May 25, 2013
Jonathan Franzen in Womanland
Posted on Sep 30, 2010
In the famous, surreal “house of mirrors” scene that resolves the convoluted plot of Orson Welles’ 1947 film “The Lady From Shanghai,” the images of Rita Hayworth and Welles shatter and refract each other. We see each of them from many angles; they’re superimposed; their reflections reflect. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” is like this, but with realism. Instead of Hayworth and Welles facing each other, it’s you, me and American bourgeois culture.
This novel has become a phenomenon beyond its 564 pages. It has launched new dramas: “forgiveness” by Oprah in choosing it for her book club despite Franzen’s snub 10 years ago, when she chose his earlier novel “The Corrections”; his face on the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him the “Great American Novelist”; the zillion reviews. And, in a contemporary “Mad Men” plot for the literati, righteously angry female professionals—in this case, best-selling women novelists—have been vocally ticked off about how the critical establishment favors male literary writers like Franzen.
“Freedom” really is about something important. But the hubbub also is significant. Why has everyone cared so much? Because fiction matters.
In his nationwide book tour, Franzen has repeatedly addressed the controversy that broke out last month when two best-selling female novelists, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, tweeted loudly (squawked?) that the literary establishment ignores commercial fiction, especially “women’s fiction.” (See hashtag #franzenfreude.) Both regularly appear atop the New York Times best-seller list, but Picoult has been reviewed only three times, all under-thousand-word slams by Janet Maslin. For her seven best-sellers, Weiner has gotten a lot less than that: a grand total of five paragraphs in the Times, also by Maslin.
It’s true, the Gray Lady and her cohorts don’t have much lipstick in their purses. In an interview on The Huffington Post, Weiner names a slew of male writers, such as Nick Hornby and Carl Hiaasen, who “write what I’d call commercial books, even beach books. … All of them would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls. But they’re not, so they get reviewed. …”
Franzen agrees. In the Q&A during Franzen’s appearance at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on Sept. 13, a woman in the audience nervously asked that he comment on the issue. He said he hadn’t read Picoult’s work, a statement that drew sniggers from the mostly highbrow audience and that Franzen quickly squelched, adding that he’s seen lots of people reading the work, especially “the book with the umbrellas, very commonly seen on the New York subways.”
He then said he didn’t feel the attack was personally directed at him. But: “To the extent that it was directed at a literary culture that certainly, if you look at a hundred years or 200 years or even 50 years, or maybe even 25 years, or maybe even the present moment, that tends to skew toward critically rewarding a certain mode of male fiction at the expense of equally fine or in many cases much finer writing by women: I agree.”
We all agree. The reviewers themselves generally agree, at least theoretically. Walter, one of the two protagonists in “Freedom,” would agree so strongly that, as a very nice guy and a feminist, he’d probably gladly give the ink spent on him to characters created by female writers.
I did a quick audit of The New York Times in the past six months. During this period, a whopping six books have been described with the word masterpiece by a Times reviewer. All six are by men. Three of them were novels on the Book Review cover (“Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes, which was about Vietnam; “Death of the Adversary” by Hans Keilson, about the rise of a totalitarian leader in 1930s Germany; and Franzen’s “Freedom”). The fourth was Bao Ninh’s 1991 “The Sorrow of War” (published in the United States in 1995), which was mentioned in a Book Review essay on the 20-year anniversary of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried.” The fifth was Dominic Lieven’s nonfiction “Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace.” The sixth is “Girl by the Road at Night” by David Rabe on—take a guess—war, though only a particular paragraph was described as a “masterpiece.”
Are men the only authors of masterpieces? Are most masterpieces about war?
I happen to like novels about war, but I’ll also read Picoult. Ironically, Franzen’s “Freedom” is the only one of these “masterpieces” that’s not about war. He writes about that most typically “woman writer” realm, the family.
Certainly there are degrees of quality in fiction, as with anything. Franzen’s literary craftsmanship is superb, not only on a sentence level (flawless) but in his total lack of clichés and his emotional authenticity—incredibly difficult to sustain over 500-plus pages. Not once did I pop out of the dream (the fiction) by becoming aware of the writer trying too hard or not quite hitting the right note. Those hundreds of thousands of sentences and moments then added up to something nuanced and otherwise unsayable about human beings and the world we create. That kind of achievement is extraordinary.
That’s even more the case when the main characters aren’t particularly likeable and when there are only five of them, one family (father, mother, daughter, son) and the bad-boy friend, over the long novel. But they’re so very real, so very human, that you see yourself reflected in them, especially in their screw-ups and thirst to be “a good person” while feeling deep down that they’re not. Who can’t relate to that?
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