Chick lit and Franzenfreude

I was unaware, as I began reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that there exists a growing anger toward him because he’s male. The criticism doesn’t seem to be about his writing of female characters or his focus on male characters. The frustration, according to the media, is that the attention he’s receiving isn’t being given to female authors.

Maybe the media is getting the complaints wrong. Maybe the assertions that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are mad about the media circus surrounding Freedom‘s release have to do with something more than a misplaced perception that “white male authors get all the attention.” Because there is certainly something to the criticism that there are NYTBR books and there are so-called chick lit books and ne’er the ‘twain shall meet. I don’t agree with that distinction, but I do believe in the distinction between literature and fiction.

I don’t agree with Time magazine that Franzen is The Great American Novelist. But I do agree that he’s writing something important and completely apart from that which most American authors write. Canonical lit? We’ll see. I don’t personally think so. But I really don’t think that Picoult or Weiner are writing literature.

Franzen’s maleness is hardly his fault. Yes, it’s frustrating that when critics and professors speak of American literature they tend to load the deck with male authors and hang on to alleged classics for the sake of tradition rather than taste (reference how many more people cite the infernal Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby over To Kill a Mockingbird, the latter of which is precisely three thousand times better than either the Salinger or the Fitzgerald as a social critique and character-driven narrative. But Catcher and Gatsby are focused on different moments in time, different themes, different pieces of Americana and are still valid parts of the canon. Even though I can’t stand reading them.)

Some men write really well and deserve critical praise. Some women write really well and deserve critical praise—but do they deserve more praise than they get?

Certainly women writing today get more attention than women used to get. More female lead characters in the canon, more female authors. In my graduate program we read a lot of Walker and Morrison and Nin and Stein and Barnes and Atwood and Perkins-Gilman and Wharton; so I’m not sure that the drumbeat of “women are ignored” really holds true.

The number of male-crafted texts revered in NYT circles still outnumbers the number of female-crafted texts, sure. But are we asking the wrong question?

Is the author the real issue or is the content the more important place to focus our feminist demand for equal time? The “pros versus readers” list of best millennial fiction from The Millions cites 20 books (including duplicates), 10 of which are by women. So? Should we be counting? Or should we be reading carefully to see if women and men exist, fully formed in these texts?

A decent Salon article points out that women tend to write bestsellers and men tend to receive accolades for their brilliance. And thus begins the age-old popular culture versus high culture nonsense, a debate that is false in its pretenses and its conclusions. Because women write brilliant literature. And men write throwaway novels. Gender is not the issue.

Look, it would be nice to see as many female author names as male names on a list, because we tend to write about different things from different perspectives. But despite what I believe about the importance of womanist fiction, authorial gender is not the point. I’d like to read good books and, later, when recommending them, notice that they’re by women. Or men. I don’t care about who writes them. I care what they write about and how they craft their novels.

I care that the characters are three-dimensional, believable, deeply felt proto-humans. I want well crafted male characters and female characters. Make the situations in which they operate real or surreal, but make the characters seem viable, possible, and believable. My absolute favorite contemporary novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has some pretty serious gaps in the “fully realized female characters” department. I believe it suffers because the women have almost no voice. Franzen gives me less impressive language, less humor, fewer arrestingly painful moments, but bigger, bolder, more solidly credible female voices. And so few books written by either men or women do that. No, he’s not Walker or Stein or Hurston, but he’s also not Joyce or James or Wallace. I’m not in the mood to bash Franzen for being something he’s not.

11 thoughts on “Chick lit and Franzenfreude

  1. Sing it, sister.

    I couldn’t even get all the way through Franzen’s last novel. I just don’t find his writing to be all that compelling. There, I said it.

  2. Men publish every frickin blithering thought in their skulls. They think all those free pats on the back for breathing meant something.

    There’s been a few studies showing that women science faculty have less publications than their male peers, but the publications from women have higher impact and are of higher quality than the crap men publish. When there’s a double blind review system, women get more papers accepted.

    I can look at a stack of CVs and tell you within 1 sec whether each one is from a dude (there’s all kinds of filler, including what he had for dinner and when he last took a shit) or a woman (not padded up to cruising altitude). The cover letters of men are I, I, I, I, My, My, My. Women are much more 3rd person: The research, the direction, the focus.

    It’s not hard to discern male-center-of-the-universe writing. Women are about the work, not themselves. It was eye-opening when this stuff first dawned on me.

  3. Ink: I couldn’t get through Franzen’s last one either, but I’m enjoying Freedom. He’s doing better with the women this time around, I think (although they’re still not as interesting as the men).

    I agree that there’s a difference between fiction and literature–absolutely. Picoult and Weiner are NOT writing literature. I’m not sure whether Franzen is either, but it’s closer to it, that’s for sure.

    I think it would be great it we didn’t have to count how many men vs women are in the canon; that said, I think women will always be keeping track and seething a little.

  4. Ink, I really enjoyed The Corrections. Didn’t love it, but consider it a very strong novel. How to Be Alone, on the other hand, was excruciating.

    And though I have enjoyed both The Corrections and Freedom, I don’t find Franzen’s language compelling. I like his books and I like the very few moments (I’m counting in Freedom exactly one every 70 pages) where he plays around with phrasing. But generally his prose just keeps the story moving, which I like. I cannot stand having a great story (White Oleander comes to mind) whipped into a micro-gastronomy fucking foam by Creative Writing 206 “how to describe the fog in a way that has never been done before and that shows off all your $5 words” bullshit. I’m not a Hemingway bon mot kind of writer or reader. I want gorgeously smart prose (DFW) or utilitarian prose (Franzen, Zadie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston) that gets me through the story more quickly. I don’t want language that calls attention to itself. If I want to notice your writing I will, thank you very much; don’t force me to notice it.

    jc I have experienced similar differences in non-scientific fields. But for some reason in creative writing the generalization works in the reverse: fluffy, obsequious blathering is often the domain of women, while sparse, stripped down useful language is the wont of men. Not always. And neither technique is better than the other, but I tend to prefer to the point not frilly, as it seems you do. Maybe female scientists are better able to edit down to the freaking scientific point, not the accolades for the person who thought to get an experiment to its end; and men are better able to edit stories and characters down to their freaking point without endless fawning over what people wear, think, and feel. Geezus with the freaking feelings. Women writing canonical, capital-L literature, though, blow the pants of most men doing the same, in my opinion.

    Kitch, I actually like his work with Patty a lot. I don’t necessarily like her. But I have no trouble believing she is fully formed, and not in a “not a bad female considering she was written by a man” kind of way. In a fully fleshed “this is a person” kind of way. A person in which I see myself, others, and a whole lot to empathize with (but not really want to be friends with, which is my favorite kind of character).
    I think if women writing literature are ignored by the same critics who praised Freedom, they *should* seethe. I just don’t get why women writing in a different genre are seething this much about the attention Franzen’s getting. Apples and oranges. So why cry foul when someone praises the orange’s pith?

  5. With literary fiction, I might excuse any number of lagging story moments if the style is compelling enough. In my reading of popular fiction, however, I need the story to be strong and I don’t care as much about the style or development of character — just want to be entertained, mostly.

    Never realized that before…great topic here, Nap!

  6. Pretty sure I’m the last person on the planet to read a Franzen novel, and now you just lit a fire under my pants to get my paws on one to see what all the bru-ha-ha is all about.

    I love being handed a book, reading it and then seeing whethe the author is male or female (unless I’m digging around myself to find a new read, I prefer not to look at the jacket or author page before reading something…I like to go in blind).

    • Ink, I want story or character or style. But one had better blow me away or I’m done.
      bfsm, thanks. I wish it were more thoughtful, but time contraints and all…
      letmestart, I’m interested to hear your opinion. But if you have time for only one book, I am definitely not pushing the Franzen. I agree on the going in blind thing, though. I NEVER read the summary or the reviews.

      Anyone who cares: I’m almost done with the Franzen and am growing more and more angry with the characters. Bunch of a–holes portrayed in a decent depiction of contemporary landscape. Not loving it but glad I’m reading it. Really fast read.

  7. What a fabulous post! I’m actually hosting a book club about the new Jonathan Franzen novel (there was so much hype and I enjoy his writing so much, I couldn’t resist). In our discussion as well as my post, I addressed some of these issues as well, and I agree with you: Weiner and Picoult just aren’t as good. Period. I don’t want the NYTimes to cover people just because they’re women. I hold them to a higher standard than that. And I think women writers deserve more than that, too.

    It’s funny, I have not read David Foster Wallace, but my husband’s unread copy of Infinite Jest is sitting inside our coffee table next to an unopened package of baby wipes. It wasn’t until reading Freedom that I decided I actually wanted to crack open Infinite Jest. (I just hate books that big. They sort of piss me off. They should be printed in volumes.) I think DFW’s spirit is all over Freedom, and I don’t even know DFW’s writing that intimately.

    Anyway, not sure if you have read Freedom, but feel free to stop on over to the Maladjusted Book Club to share some thoughts! I’d love to have you!

  8. Thank you so much! This is a great analysis. I finally picked up a book by Jodi Picoult to see for myself what all the raving is about. I enjoy the storytelling but I didn’t think it is “literature” per se. Of course I do feel a bit guilty for being “snobbish” or “elitist”. (And srly, when did being an elite become something that people should feel ashamed of? Are we back to the Andrew Jackson era of populism?)

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