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.