Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Sympathy For Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is in my estimation America's best living novelist (OKAY?) and a substantial number of people get upset whenever he writes or says basically anything.  It's interesting to ask why! In part it's because his ideas about novels and what people respond to in them are provocative and controversial, and sometimes, as in his recent essay about Edith Wharton, he projects his own responses onto "us" in a way that can be irritating, if we disagree with him.  Our opinion about his writing is also affected by of how rich he is and his gender and what he looks like, and that's very hard to talk about.  But that's what he tried to talk about in "A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy."

"I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader's literary judgments," Franzen starts by saying. "Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering."  The work is just "a mirror for the writer's character" anyway, he also says, so it doesn't even matter whether which one we imagine that we like or dislike.


We could stop right here and have a fight or an MLA convention panel about this assertion, pretty much, without even getting into Edith Wharton's purported unlikeability. Not only characters but authors have to be good eggs, mensches you'd like to join for a beer, for their novels to matter?  Franzen has spent the last year working on the HBO show version of The Corrections; it's not a huge stretch to imagine him sitting in all the related conference calls and meetings, playing a game with himself where he takes a sip of coffee every time anyone says the word "relatable" and then having to run to the bathroom halfway through, and then eventually being infected and brainwashed by this LA-borne virus. But this would seem to conflict with everything else we've ever read by or about this willfully unlikeable man or his prickly, antisocial, sometimes charmless characters (who yet manage to remind us, some of us at least, of so many people we've known and loved and hated and also ourselves.)

What's complex and almost impossible to say, what I think that Franzen was trying to say when he called Wharton's unprettiness "redeeming" and imagined that everyone takes pleasure from watching Lily Bart make the wrong choice at every opportunity, is that while we can piously pretend to be above concerns about looks and class when we're talking about books, Jonathan Franzen doesn't buy it.   And I can appreciate the cojones that it takes to say that, even while I feel totally differently about Wharton, and about poor Lily Bart (she was so trapped! There were no right choices! How could anyone find watching that "delicious!" I cry every time!) than he does.

But then we have to deal with the other thing: the beauty thing, and the accusations of sexism that dog this guy.  Because I  agree with her entirely on this, I'll just quote Molly Young here:

Franzen goes on to note that the absence of beauty “tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do”. This is statistically true when it comes to daily, lived experience—Daniel Hamermesh wrote a whole book about how the homely are economically disadvantaged—but I don’t think it is true in theory; that is, I don’t think it’s true when a reader’s only conception of Wharton’s unattractiveness comes from a two-inch author photo on the book’s back fold.

The point is, Franzen’s idea that “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if…she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy” strikes me as bizarre and invidious. If he’d had the courage to replace “us” with “me”, the sentence would strike me as simply bizarre. I don’t object to the airing of quirky personal prejudices as part of a larger tribute, but it is arrogant and irresponsible to attribute these things to the entire reading world.

That's what gets to me too, mostly, Franzen considering what he assumes we all think of as Wharton's lack of looks as a mitigating factor against the contempt we assume we all feel towards her because she was rich.  Those are his unattractive biases.  Mine are a little different.

Sure, I'll admit this: I'm probably more prone to enjoy books by people who aren't gorgeous (sorry, Jhumpa)  but ultimately it's not a huge factor for me because I myself am still decent looking and will be for a good five more years or so if I'm lucky.  But because I'm not rich,  I have a hard time feeling sympathetic to the creative output of the very rich even if they look like Gerhardt Hapsburg.  Although! If said people are long-dead they could be as lovely and rich as they like and it won't have any affect on my opinion of their work.  The real bonerkiller for me is when I find out someone (say, Tolstoy) was a terrible husband or father or was straight-up abusive to women.  Then it gets much harder for me to see the books' merits clearly, though I can still sometimes manage it.

Those just happen to be my unattractive personal biases, though.  They probably are not yours and I wouldn't dream of projecting them onto you.

The sad weird fact of the matter is that if we can only read books by objectively likeable people (whatever "objectively likeable" might mean) we are going to be stuck with a very empty bookshelf/Kobo. Almost all writers have some terrible trait, possibly because most people have some terrible trait. But let's be real, writers moreso. They are kind of the worst. Oh, and listen up, (imaginary) people who are deciding whether to read Edith Wharton based on how they hear she treated her servants: The writers I've met whose books and public biographies would seem to indicate that they're the kind of guy/gal you'd love to just hang out and get a drink/pedicure with? Those people are almost always the most rotten-souled, self-involved, boring, angry, petty ingrates imaginable. And they smell bad. Just take my word for it.

Okay, so! In conclusion, it's unfortunate that Franzen projected his prejudices onto everyone, but he's correct to call attention to the fact that we all have prejudices that influence our reading, regardless of what we were taught to pretend in school. And if your prejudices are preventing you from reading his books, by the way, you're only denying yourself pleasure.

85 Comments / Post A Comment

This is the point on the internet where the guy says "I'm getting some popcorn" or posts an animated gif of Michael Jackson (the singer) eating popcorn.

barnhouse (#1,326)

The weirdest thing about to me it is that Edith Wharton was really pretty, I think? So. I love Franzen's novels too (also that essay collection,) but he is majorly impossible. It starts to look like he is doing it on purpose.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I have never understood you on this! I wish I did. Do you love J Franzen's novels because they are pretty decent journalistic depictions of US educated-class mores and purchasing habits? Or because of the depth of insight into human souls you find there? Their exquisite construction, maybe?

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Tulletilsynet they have the rare quality of familiarity; they're recognizably about the world I live in, that's one thing. They are beautifully constructed in the manner of nineteenth-century novels, which lots of people try to do and fail at because it comes out all "period" or vintage-y or whatever. His dialogue is just great. He writes children really, really well.

What I don't like so much is that his self-projected heroes like Walter B. in Freedom are total dords. But he lets them have it, so. You're left with this impression of a mind in kind of a crisis, in many binds. But all honestly catalogued with plenty of self-condemnation.


Tulletilsynet (#333)

I have to admit I liked the parents in The Corrections. Until I reflected on their childraising skills.

StephCathleen (#221,806)

@barnhouse I also thought Wharton was pretty! I actually visited her former summer home this past fall, and the proof of her wealth did not make me feel one way or another about her writing. If anything, I always felt kind of bad that she had a crappy love life- at least with her husband. She did a lot of fundraising during WWI as well.

rollo_treadway (#219,733)

@barnhouse I just look up some of Wharton's photos, and she was rather pretty! For a point of comparision, look at photos of Lillian Russell, who was almost the same age as Wharton, and widely considered the most beautiful woman in the world in her prime. Wharton does not come off particularly negatively in comparison. I dunno, just because Franzen's not turning his crank to Edwardian women doesn't make Wharton ugly.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@StephCathleen and @rollo_treadway Yes and yes!!

atipofthehat (#797)


So, we'd all do Edith Wharton?


Thanks for posting this. Helpful perspective. You really think he's America's best living novelist? I thought The Corrections was pretty good, and that's all. I have a hard time understanding why we care what he thinks of Wharton. The article strikes me as immature, subjective, and inaccurate, and not much else. Having cojones is nice, but it's hard to think of that as constituting good criticism. Anyway, I liked your post.

toonz (#10,533)

"Jonathan Franzen is in my estimation America's best living novelist"

barnhouse (#1,326)

@toonz You have to provide another nominee, then (thinking about it, meself.)

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@barnhouse Jonathan Lethem, for starters.

deepomega (#1,720)

@dntsqzthchrmn Words out of my mouth.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@dntsqzthchrmn Every time I read something about Jonathan Franzen, I think "Oh, Jonathan Lethem, I like him….oh. Franzen."

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Yeah, Jon L, to name somebody under 50. I want to run down the street shouting out random names of people who are more interesting and comprehensive artists than Jon Franzen.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@dntsqzthchrmn The internet has another suggestion.

HiredGoons (#603)

@dntsqzthchrmn: Miles Klee.

rajma (#2,918)

@toonz Sam Lipsyte?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I like that suggestion a lot, Marilynne Robinson. But when the starting point is Jonathan Franzen, my compass spins in all directions. I simply can't understand why anybody but an Oprah or a Time magazine ever took him seriously. He is plodding. He tells & he don't show. His plots don't make any damned sense (and I am talking about his conventional fiction). Maria, forgive me, this guy is not Trollope. He is a 500-page trend-piece journalist. I will give you the clever dialogue now and then, though. But clever dialogue of that kind is an ornament of style. We're not talking about Ivy Compton-Burnett clever.

hapax (#6,251)

@barnhouse Michael Chabon, OBVIOUSLY.

iantenna (#5,160)

@barnhouse i'm going with thomas mcguane or larry mcmurtry but i might just be really into micks that write about the west.

La Cieca (#1,110)

@toonz You call that living?

flossy (#1,402)

@barnhouse Don Delillo? Paul Auster? Not necessarily The Best, but Better Than Franzen?

Aloysius (#1,808)

@toonz Why is anyone saying anything other than Cormac McCarthy? I like Lipsyte though.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Aloysius Because we think his radical views on punctuation are crackpot-y.

flossy (#1,402)

@rajma Ooh, yeah. Lipsyte is great. And another one for whom personal un-fuckability makes for stronger writing. Nobody particularly studly could have written Home Land or The Ask.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@barnhouse Tao Lin obvs

barnhouse (#1,326)

I love Lethem but he is so uneven. That LA book! No. Marilynne Robinson, pretty good call, and I love Cormac McCarthy, Enemy of the Comma, VERY much. But I guess I will go for Pynchon.

russell brandom (#7,699)

Denis Johnson. (Also, sick burn on Gerhardt Hapsburg.)

LondonLee (#922)

Phillip Roth is still alive you know.

Much as I like Sam Lipsyte and some of the others mentioned (not Lethem though, gimme a break) you can't really call a writer with only a few books under their belt "great living novelist"

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Everything you just said, and then some Tom McGuane on top of it. And, you know, all kinds of people. Salter, Robinson, Madison Smartt Bell, Rick Barthelme. Is Jonathan Franzen in the class of Anne Tyler? I think he is not.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Yes, absolutely, McGuane and McMurtry, on their first few books alone. But did you read McGuane's latest, Driving on the Rim? So smart and funny. And large. Without having to strew copies of War and Peace around like throw pillows so you'll get how large he is being.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@LondonLee Haha, I was going to post "Is Phillip Roth still alive?" But then I'd feel bad if he died tomorrow.

iantenna (#5,160)

@Tulletilsynet not yet, but it's on the list. i've heard good things and you sort of hit the nail on the head about what makes him great, he's got the wit and whimsy of a tom robbins without the unbearable self-congratulatory style and borderline porn (which, of course, i enjoyed a lot more as a teenager) and with an actual point and purpose.

a good friend went to see him speak at CU Boulder a few years ago and said that he was basically the only audience member under 40, and one of only a handful that seemed familiar with mcguane's work. that shit made me scream. what the fuck, america? we should be teaching the bushwhacked piano and ninety-two in the shade in every class that's even remotely associated with the use of the english language.

wb (#2,214)

@Tulletilsynet Madison Smartt Bell! The Color of Night was really excellent. That's the first I've read of his many books, but it was a compelling introduction.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I know there are a lot I'm not really thinking of just because they're in the "wrong" genre. Like, I was just thinking if I could put Art Spiegelman in a blender with Neal Stephenson (and wind up with a new author rather than a horrible mess,) that might actually be my number one.

jenny_ (#217,871)

@toonz Harper Lee is still alive!

KeithTalent (#2,014)

@rajma I love lipsyte. But I nominate Richard Ford.

wb (#2,214)

@barnhouse Or could we just get Neal Stephenson are really good editor? I love his ideas and writing, but needs someone to reel him in. Such unnecessarily long books!

@Tulletilsynet Oh! Madison Smartt Bell so many times over Franzen. "All Souls Rising" tore my heart out.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Is X the greatest living American novelist? Sure, why the hell not?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@LondonLee Phillip Roth is not only alive, but (if you listen to him) he outlived the novel itself and is therefore the final winner of literature. You can all stop reading now and just go and fuck him.

Mr. B (#10,093)

Excuse me but Norman Rush.

Guts (#589)

@toonz Toni Morrison!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Agree on all points (including the alt text). He's been kind of a prickly bastard forever, and only seems to be mellowing with age, so I really don't understand the sudden wave of Franzen-hate. Nor why he got so heavily criticized for critics liking him more than various ladies.

deepomega (#1,720)

As with L___ D__ R__, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend an artist whose work I hate, because they are often criticized for the wrong reasons. He's an asshole who writes grand and heartless prose, and those are two unrelated thoughts.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

@deepomega -Naturally I read that as "with TL;DR".

rajma (#2,918)

@Art Yucko Too Lana; Didn't Rey

belltolls (#184)

They get way madder at Jonathan Safran Foer. I like James Salter for best living novelist.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@belltolls Salter for best short story writer, penis-having division.

belltolls (#184)

@dntsqzthchrmn "LIKE!" But for novels too! I have been haunted in a good way by Solo Faces and A Sport And A Pastime most of my penis-having life. Er…not quite what I meant.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

Am I the only one who never thought about/wasn't really sure what Edith Wharton looked like until now? It's not like they have big bookjacket photos of her on all the Penguin editions.

@WaityKatie Totally. I also don't think of her as particularly more privileged than most privileged authors.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@My Number Is My Address I'm also going to need to have a think about what Henry James looked like, now. That can't lead anywhere good.

rollo_treadway (#219,733)

I was so furious after reading this piece last week that I was tempted to fire off some hate mail to the New Yorker. Then I pondered the chances of the New Yorker publishing a real takedown of their golden boy and thought I'd save myself the effort.

I found Franzen's choice to single out Wharton as a particularly unlikable person to be nothing short of amazing. In a field populated with wifebeaters, Nazi sympathizers, ingrates, liars, the one writer he choose to single out as unlikable is…. a rich person who is kind of snippy with shopkeepers and has few friends of the same gender?! And then he expresses surprise that Wharton can manage to be friends with so many prominent men of her time. Gee, maybe this is possible because she was one of the most well-regarded writers of her time? In the same essay, he mentions without irony, his fondness for Alexei Karamazov, the literary creation of Dostoevsky, a person who is so unlikable he could not even manage to like himself and based Fyodor Karamazov, one of the most despicable literary characters ever created, upon himself. And all this criticism of unlikability coming from one of the more commonly unliked writers today.

And then he manages to waste several more pages going on about how very unattractive Edith Wharton is, and how central this fact was to her writing. Would anyone think to write and publish this about a male author?! The ridiculous thing is, from photos I've seen, Edith Wharton is not unattractive at all, especially in the photo that the New Yorker published. Has Jonathan Franzen looked in the mirror lately, and how does he refrain from punching it repeatedly when he does?

flossy (#1,402)

@rollo_treadway FWIW, I think Gary Shteyngart's unattractiveness is central to his writing, but in a good way.

HelloTitty (#830)

@flossy I agree. It takes all the work out of figuring out what his protagonist looks like.

rollo_treadway (#219,733)

@flossy I image googled Shteyngart, and he looks…. normal? I'm guessing this is one of those Woody Allen things where one is to assume that the protogonist is more or less like the creator? If that's the case, that's pretty different from what Franzen is saying about Wharton. I've read so many of Wharton's books, and it has never even occured me to wonder what she looked like.

Spencer Lund (#2,331)

Can we all agree Ethan Frome is an awful book to foist on high school freshman, regardless of Wharton's looks?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Spencer Lund I wrote a paper in high school about literary realism and Edith Wharton titled "You Can't Run Frome Naturalism."

belltolls (#184)

@Spencer Lund Well, it made me want to go find a tree and hang myself, if that's what you mean.

Lucky Jim (#207,189)

Am I the only one who finds the above article/entry/essay difficult to read? It's one terrible sentence after another. Of course, it's well-intentioned, so I guess that makes it the opposite of Franzen.

now known (#221,764)

@Lucky Jim Yeah, it's definitely you. Its a well written, thoughtful piece–so maybe you're just not smart enough to grapple with the text.

ape lish (#222,266)

@Lucky Jim: I'm definitely with you. Gould's piece is kind of embarrassingly bad; not only does she raise a lot of tired issues, she addresses them simplistically and her writing is ham fisted and childish. I'm willing to bet that Franzen, if he were to read it, would cringe.

It's moments like these when it just feels like I'm reading Gawker.

grammar (#2,400)

Jonathan Franzen's criticism always reminds me of the beginning of the essay 'Hamlet and His Problems', where T.S. Eliot writes about "that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet [[or in Franzen's case, anything, including but not limited to Facebook, birds, or Edith Wharton]] a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization."

I also think he's a mighty talented novelist.

jfruh (#713)

An English professor of mine once told me that Edith Wharton's mother refused to educate her on the most basic facts of human reproduction, and that the first time she spied a penis was as a teenager when she and her mother were in a European museum and she saw a nude statue and she basically said, holy cow, what the heck is that, and her mother blurted out "You can't possibly not know!" and wouldn't say more. This anecdote strikes me as extremely unlikely but it's all I can think about in reading the back in forth in the "Franzen on Wharton: Unfuckable" debate, so if any of you smarter people have heard about it, I'd love to know. (Keep in mind that this same prof, a fiftysomething Jewish man, liked to read dialogue in dialect in class, which was tolerable for Isaac Bashevis Singer but deeply embarrassing for Zora Neale Houston, so in retrospect the sourcing is suspect.)

rollo_treadway (#219,733)

@jfruh Franzen mentions something about this in the essay. Don't recall the exact context, but he may have been making the point that part of what makes Wharton unsympathetic was that she resented her mother and blamed her for her relationship problems. He also said that part of what makes Wharton an unpleasant person was that she divorced her husband, even though he himself pointed out that it was a bad marriage bound to end in doom. So… Franzen blames Wharton for something that he said was entirely understandable. One of the many ways this essay is ridiculous.

StephCathleen (#221,806)

@rollo_treadway Um, wasn't her husband mentally ill? From what I've read about their relationship, it was far from intimate. It sounds like he was really reaching for this one.

I always like it when I find out authors I like have similar backgrounds or politics to mine but it's usually ex post facto and purely a matter of icing on the cake. I've never disliked something good because I couldn't sympathize with the author. At most I find out the author is a jerk and decide not to write an encomium to them.

Your point, however, is a great one because it seems he is determined to undermine himself. That is, by his logic even those who, however wrongly, admire him, must begin not liking him so much because if he shows himself to be a dick any moral person must turn their backs on him. To be honest it comes across sort of pathological, both isolating himself and trying irrationally to control the terms on which he (under the guise of any author) is judged. It reminds me of Nabokov insisting he must not be psychologized even as he furiously wipes the spilt milk from the floor. Except without the being totally awesome part. Jonathan Franzen is not allowed to be this difficult. So is the best way to reject him to like him? I hope not.

Thanks for writing this, but especially thanks for mentioning the Kobo. It was a breath of fresh air, as I am getting mighty sick of writers, when needing to refer to their audience's presumed ebook reader of choice, always saying, "our Kindles."

Emily (#20)

@Tweets of Rage@twitter THANK YOU FOR NOTICING THAT!

carpetblogger (#306)

@Tweets of Rage@twitter I have no idea what a kobo is, but based on all context available, I figured it has to be some alt-kindle that cool people have.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

If you shout "Jonathan Franzen" in a crowded thread, is that protected speech?

Art Yucko (#1,321)

So Don DeLillo's dead? Good for him!

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

What about Herman Melville?

shawn (#1,859)

Did he have an *attractive* chronicler of society in mind? I mean, everyone in the past was totally uggo — isn't that like common knowledge, and pretty much built in to our critical faculties?
Now that I've image-searched Mr. Franzen, I'm surprised I disliked The Corrections so much. The writing must have really worked hard to overcome my innate sympathy for such a nice-looking boy.

flossy (#1,402)

But what does Franzen think of Lena Dunham? Too ugly and privileged? Or ugly and privleged like a fox?

MikeVidafar (#221,792)

This whole Franzen backlash echoes the larger issue, which I'm glad you brought up. That is, people simply do not want to hear another person's opinion of the person. We do have our preconceptions and our prejudices, but they are personally derived from our experiences!

That means that even well respected authors might say something you completely disagree with. But they're entitled to their opinions the same way we all are. "Right", "Wrong", "Politically Correct", and the lot have no bearing when it comes to judging an artist.

There's an article that talks about this more in detail, but this is exactly the sort of thing that people today need to work out http://bit.ly/ye026h

skybarn (#5,465)

See, I think that the answer is novels are the most overrated art form. They only have about five years of good looks left.

skybarn (#5,465)

I thought this was fascinating and well-written, made me agree and disagree equally, which is pretty awesome.

It's crazy to me that the default instinct is to name a bunch of white male authors as best living author. Can there be any argument, other than the same literary snobbishness that promoted Henry James over Dickens (not by James!), that J.K. Rowling is the greatest living author. I mean! And the best living author has to be a novelist–not a short story writer, or an essayist or a poet or a critic. Or a combination. Just some cranky middle-aged guy. And even though I'm not as old as Franzen, I grew up being bombarded by, and usually buying into, this whole antiquated idea of literature and culture and oh my god I want to shut myself up now. Done.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

I find Franzen's works conventional and corny, which is okay if you like that sort of thing. I mean, some people do, and I don't mind. I am somewhat taken aback by the grandiose claims made for them.

I think novels will be around for a while, but the big deals in the immediate future are probably going to be movies and video games — a conventional and corny opinion which you Franzen folks should eat up.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

This was great, and the comments are highly entertaining, but the best American author is Lynda Barry, who, as a bonus, is an illustrator as well.

johsn (#245,069)

I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader's literary judgments," Franzen starts by saying. "Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering."

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