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.