Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Following up on the Franzen Frenzy, I keep thinking about the Twitter-spawned debate against the praise of Freedom launched by popular novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner. As Michelle Dean at The Awl has written about this so-called "Franzenfreude," Picoult and Weiner "began complaining on Twitter...that the Times only liked books by 'white men from Brooklyn.'"

("Franzenfreude" is a malapropism, incidentally. "Freude" means "joy" and I don't think "Franzen Joy" is what Jennifer Weiner had in mind when she coined the term.)

The debate went on to the blogs at Huffington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, and more. Said Lisa Solod Warren in Huffington Post, "The truth is that authors like Picoult and Weiner can't hold a candle to Franzen... Why the two women are picking a fight with the coverage of Franzen's new novel is confusing. It seems more about professional jealousy than equal coverage or women's rights." And plenty of others have poked holes in the authors' argument.

Unfortunately, what gets lost in this smokescreen is the more important (and dangerously tricky) question of "Why isn't there more serious literary fiction being published by women?" But Picoult and Weiner don't appear to be calling for more serious literature from women--they are calling for lighter weight fiction by women to be taken as seriously as heavyweight fiction in general.

Weiner wrapped up her whole point thus: "In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement."

In the world imagined here, Sex & the City should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

When it comes to contemporary women writers, I'd rather pick up something by Jennifer Egan or Claire Messud. I have not read Weiner or Picoult, so I can't critique their writing. I know that many people enjoy it. Their books sell in the gazillions and Cameron Diaz stars in their movies. They do alright. They are immensely popular.

Franzen will never reach that level of popularity. His characters tend to be (gasp!) unlikeable and, in this Internet age where personality is priority, audiences tend to see Franzen himself as unlikeable. He is called "high-minded," "too smart," and "pretentious." This goes far beyond Weiner and Picoult's tweets, which are just one part of the argument against Franzen (he dared to disparage Oprah!).

To me, it feels a lot like the anti-intellectual trend raging in this country today. And we need to be very careful when "high-minded" becomes a slur.

More and more, we are becoming a nation of know-nothings. When the serious reviewers of serious fiction start giving equal weight to "chick-lit," romance, and for gender parity, empty-calorie male writing, we will have taken the next step towards our impending Idiocracy. In a culture that encourages everyone to "Be Stupid" and "Stop Thinking," in which 1 in 5 Americans think Obama is a Muslim, and 18% believe the Sun revolves around the Earth, that is a step too far.

A literary novel is stirring up excitement today, in a time when literature has been declared dead.
Everyday, we hear about how the Internet is making us stupider and how books are dying, even though they make us smarter, deeper thinkers--if we give them the time.

At this moment, do we really need attacks on any fine writer whose mission has been to "help restore Serious Literary Fiction to some place of importance in our culture"?

Everyone who cares about the future of reading and writing should push for the publication of intelligent books by female and male writers who challenge their readers to think.

As Franzen said in his cover story in TIME: "We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we've created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world."


  1. Franzen's disparaging of Oprah was not high-minded in the least. It was in fact 'pretentious', and epitomized a quite naive and status seeking notion of a 'serious author'. Oprah always encouraged her audience to seek slightly more challenging books than they might otherwise. In this context, Franzen was just pathetic.

  2. Hi Grumbler.
    I tend to agree that their argument is about professional jealousy, but they picked on the wrong guy. Picoult and Weiner would have made better arguments had they gone after a male writer of their own sort like Nicolas Sparks or even Dan Brown.

    In my circle of fans of serious literary fiction, we have no problem finding and celebrating great women writers like Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Jane Smiley, or Alice Munro. I happen to think Robinson is the Melville of our time, even superior to Franzen. Their work is "hard," meaning they might use literary devices such as themes, metaphor, and allegory.

    I also happen to be a fan of at least one male writer from Brooklyn - Paul Auster. And though he's left us for California, I also love Jonathan Lethem. I think Chronic City is the great New York novel of our time. The great New York novels of an earlier time were written by Edith Wharton, a woman writer of serious literary fiction. You may have heard of her.

  3. great points, Teri. Dan Brown would have been a much better target--and their point about the lack of gender parity for books like theirs is then valid. and thanks for mentioning Robinson.

    our culture attacks smart people, i think, because they "make" many us feel stupid. Al Gore did not get elected, in part, because he "made" people feel stupid. Bush? that was not his problem.

    i feel stupid when i try to read David Foster Wallace, but i am glad he wrote and published. i'm thankful he was here.

    as for Oprah, Franzen was honest about his conflicted feelings about being on her show. he spoke publicly about those feelings and she canceled him.

  4. Many good questions here...

    I still get excited over the new publications of my favorite authors, but there seem to be fewer as time goes on. Maybe, in addition to our shrinking national attention-span, it's due to over-saturation of the industry. The vast selection of books these days means many great writers can get lost in the mix.

    Our busy-bee culture may also be affecting our taste in reading - with so much over-stimulation, a person may turn to a book to 'zone out' rather than do any critical thinking, as they may have once done with TV.

  5. "Franzenfreude" is probably a witty derivative of "schadenfreude", which is basically taking joy in other's misfortunes.

    I think these women are incredibly self-conscious and overly-entitled to presume that Franzen is purposefully threatening to female writers (I'm sure in this case they're particularly interested in their own "literary rank" instead of womankind as a whole). He certainly isn't to the many ACCOMPLISHED female novelists out there, like the aforementioned Morrison, Robinson, Atwood, etc.

  6. right Hoolsa, an attempt to be witty, flawed by inattention to language and its meaning. ugh. i would love to hear from some of those accomplished women on this hoopla. like Susan Orlean--not a novelist, but super smart--who Tweets a lot. maybe they don't want to wade into the fray.

    Goggla, i think you're right about oversaturation. publishers seem to use the "throw it at the wall, see what sticks" philosophy. dare i say, that might be one thing that digitization of books helps. maybe only good books will have the honor of being printed on paper?

  7. I don't understand why women writing about love or family from their own perspectives is "fluff" or "chick lit". They're not even romance novels, which are purposefully fluffy. I think it's dangerously close to labeling all "womens'" fictions as being unworthy of attention.

  8. It's not anti-intellectual to feel miffed when the literary establishment declares that Freedom is an heir to the mythic "Great American Novel," and then proceeds to list other GAN's that are all...authored by white men. It's not a critique of Franzen or the quality of his writing. Those of you who mentioned Robinson, Munro, Oates -- awesome. Glad you noticed them. Now, notice how when Gilead was published, despite being a winner of a Pulitzer Prize, selling well, and being pretty much adored across the globe, nobody ushered her into those august ranks of the other dead white men who have supposedly been the other authors of the GAN. Perhaps it is the idea of the Great American Novel itself that is exclusionary to female writers and writers of color. Despite all of the wonderful, widely-read work out there by women and writers of color, white men still have the last word (for now) on being "American."


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