Pages

8.29.2010

Franzenfreude!!!

I love it how Lev Grossman declared Jonathan Franzen an endangered species:

Franzen is a member of another perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist....Franzen isn't the richest or most famous living American novelist, but...I would argue — that he is the most ambitious and also one of the best.

This from one of the dozen of articles focusing on Jonathan Franzen weeks/days before the drop date of his latest, Freedom, which will be released this Tuesday (8/31). The critics have chimed in and declared its importance, including Grossman:

The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm...Franzen skipped that trend. He remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel. In that sense he's a throwback, practically a Victorian.

Framing Franzen as such, the media automatically puts him in the big league of writers: Franzen is important, a modern James Joyce (despite his rant against expermentalism, because the reading public isn't smart enough to keep up); he will live in posterity, everything else out there is shit because other writers do not write novels that aims to speak to "the way we live now" (that is, the way middle class white people live) and at the same time, be throughly American enough to have it as its title: Freedom.

Any writer, I believe, has the right to be annoyed and insulted.

Among them, of course, are Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, who when on a crusade to attack--not Franzen, but--the media. As Jodi Picoult writes: "[I w]ould love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings." Which is right: Franzen is media darling, among other things.

Weiner dubbed the frenzy "Franzenfreude" and called for people to read books dealing with families in crisis (Franzen's subject matter) written by women, among them, Digging to America by Anne Tyler and Sue Miller's While I Was Gone.

All week, it's been Weiner vs. Franzen, as seen graphically in this eight-page comic.

I think this has opened up (into the public) many problems with our current literary culture.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is how polite literary society--that is serious Literature, with a capital L--love white men. As Picoult states: "the Times favours white male authors. That isn't to say someone else might get a good review – only that if you are white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds..." For every review of authors such as Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat or the Dominican-American Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz, "there are 10 Lethems and Franzens," she added later. That is: never mind whatever inkling of diversity there is in lists such as the New Yorker's under 40 list, white male authors will be taken more seriously than women writers (who have a hard time being tagged as anything other than "women's fiction" or chick lit), as Weiner states:

I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.

The same can argubly be applied to writers of color (Khaled Hosseni is a token), queer writers (who have their own publishers because bigger publishers can't stand the gay sex, unless of course, they aim to sell to a straight audience), and working class writers (you know you romanticize the characters in Raymond Carver's stories). The literary establishment takes tokens, but unless you are educated, white, male, straight, you will have trouble. You will flounder. I know this.

Beyond this, is the antagonism between "commercial fiction" and "Literary fiction." Weiner here argues that there seems to be very little distinction. For example, both her and Picoult's work and Franzen explore families. Yet it's just a matter of categorization. Whereas men's fiction and men's issues are called Literature, women's issues are categorized as commericial and chick lit, for women's entertainment only. Think the Lifetime Channel in paper form. By doing so, women's stories are given less urgency and are marketed as "to be read only by women only." Think those paperback romances: they're funny, they're not to be taken serious, they're for women only. This compared to the hype around Franzen, which is framed as a book for every American to read.

Most importantly, the discourse given by the media and literary establishments is that serious fiction can only be written by white men (or non-threatening tokens). The evidence, as pointed out by Weiner and Picoult, is in the air time given to writers like Franzen. It might indeed be news that this is Franzen's first novel in 9 years; in comparison, Weiner and Picoult "churn out" one per year. Yet, that's not the point.

Take Monique Truong for example. Her last book The Book of Salt was released in 2003. On Tuesday, the same day as Franzen's release, her first book in seven years will be released: Bitterness in the Mouth. It's a tale about synethesia and family and the relationship between the protaganist and her gay uncle. It's a tale that reinvents the Southern Gothic genre, says reviews from media outlets such as Lambda Literary, LA Times, and Poets and Writers--but such media coverage is small compared to Franzen's coverage. Truong is an anomaly because she doesn't write about herself, per se. She explores sexualities not her own for example, and (in her last book) places that are not American. Truong might be a better writer just because of that, compared to Franzen (I have yet to read anything by Franzen; I will steal, borrow, or buy used one of his books; for Monique Truong, I will be rushing to the store). In terms of sales, it is obvious who will win. The darling, of course!

The lesson for writers to take home?: unless your a white middle class man, you should be insulted by the recent coverage of Franzen. It's the media and literary establishment's way of telling you  your stuff is not worth seriously considering, unless of course, they need a token. All this while literary establishment tries to find the savior of the great American novel. In Franzen, a pretentious and ambitious writer who wants to write about the way we live now (so many problems with that phrase, for example, who is WE? This is as useful as Palin's real America versus fake America), the literary establishment hopes to find evidence that the literary novel is not dead: that the white man still has his place as a chronicler of American life.

But I believe the critics just need to stretch their eyes open juuuust a little.

3 comments:

  1. It isn't that you write, or what you write, it is HOW you write that is important. If you don't understand what I mean by that, go to http://authonomy.com and have a good look at the slush pile. Then try to tell people that all writing is created equal. 99.999% of it is unequally bad. The rest is unequally good.

    Weiner and Picoult can sell their work without the NYT because they appeal to the minimally literate, who don't read the NYT book reviews. Those who are maximally literate do so, and they don't want to read about Weiner and Picoult.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wonder if Jody Picoult read Kakutani's damning review of Lethem's Chronic City back in the fall, another major offering by a "white male literary darling" (from Brooklyn, no less). My point is not that the Times hasn't historically taken white male authors more seriously, but that I certainly don't think that's Kakutani's modus operandi. Kakutani herself is a female Asian-American literary critic, someone who Norman Mailer once called a "token," and she's paid serious attention to books most people would consider schlocky chick lit (check out her review of Sebold's The Lovely Bones). And although I personally disagree with her judgements about 80% of the time, it seems offensively ridiculous to attribute her reading of Franzen to bias. To me, it seems like she happened to think the novel was big, and important, and she wanted to share that with the world. She looked inside the covers of the book and found something there that spoke to her; it's Picoult who hasn't yet gone beyond the dust jacket author photo. And that's a disservice to any writer, regardless of race or sex.

    PS I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts -- and your blog has a great name!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not all literature is equal, but I think you'd get more out of reading if you start off with that assumption, rather than listen to NYT to tell you what to think. My motto: DARE--Drop And Read Everything.

    ReplyDelete