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."