

HiredGoons (#603)

I like ALL(most) all parts of New York City, and find the whole borough rivalry thing stupid and juvenile, to be honest.

jfruh (#713)

Even STATEN ISLAND? I commend your broad-mindedness, sir!

HiredGoons (#603)

Actually to be honest I forgot about Staten Island.

I do like the ferry!

Don't h8 on the Shaolin.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

I like ALL(most) all parts of humanity, and find the whole race/class/cat-or-dog rivalry thing stupid and juvenile, to be honest.

ericdeamer (#945)

Believe it or not Staten Island actually now has a very small "hipster"/"arty"/whatever enclave in the immediate vicinity of where you get off the ferry. However, once you get out of that small, denser, northern area of it it's entirely suburbs/sprawl/"Real America" type shit that could be anywhere else, though with better pizza places probably. Hudson County, NJ is much more dense and urban.

earlydinner (#1,816)

I really should have stopped reading at "I haven't read the book."

wb (#2,214)

No need to read the book to critique the media frenzy surrounding it.

A book stands on it's cultural interpretation, not your opinion.

Emily (#20)

I agree. I think once everyone has read the book and can stop responding the the marketing campaign and can focus on the book, they'll feel silly.

wb (#2,214)

The book should definitely be the focus, but I think there's something to be said for considering the marketing campaign. Its something that happens every year or so, with each publication trying to one-up the hyperbole of another (see: 2666).

saythatscool (#101)

@wb: But Michelle saw an alternative version of the cover last week online at Amazon! So she's entitled to her judgment and her sense of omniscients!

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I'm not at all pronouncing on the merits of the book, though. I'm saying I deeply doubt that any book could live up to the hyperbole of the "Great American Novel." I think it's quite likely I'll like the book, myself.

ericdeamer (#945)

Yeah, it didn't read like a review of the book to me but a more far-ranging essay about a subject not having much to do with the content of the book itself.

Rebeccly (#7,255)

Interestingly, Horacio Castellanos Moya wrote about this very thing sometime last year concerning the Bolanos-frenzy in the US, which nearly parallels the current Franzen-frenzy.

wb (#2,214)

"When your canonical literature speaks only to one experience-the "single story"-it actually, in a very real way, begins to limit people's imaginations, and limits the kinds of experience literature can and should expose you to."

Doesn't this read like a cynics very definition of the literary canon?

GiovanniGF (#224)

And should we consider vampires a minority?

Clio (#3,719)

I think the most interesting point that Weiner and Poucault made is that commercial fiction written primarily by and for women–that is, romance novels and whatever "chick lit" means this week–is almost never reviewed in the Times (or carried in independent bookstores for that matter), while commerical fiction written primarily by and for men–that is, hard-boiled mysteries and thrillers–sometimes is. That's your direct, gender-specific comparison right there.

It's crazymaking how Park Slope/Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens/Williamsburg has become "Brooklyn" because that's where people who five or ten years ago would have been living in Manhattan have moved to.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I'm sorry, I love this comment for no reason other than "Poucault." Best typo ever.

Clio (#3,719)

You are a cruel, cruel woman and I no longer like you. I also wish there was an edit function here because I noticed the typo ten seconds after hitting submit. But I'm not sure what you think my fingers meant.

Birdie (#5,811)

This is the one point I find interesting in this debate, as well.

Tully Mills (#6,486)

Poucault's Pendulum!

LolCait (#460)

I'm just pissed that we have to have this conversation with, of all people, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner.

Tranpsosed (#709)

Just be glad nobody has mentioned Oprah yet.

Shit.

Yes. This. Because if Weiner's book was reviewed on its merits by OMG THE TIMES and the reviewer found it to be lacking, because her writing is terrible and shallow and dimly plotted and cliché-ridden, would she chalk it up to people being biased against her "writing for women"? Something tells me the answer is yes.

(I haven't read Picoult, so I can't judge her stuff.)

Also I just feel like her extended bitching about all this is part of the "viral marketing plan" for her book. It's like 50 Cent's tacked-on verse to the Cee-Lo song; it's SEO complaining.

Bittersweet (#765)

Ditto. There weren't any better, bitter woman writers?

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I would myself have been interested in what Zadie Smith etc think about all this, but for them, the risks are higher. If they do publicly acknowledge that they feel their books are treated differently, the critics will hate them. Picoult and Weiner are sort of more free to say something because there's no chance of their ever bein liked by these critics.

Baroness (#273)

I'm channeling Mary McCarthy, and she can't believe these bitches' griping. Also, needs a drinkie.

I would also argue that their higher commercial profile makes it more likely for them to get noticed when they *do* complain. Which I guess adds to the frustration.

And I mean… how much do reviews really matter anyway beyond a very small self-reflexive group of people who all talk to one another (and get free copies of each others' books so it's not like the reviews/discussion even help the bottom line up)? I'm looking at this from the perspective of a music critic — this whole dispute is to me the equivalent of, say, Chad Kroeger complaining that American music writers, who really don't matter in the grand scheme of things as far as 99% of people, don't understand his work because he's Canadian. OK, that's an imperfect analogy since Americans buy Kroeger's work, and sexism is much more insidious than anti-Canadianism. But you know what I mean.

I guess this is all really bugging me even more because Weiner sent out a tweet (in the early portion of her barrage) that said something to the effect of "I want it all." And shortly thereafter she crowed about crying into her "royalty statements." Well, bully for you, lady. A lot of people would also like "it all" or something approaching it, and they don't have royalty statements to cry into, nor do they have crappy Cameron Diaz vehicles to their name. There's just something very spoiled-child about her protestations that makes them somehow even MORE ANNOYING THAN HER WRITING to me.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Yeah, it's hard to muster sympathy for either Weiner or Picoult. On the other hand, I do think that there are ways of building social capital that aren't money, and in writer's circles, one of those ways is to be well-reviewed. Having satisfied their other needs on Maslow's hierarchy, I'm hardly shocked they're now clamouring for this one. I do agree it's still tone deaf.

Baroness (#273)

You won't hear a peep from Zadie Smith on this; she's quite in the same club as Franzen, and you don't rock the boat.

Aside from her excellent writing, I can't imagine a writer, female or not, who's had a more charmed literary career than Smith. Critical plaudits, fellowships, grants, awards, celebrity. She's really not the one to ask about whether commercial fiction ought to be given the same esteem as her work. She's already been pulled up to Mount Olympus.

slow education (#3,659)

"But really, we're still doing the thing where we elevate a fiction-writing white men as the Greatest Thing In American Writing Today? And not blushing a little when we do this?"

Huh! Are you saying we aren't supposed to be constantly trying to find the best things going in our culture to treasure up and pass on to our hypothetical children? Or are you saying that we just shouldn't be doing that for white dudes because they've had theirs? Both of those things are interesting and both seem completely crazy to me.

Also I thought your argument would have been stronger if you had provided a little more evidence of the neglect you assert. If I had to name another living American writer not named DeLillo with an adoration score as high as Franzen's it would be card-carrying woman Marilynne Robinson. If I had to name another I might pick Joan Didion, who is a great writer and a more thoroughgoing creature of privilege than old XY Franzen could ever be. I'm not using those two insanely talented ladies to disprove sexism–just the opposite. I think you are underselling how much of the canon-ready writing of the last 50 years actually has been written by women. Good liberal that I am I tend to think the divide in America is between rich people and poor people, and the rhetorical putting of, say, John and Joan on opposite sides of the privilege line irks me. To me, the really interesting question is how do you reconcile liberal politics with an elitist money-and-education-favoring institution like a canon? This comment window is small but thanks for writing this.

and somehow, Joyce Carol Oates hangs in there as a literary icon, too.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

In answer to your first questions: I think the first thing to consider is that what the "Great American Novelist" discourse does is precisely not try to find the best things. It anoints people, not individual books, and largely on empty critical terms like whether the book speaks to "the way we live now" without bothering to define the "we." And I'm more laughing at the optics of the fact that such discussions trend overwhelmingly to the anointment of white men.

You're right I could have included more evidence of the nglect, but it's difficult to prove a negative. It does seem like women writers do largely feel this way; I attended a (bad, but that's for another time and place) panel at the PEN Festival on diversity in literature – with Norman Rush and Claire Messud, as I recall – where the frustration was almost palpable when the subject of women's writing came up.

What I could maybe have done is shown that the critical adulation for even some of those women writers we regard as canonical – and I fully agree, there are some – is not as hyperbolic, though. I admit the failing.

balsa_wood (#465)

This reminds me of how above you wrote that you read THE CORRECTIONS and then quickly forgot it and how many, many, many other perfectly smart people like yourself read THE CORRECTIONS and were knocked to the floor by it. Seems you don't think much of Franzen's writing, so of course "great American" whatever is not a claim you'd much take seriously, even if he weren't white or male or middle-class or bespectacled or named Jonathan. So, the question, again, is why write this, especially before the book's come out? Difficult to prove a negative–I agree, especially when the evidence is so very thin.

Also, saying there was palpable frustration at a panel on diversity at a book festival is like saying there was palpable dust on the moon. That's what panels are for: frustration made palpable.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Why write it before the book came out? Because fundamentally I don't think one writer or book is the problem in the ongoing devaluation of non-white-guy writing. So even when I have read the book, let's say I like it. It wouldn't change my argument above one whit. Again, this is not about me wanting to nail Franzen to the wall for writing a book I didn't like. Not all books must speak to me personally to be good works of art or worth having.

In any event, I think you are confusing thinness of evidence with incorrectness of diagnosis. My example was specific because I was asked for specific evidence, but I've had editors and writers both, in my prensence, over the years, mention this. Hell, Emily above has remarked on it in public, this different treatment. I'm not sure why one must list statistics to prove something generally agreed upon in any event, though I admit I could have worked harder there.

John Peyton Boan (#7,148)

Dear Michelle,
What do you like?

Heart,
me

HiredGoons (#603)

My roommate is reading 'The Corrections' and whenever someone comes over, his friends or mine, that inevitably say 'OH MY GOD THAT BOOK IS SO GOOD' which in actuality makes me want to read it less.

Because I'm a snot.

HiredGoons (#603)

'only liked books by "white men from Brooklyn," '

That's actually pretty funny.

Bettytron (#575)

I haated The Corrections. It's a book about the Midwest that seems to be written by someone who HATES the area, and everyone who lives there, beyond all reason. Maybe it hit me personally because the characters reminded me of my grandparents, and my mom and her brothers, except in reality they are all lovely people and in the book they're all really horrendous? I would love to know what Abe Sauer had to say about it.

HiredGoons (#603)

I usually respond by throwing Narcissus and Goldmund at them and yell at them to go mix me a martini.

Moff (#28)

@Bettytron: A friend of mine and I always just thought it was about Midwestern guilt. As opposed to the more popularly literary Jewish and Catholic guilts.

wb (#2,214)

Finally, a good excuse for not having read and not really wanting to read The Corrections, being a lover of the midwest myself. Thanks, Bettytron

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

The hilarious thing is that I think that The Corrections is actually next to Narcissus and Goldmund in my bookshelf. This is because Hesse was double-booked when FutureMr-Theory and I moved in and we both had too much anxiety about getting rid of our own copies so instituted a "doubles and books we don't actually like that much but have too much ditto to get rid of go in the second row of the bookshelf" policy. And there was a fat hardbound-Corrections-sized hole left next to the Hesse. Now, I need a martini.

balsa_wood (#465)

As the child of an uber-midwesterner, I never read the characters as hateful caricatures. The father, yes–he's clearly not a candidate for redemption. But the mother? She melts my goddamn heart, she does.

NinetyNine (#98)

Are you twelve? A write who gets in a snit with Oprah is obscure?

MichelleDean (#7,041)

That was sarcasm. Failed, apparently.

Moff (#28)

"Obscure" might be an overstatement, but Franzen is most famous among the general populace for getting in said snit with Oprah, and said snit took place almost a decade ago. I bet a straw poll of most of the people here's moms would reveal that they're not sure who the hell he is.

See also, from a couple minutes ago — i.e., the alleged height of the current Franzenmania:

http://www.scribblescribblescribble.com/screenshots/841be840645c9a2d9a5e05c98c349ca1.png

Moff (#28)

@Michelle: Well, now I feel stupid.

STILL.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

It's my fault, not yours, Moff, I KNEW I SHOULD HAVE USED SCARE QUOTES, DAMMIT.

Dan Kois (#646)

Jonathan Groff is FIRST? What the hell world is Google living in?

Moff (#28)

A Glee-ful one, apparently.

Moff (#28)

But seriously, I have heard of I think one of those Jonathans.

NinetyNine (#98)

Oh, sorry. My perspective is so untethered from any reality, I can't be counted on to measure effectively.

I don't know, I thought women were a big audience for mysteries and thrillers. The statement is counter-factual and sexist.

That was to the muse of history.

Clio (#3,719)

They're definitely big audiences for a particular kind of mystery–more the cozy than the hard-boiled, not that those distinctions are firm lines. But then, women are big audiences for most books because men don't read nearly as much as women. I'd still say, though, that hard-boiled procedural mysteries and thrillers are perceived as a male-written, male-read genre.

But women are a bigger audience, actual and perceived, for romance novels, and certainly are most of the writers of those novels. Romance novels are huge sellers–why aren't those books getting reviewed in the same numbers, or stocked in independent bookstores? That's really the question.

There are entire publication devoted to Romance novels! But I think it's because the needs of a romance novel's audience and the needs of a literary novel's audience are different — both want to know if the novel is worth reading, but romance novel reviews don't tend to dwell upon the grand themes of the novel in the same way that a times book review will. Plus, and let's admit this, despite that romance novels are entertaining, for most people they are a guilty pleasure.

As for indie bookstores, it depends upon the store, but a lot of it has to do with space, which is why they may not be stocked at a indie store in greater numbers or at all (if they are especially literary or a specialty store).

michaelframe (#3,760)

Having worked for five years in a bookstore with a sizeable romance section, I'd like to offer some anecdotal information. Many romance fans have voracious appetites for the stuff they like. They read about five or more romance mass markets a week, and, in a general sense, people who read that many books tend to be less picky about what they read.

I have a hard time believing that romance readers, the real hardcore ones who buy every Nora Roberts title, would ever consult The Times book section. Perhaps because their genre of choice is dismissed by others, they have other ways of determining what to read. Namely, finding a new author (usually through word of mouth or a bookseller's recommendation) and then buying EVERY TITLE by that author. They usually buy books by the handful. I would also add that the buying tendencies of romance readers is different than other genres, such as mystery, and this is reflected in the speed in which romance writers release new books and the way romance publishers market their product.

I usually only have time to read one book every two weeks so I tend to be a bit more selective.

Birdie (#5,811)

Remember how in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jay Bennett gradually drives his band members insane? There's one scene where the rest of the band drives up to a gig early in the morning and someone says, horrified, ‘Oh my god, has he been here all night?' Anyway, for some reason talking about Franzen made me think of that.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

That pic from the Simpsons above (a highly recommended episode, in which the idea of originality and intent and Lish-like editorial influence in letters is plunged) has led me to the shocking realization that despite my nonstop reading of fiction, I have never read anything by Chabon or Franzen, perhaps even specifically because their books are marketed too directly to my young white New Yorker self.

bb (#295)

I'm ashamed to ask.. who are they all? I mean, obviously Tom Wolfe.. is the long haired guy David Foster Wallace? please inform.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Chabon, Franzen, Wolfe, Vidal, apparently.

mrschem (#1,757)

Bingo.

Moff (#28)

"Instead of men in rooms we have timeworn, and as such unquestioned, ways of thinking and evaluating."

…said the essay questioning such ways of thinking and evaluating.

Dan Kois (#646)

I guess when I read this I just sort of want to throw up my hands and say, Why shouldn't people talk about this book? It's really good, and it really does make a game attempt to catalog a certain mode of existence in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Does it cover everyone? No. Will almost everyone, of any gender or color or religion or sexual preference, find something of worth and interest in the book? I bet yes.

The most vivid and interesting character in FREEDOM is Patty Berglund, a suburban mom and ex-jock living in Minnesota, but I bet white dudes from Brooklyn will like it too.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I think I covered this re: the book not needing to cover everybody. It's not that people won't and can't like the book and even talk about it. It's that the absurd level of hyperbole with which the critics are deeming it the Great American Novel isn't appropriate.

And I'm totally gonna buy and read the book next week, assuming it's released here in Canada on the same date.

Dan Kois (#646)

Also, I sort of wish Franzen had a website with the heading "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love" because that is what his novels are about. Maybe he could add "(and yelling at you about your cat)."

Moff (#28)

@Dan: But they're really not about those things. I mean, they are, inasmuch as every novel ever written is about "relationships," and an immeasurable chunk are about family and love. But as they're used on Picoult's site, those three words are not meant to be read literally (or, in fact, literarily); they're signifiers that convey a mood or a tone or whatever.

Jonathan Franzen's novels, on the other hand, may involve families and relationships and love in their plots, but really they are about some more subtle level of subjective experience or some shit that is evoked through the objective interaction with those three phenomena.

Dan Kois (#646)

Oh, I don't agree at all. I think Franzen's books — especially this book — are about family, relationships, and love. I'm not using that either pejoratively or as a marketing hook — that is what the book is about to me, and that is my takeaway from it. Fifty years from now, when I look back on FREEDOM, I won't remember its politics, but I will remember the very specific and moving explorations of family, relationships, and love that run through the book.

I get what you're saying, I think — that Franzen's literary skill and broad vision lifts his books above mere explorations of family, relationships, and love — above, say, Jodi Picoult. But one thing that made me really happy about FREEDOM is that I don't get the impression that Franzen views the domestic parts of his story as subservient at all to some grand social vision.

It is definitely true that there is an imbalance in the book-review world between male authors and female authors, and between white male authors and everyone else. And it's true that the writers getting declared Great American Novelists seem usually to be middle-aged white dudes. But laying this on Franzen seems to me to be a little unfair.

For one of the knocks on the middle-aged white dudes who always get anointed is that they're writing exclusively — i.e., "What's this 'we,' white man?" And there's long been a complaint that female writers concerned with domestic issues, no matter how technically skilled — say, Lorrie Moore, or Alice Munro — get short shrift among the canonizers because they're writing about family, relationships, and love.

But I feel as though Franzen deserves some credit — as lecturing and offputting as his personal persona may, at times, be — for not writing a novel about a rich old guy with a limp dick who all the girls want to screw. Or a multi-continental climate-science adventure. Or a book about a slacker who can't figure out what to do with his life. Or an Eastern European picaresque. Or a high-concept dystopian comedy.

Which is not to say that these are bad ideas! But Franzen has, I would argue, written a straight-up domestic novel. One that aims high, sure. One that also has political and social and environmental concerns, sure. (Jonathan Franzen really hates your cat!) But one that is, at its heart, about family, relationships, and love — and is, therefore, far more inclusive to readers of all stripes than the typical Greatest American Novel anointee.

Moff (#28)

Yeah, I would agree with I think all of that, and take your word on Freedom. And in retrospect, my comment doesn't seem to say what I thought it said, nor am I sure there was much point to what I meant to say. Which was just that, yes, both writers write novels about relationships, family, and love; but the actual heading "Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love" on Picoult's website doesn't have nearly as much to do with the content of her stories as it does with the, mmmm, maybe structure of her stories? I mean, they serve more as a signal or a compressed implication than as literal information.* And yeah, what they signal or imply does not really correlate to what people will find in a Jonathan Franzen novel.

*Sort of the same way the phrase "family values" signals something while actually being devoid of any useful information in a literal sense. Or the way "science fiction" signals something that somehow encompasses both Star Wars and a Samuel Delany novel.

Moff (#28)

"I mean, they serve more as a signal or a compressed implication…"

The "they" there being the words in the heading.

LolCait (#460)

Women be readin'

barnhouse (#1,326)

They sure do. And what is more. They be identifyin' very strongly with the white men, from time to time.

Don't have much to say about this, since I don't read modern literature anymore. Just throwing that out there… kind of wondering if that will merit a comment from the author.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

You mean from Franzen or from me? Franzen just thinks you're one of the unwashed masses who have only minimal brain function.

As to me, I'm not going to deny that this is a niche discussion and most people don't actually read any contemporary lit at all. I'm a bit confused why that matters – virtually every other post I've read about culture on this website involves a niche discusion. Nerding out about your chosen subject shouldn't be so unusual.

It was just a little poke at you for being so attentive to the comments.

Having thought about it, a Great American anything is probably inherently gendered, for various Joseph Campbell-y, colonial reasons. Landscape vs. interiorality and other vague handwaving.

Like I give a shit anyway. No, I'm not bitter that I don't have one of them books in me. That isn't it at all…

carig (#4,986)

As a reader of both literary fiction and the "low-brow" "chick lit" variety – in equal, rather large quantities – I would love some NYT/other smart reviews of the latter. Some of it really is better than others. And some books by the same author are better than other ones. Just like mystery novels or political thrillers. As either Picoult or Weiner pointed out in the HuffPo piece (I think it was there, at least), you don't see the NYT not reviewing romantic comedies because they aren't indie films.

There are many more books to review per week than movies released. The Time's movie reviews are usually shorter than the book reviews are, and as it is a physical paper space is a consideration. Sure, print a review of Picoult's latest novel, but that means that someone else's book isn't going to be reviewed and chances are that's a young novelist or someone from a smaller publishing house who rely upon getting a book reviewed in the Times to make any sales at all.

atipofthehat (#797)

The "I want to see myself in a novel" argument is weak. Buy a mirror?

wb (#2,214)

I enjoy novels most when I don't see myself in them. Reading is escape. I don't need to escape into a world populated by character who look, act, talk decidedly like me.

So yes: buy a mirror.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Did you watch the Adichie speech? Because it might expose the weakness of your argument.

wb (#2,214)

For me, its a personal thing. I don't doubt that people want to see themselves in novels. Not at all. But I don't think there is one concrete reason for why we read.

wb (#2,214)

I've been thinking about this and am realizing that I'd probably feel much different if I wasn't a white male and could find white males surprisingly like me in literature, film, etc–wherever I turn. Wanting culture to reflect–yes, like a mirror–your own reality is wholly understandable and something I would certainly look for myself were I somehow in the minority. So no, @atipofthehat, its not a weak argument.

atipofthehat (#797)

Why, would I see myself in the speech? Because if it's not me making the speech or a speech about me, why watch?

atipofthehat (#797)

WB, there are many ways to be alienated from a culture. (Isn't that why we're here at the Awl?) The argument seems to me to be about power and comfort?

POWER
Wanting to be at the center of a culture when living on the periphery (and while retaining one's periphery-self and periphery-culture) is fine. Let's all do it. Then the center changes, and others are on the periphery.

COMFORT
When you have lived in a foreign country for a bit, it can be nice to run into people who speak your language and are of your culture.

These are not my two top criteria for evaluating art. You can have plenty of both and, wow-no art.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Ugh, you're being obtuse. I actually explicitly say in the piece, which you clearly didn't read:

"That doesn't mean that people answering to other demographic characteristics can't like these books. You can relate across chasms of experience and even prejudice-no one can tell you this better than, say, a person of color who's spent her life studying and loving E.M Forster's work."

No one's arguing that anyone only read literature that would match their answers on a census form. You're derailing.

atipofthehat (#797)

I'd also like some proof that the literary novel, canonical or not, has been controlling our culture and hurting people's imaginations for all these years.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

#DON'T READ DON QUIXOTE, YOU'LL LOSE TOUCH WITH REALITY

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

My mix of interest and frustration in regards to this subject mirrors my reaction to the whole "ground zero mosque" thing, which may be indicative of something. Or not!

Can't we just be allowed to say how great writers are based on how good their damn books are, and not based on their skin color and presence/absence of a penis?

If your point is that female and minority novelists are underappreciated in general, fine – you're right. But how is that point advanced by complaining when a white man is called great writer? If you were to succeed in getting people to stop calling any white man a great writer, would that somehow correct the problem? Is that the thinking here?

Sorry, my comment above is unnecessarily snotty. I now regret posting it.

Also, I haven't actually read Franzen – and maybe if I did, I'd find him overrated! And then I might might feel differently about the whole thing!

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Notwithstanding the retraction, this probably bears worth saying here, since I think you were only giving voice to what a lot of people just silently think about this matter: Most women, people of colour, etc, would also like to live in a world where their skin colour and presence/absence didn't matter. Unfortunately they live in this one, and in this one their experience shows are often socially disadvantaged, and that makes their gender/race relevant to them on a daily basis.

Being able to "not care" about race or gender is the kind of thing that only the privileged, along those axes, can do. No one's "bringing race or gender into this." Race and gender are already there. All the time.

bb (#295)

good answer Michelle.

Ok, but that wasn't really my point. I didn't mean that race and gender don't matter in general when it comes to how novelists — on average, as a group — are recognized – or more importantly, when it comes to how easy it is for them to get published in the first place.

I did say, after all, that I agree that, as a group, female and and minority novelists are underrecognized.

But that doesn't mean that, by extension, calling one white male writer "great" is a bad thing. And that was the main gist I took away form this post — that you are unhappy that a white male guy has been called a great writer. That seems to me counterproductive.

This is one guy, who writes one book, whose quality exists in isolation of the larger problem. It makes no sense to declare that praising this individual's work is bad solely because there's another problem going on with many of his colleagues not getting the recognition they deserve. Instead trying to shoot down praise of individual writers, why not focus on opening up praise to more – and pushing for everyone who writes good books get the recognition they deserve?

But again — maybe Franzen sucks, and the critics just love him so much because he's a white guy. It's possible. As I've already confessed, I haven't even read him. I guess I need to finally get around to reading The Corrections, like I've been planning to eventually do all these years …

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I think you're reading claims in here I didn't make, though I'm not surprised with your summary of the takeaway. It often seems to me that when white men's place at the top of whatever relevant food chain is questioned, even gently, people act like you're out to destroy white men. That isn't true in this case. I've acknowledged that Franzen did write a good book. I actually think that he agrees with some of these points if he hasn't departed much from his position in the "Perchance to Dream" essay. Saying that the critical discourse is mired in hyperbole isn't the same as trying to burn Franzen, or white men generally, at the stake.

Oh dear. Now you're reading claims in *my* comments that *I* didn't make. I guess we're misreading each other!

Specifically:
- "people act like you're out to destroy white men … trying to burn Franzen, or white men generally, at the stake." Good lord, I'm not one of those people! Did you really get *that* message from either of my comments? I'm pretty sure I never said anything like that.

Perhaps it's my use of the phrase "white men" that sets alarm bells off in your head, and causes you categorize my POV as some kind of reactionary-anti-feminist, anti-civil-rights-guy rant. But I had to address my points in terms of that "white men" category, because you framed your whole piece around it — with statements like this:
"But really, we're still doing the thing where we elevate a fiction-writing **white men** as the Greatest Thing In American Writing Today? And not blushing a little when we do this?"

I agree that my own summary of your take-away was probably poorly stated and oversimplified. I was basing it on quotes like the one above — but I'll re-read your post to see if I misinterpreted you; it's been known to happen. Admittedly, reading comprehension isn't always one of my strong suits, especially when I read something long in a hurry.

But here's the key: If your real point is as you stated — "Saying that the critical discourse is mired in hyperbole " — How can you know that it's hyberbole in this case if you haven't even read Franzen's latest book? The only conclusion I'm forced to draw is that you assumed it must be hyperbole because Franzen's another one of this "fiction-writing white men" who get too much attention. And that's not fair to Franzen. I don't give a shit about other white men in the world — fuck white men. They've done enough damage in the world already. I'm sick of them.

caw_caw (#5,641)

Just because I have a long standing crush on Jonathan Franzen doesn't Jennifer Weiner's second- to-last book wasn't an embarrassment.

I'm sure there's more to all of this, but personally it's hard to take it seriously when the writer who started the whole thing still seems to be working out her high school rejection issues.

caw_caw (#5,641)

^mean

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Holy crap, Maura, that's a doozy.

atipofthehat (#797)

For me the most conservative assumption in this essay is that it has to be about the novel. I would put Deborah Eisenberg's work up against any living writer's.

She doesn't go for the blockbuster mega-novel. Why should she, when she can do on a page what most writers do in a chapter?

Long live short fiction! Down with the novel-o-normative point of view!

LondonLee (#922)

I do believe Hilary Mantel is taken rather seriously (rightly so), is reviewed in the classy rags, wins awards etc. and I also believe that she's a woman.

Ali Smith too.

Mary Gaitskill: Great American Writer ("writing about Family, Relationships, and Love (+ Sex)" division)

saythatscool (#101)

She's not a lawyer, not a writer and now not even a critic. What's plan D(ean)?
Hint- leave "thinking" out of your future career plans.

Hi. Your comment doesn't read very well as a defense of your position, because it isn't a defense of any position.

You're just screaming SHUT UP SHUT UP HOW DARE YOU in a room all by yourself.

I'm always suspicious of that. That's usually what I hear in response when people talk about diversity in the workplace or in academia or in the media or regarding culture. Still, you really went the extra mile by calling her stupid.

I'm not writing this to defend the author; I'm writing it to ask for less bizarre personal attacks.

I actually don't see what's so outrageous about the central point; here's one way to look at it: "the outcry is not about Franzen. It is not about 'Freedom,' which I suspect is probably a good book. It is about phrases like 'this is a book about the way we live now' or 'our shared millennial life' or 'from the frontline of American life.'"

Regina Small (#2,468)

Hey, guy or lady!

I have something for you:
http://tinyurl.com/2vnu8ua

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

There's a phrase I think many forget when trying to decipher trends in a for-profit industry.

Follow the money.

Every aspect of the business is designed to maximize profits. Established industries tend to follow that maxim very closely.

Does that mean white guys make more profit? Again go back to following the money.

Too long an explanation to bother with but there was an interview with Steven King back in the 90's where he pretty much explained it. Once he got big (who had the money historically to buy lots of books?) he just churned out in a year or so crapfest over crapfest and left them in his "vault" so he would have something to just publish on a regular schedule.

Instead of sweating over making a masterpiece every time.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

It's like everyone wants to forget that while there are newly nascent niche markets with great potential historically the rich whitish men would buy books as gifts to give their kept wives with something to do.

20 years does not erase thousands of years.

roboloki (#1,724)

jeff!!! you didn't succumb to salmonellanthrax and you seem to be lucid. i am pleased and saddened in equal proportion.
p.s. you seem to imply that stephen king created a masterpiece at some point.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

You seem to have succumbed to the same disease your fellow lefties always want to believe…

That the only sentient beings are the people you get drunk and then ask for a ride home. Only to have sex and then hate yourself in the morning because you know the gossip will be harsh…

Me? I read in a more discriminate manner. Such as quoting the actual words I used vis a vis: "Instead of sweating over making a masterpiece every time"

Where in there does it say I claimed he created a masterpiece Mr. or Ms. or liberated Miss publishing/writing/editing/English expert does it lend itself to implying?

Of course as we all know "Meanings are in people not in words" so we all know that the imply is in you, which I suggest you get help for.

roboloki (#1,724)

oooh, lively this morning. smooches.

mrschem (#1,757)

Man, don't hate on Stephen King.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

It's Steven King.

P.P.S. Robolki, I've already moved on to what I think is a bluish tinge on my belly button and assuming my intestines have gotten trapped in my navel. Damn google.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Christ.

First off, how can anyone spend time with the Times Book Review and not get annoyed, on principle? Buncha authors looking for holes in their competition, is how it reads 75% of the time. Fuck such noodling. Read who sounds interesting.

Second: All these words spilt here could be tastefully rearranged into a crackling story. Unfortunately, it probably won't get reviewed in Time.

C_Webb (#855)

Not sure what this says about books and/or Brooklyn, but I got so engrossed in all this that I forgot to de-doublepark my car at 10:30 and now have a ticket. I blame Franzen, The NY Times Book Review, and myself, in that order.

paperbackwriter (#2,844)

You lost me at "Picoult."

tripco (#7,143)

feel sorry for anyone who reads fiction and filters it through a small and spurious little view finder.

I feel sorry for anyone whose received wisdom from the academy precludes actually reading a novel before draping it several dozen fatuous assumptions. (And please spare me the sly dodge of 'I am not actually writing about his book. Because we both know you are.)
I feel sorry for prisoners of ideology, either that of the left or the right. You are all bores.

Yes, there is something to your swipe at the lazy claims of universality that are employed in the discussion of a given work, but what you're doing is really no better, is it? it's just as lazy.

Writing serious fiction (and Franzen's Corrections IS serious despite your hipster aphasia upon completing your reading it – perhaps ginko or a brain scan might be timely) and brave. Braver than commenting in acrid little bursts from the sidelines, (for sidelines, by the way, you can safely bet that I don't necessarily mean Toronto).
Anyway, have a great weekend. I am sure there are other phonies and fakes for you to hunt to ground like a rat terrier

Elizabeth Switaj (#7,144)

Ah, tripco, that's a lot of negative abstractions without a lot of content. Perhaps this is just the received wisdom of the academy, but generally giving specifics makes for a better argument.

Which assumptions are fatuous and how are they fatuous? Precisely which ideology is the author a prisoner of and how do you know? (Also, how do you know she's "actually writing about his book"?) What precisely is brave about Franzen and his book? It's nice that you think you're right, but if you're going to bring it up in public, you should probably be able to prove it–especially if you're going to accuse other people of laziness.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I am confused about what this post is actually saying, but I do get the point that the complaint expressed in it is irrefutable, whatever it is, and no matter how the new Franzen offering turns out to be.

The therapeutic argument about the harm being done to People of Category by having to live in a world where People of Category do not etc. etc. is belittling towards People of Category.

tripco (#7,143)

Dear MS Switaj:
But what's the point of zeroing in, on using the dialectic to refute Ms Dean? Her arguments about the dead white males are old and even true, not that it's their fault. She has made up her mind, and it is a cynical one. She observes the periphery closely, brilliantly, but she has no idea of what the core IS.
She admits to forgetting her reading of The Corrections as soon as she was done with the last page. This is hyperbole and reactionary and nothing more than the provocation of a blogger who has announced her bitchiness in advance, as clearly a trademark as the Z was for Zoro.
Why be specific with ideologues? They refute nuance and texture. they refute "The Real", ie the book. Sorry to go all Lacan on you. I could have written a goddamn chapter on how that post reflected an entire mindset that misses the point of the expereince of reading and (Believe me, I could), but it would have been laughable. And yes, she's right about the 'machine'.
I used to run a book store, sometime last century. These are the kinds of jostling for position "arguments" that occur only when a sun is dying, and burnt out. Yeah – She's right about establishments and what they're like, but frankly, she's far more general (when she's not being cunty about people's typos), than I could possibly be.Do you honestly need me to argue for just how serious a writer Franzen is? Really? Let's be honest here. Do you really need me to innumerate the many ways in which the life of a serious writer is admirable?
Really? Do you? I can tell you A LOT about that. But to do so would be to dignify sarcasm, which I am too old to do.
Let's look at the book. The book itself, the thing itself and who really cares about the attendant whistling down the lane. I have no more politics. Other than those of the humanist, maybe, on my good days. I would submit that Fraszen is more than the sum of those parts Ms Dean picked over. He is more than a cog in the rusty wheel of the dead white male book biz and it's panoply of wrongs.
So that's where I stand. I think Ms Dean was snide and clever and shallow, and I will leave it at that.

Tracey Chandler (#7,153)

Yep! French fiction and South American fiction have a lot more to offer in terms of substance than the nonsense novelists in the States and the UK thrash out today.

balsa_wood (#465)

Maybe Ms. Dean should crack open another issue of Time Magazine:

http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19980119,00.html

How soon we forget…

Davyh (#7,156)

As far as I can make out, Ms. Dean is angry because a novel by a white male writer has been highly praised. Somehow, although she has not herself read the book, she is certain that the praise can't be justified. To her mind, whatever the quality of Franzen's book, it is wrong to "elevate a fiction-writing white man as the Greatest Thing In American Writing Today". Any suggestion otherwise should make us "blush".

This is simple bigotry. Franzen's book may or may not be a masterpiece, but to decide that question it is necessary to read the book. If it is actually terrific, then the Times was right to praise it. It is Michelle Dean's argument to the contrary, an argument that rests on her complete ignorance of "Freedom", that should make us blush.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Okay, since this keeps coming up: the function of that question to my mind is to point out the immense wrongness of declaring anything the "Greatest Thing in American Writing Today," not that white men can't write great things. They do! It's not "bigotry" to point out that it is overwhelmingly, notwithstanding the occasional Toni Morrison (as the comment above points out) or Joyce Carol Oates mention, white men to whom this title is assigned. I thought the one thing the growing pluralism of the cultured exposed was the emptiness of such grand assertions about the "American experience." Post this discussion I'm having to revise my understanding that such a view was generally accepted, because all I'm hearing is, "NOOOOO I LIKE THIS WHITE GUY THOUGH."

That said, I'm not going to deny I'd phrase the passage you quote a little differently post this discussion to make what I meant clearer. Live and learn.

In any event I wanted to be clear that I'm really confused why everyone thinks I'm insulting Franzen particulatly here. Look at the first footnote to this piece: Franzen has himself said something very much like this about his doubts regarding the possibility of a real social novel. I also found this more recent interview in which he remarks, when asked if he's writing a social novel: "I have that sense less than some commentators seem to."

And as has been pointed out by people other than me, not only is it wrong, it's unfair to Franzen to place upon him to burden of speaking for the whole of American experience and evaluating his work with reference to that. I think it just isn't possible for anyone to do that.

I'm with you 100% regarding the fallacy of saying that any modern novelist can speak to "us," "our shared American experience" given "the growing pluralism of the culture" etc.

The trouble is, you seem to assume that phrases like "great American novelist" or — to use your phrase — "greatest thing in American writing today" are automatically understood to be synonymous with "writing a social novel" that "speaks for all of us" or "the whole American experience." Whereas I (and some others, apparently) interpret the former phrases simply to mean he's "a really great novelist from America" — or even "the best novelist in America."

Now that I better understand exactly what you were getting at with your use of the former phrases, I get where you're coming from overall with this post – and agree with it! (For whatever that's worth.)

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Hippity, I getcha, but I quoted the reviewers later in the piece to point out that they are resting those accolades on precisely that same elision, making grand statements about "shared experiences" that don't really exist.

Davyh (#7,156)

I'm sorry, but you've created a straw man. No one, at least in the reviews I've read, has called Franzen "The Greatest Thing in American Writing Today." They've praised him for writing a great book, in the Times' words a masterpiece. You've misread that assertion as a claim that Franzen is superior to all other American writers, an assertion you feel insults women, blacks, asians – everyone other than white men (though why it doesn't insult other white males isn't clear).

With respect, something about the praise Franzen has received has made you stumble. So, even after its pointed out to you that Franzen has not been called our greatest writer, you persist in reading the reviews that way, and in extracting an insult to women and others that simply isn't there.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I think you're the one straw-argumenting here. You read two sentences in the piece that made you angry and have now decided that I misread the reviews, which you assert without evidence, even though I've quoted other parts of their reviews to back up my theory. Which has nothing to do with anything I actually said.

And "women and others," as you put it, are reporting being insulted by disparate treatment, whether or not you yourself feel there's an insult there. I'm quite willing to accept the testimony of the affected that there's an issue here.

LondonLee (#922)

The Esquire review of 'Freedom' was illustrated with a copy of the book on a shelf next to The Sound and The Fury, Moby Dick, Huck Finn, and The Great Gatsby.

To pretend that reviewers aren't claiming greatness for Franzen and the book is ridiculous.

Davyh (#7,156)

Well, are you willing to accept the testimony of both Norman Mailer and Philip Roth that Michiko Kakutani of the Times has a profound bias against white male authors? The simple truth is that many women authors believe the Times has a bias against women, while some distinguished male authors are convinced it has a bias against men. This is hardly surprising, but it makes your suggestion that we accept the testimony of the affected pretty useless as a device for determining the truth. We must consider this testimony, but in the end we have to formulate our own judgment as to whether its persuasive.

ronc90 (#7,179)

#1. The book's main character is a woman. Shouldn't that be mentioned?

#2. Toni Morrison. Lorrie Moore. Joyce Carol Oates. Alice Munro. Marilynne Robinson. Jane Smiley. Louise Erdrich. Margaret Atwood. Claire Messud. Zoe Heller. Lionel Shriver. Nicole Krauss. Kate Atkinson. Lydia Davis. Deborah Eisenberg. A.S. Byatt. Julia Glass. Jennifer Egan. A.M. Homes. You know, off the top of my head.

uws_annajane (#6,186)

Katha Pollitt wrote about this in Slate in 2009. The money quote:

"If The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn't quite come off?"

Full article: http://www.slate.com/id/2213111/pagenum/all/

uws_annajane (#6,186)

Which is not to say that I think that, if Jodi Picoult were Joseph Picoult, he'd have a different reputation.

balsa_wood (#465)

Um….maybe? Far from inconceivable.

john smith (#245,014)

"I have a hard time believing that in their heart of hearts, they envision themselves as even writing literary fiction, or at least that they aim their work at the same critical audience Franzen does. (Would Franzen's website have as a title
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abcd pagi (#245,759)

This, literary fiction and its defenders do not do particularly well. These people are often fond of quoting David Foster Wallace's affirmation that "literature makes you feel less alonPhen375 review

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