An almost unbloglich level of Franzenfreude

Check it out:  Amanda Hess’s analysis of Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay in which he screams at the children to get off his lawn, and to take their Twitter-machines with them:

Franzen blames the Internet for eradicating “the quiet and permanence of the printed word,” which “assured some kind of quality control,” in favor of an apocalyptic hellscape punctuated by “bogus” Amazon reviews and “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion.” Back in Franzen’s day, “TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments.” He goes on: “It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer.”

Wow.  Not too many white people can openly express their nostalgia for segregation or apartheid and get their 6,500 word essays published in The Guardian!  But that’s not all:  apparently, guys like Franzen really are victims!  Of something.  The important thing to know is that Jonathan Franzen can no longer “find his place. . . as a writer” in our modern dystopia.  But the pre-internet world doesn’t seem all that awesome in his telling:

And then there is the tale of the German chick, told to pinpoint exactly the moment Franzen became an angry person. “I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform,” Franzen writes. “There was an element of anti-German hostility in this, because I’d recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part.”

There’s an “element of anti-German hostility in this,” sure, but the more relevant portion of Franzen’s anger is directed at women. Literature’s preeminent dude-bro took out his frustrations at a girl he “decided” not to have sex with (isn’t that how it always happens!) by fantasizing about old women destroying their bodies as they scrounge after his discarded fortunes. Franzen writes that he learned to overcome his youthful anger when he became a novelist, and was moved to empathize with other humans in the service of great literature; “to imagine what it’s like to be somebody you are not” is the “mental work that fiction fundamentally requires,” he now understands.

Most of us do this mental work without even the promise of a lucrative book contract!  I think it’s called being human.  (See also Jennifer Weiner’s response to Franzen in The New Republic.)  I’d like to be nostalgic for the days of segregated public pools and when women couldn’t talk back in any public medium, but that would really tax my skills at imagining what it’s like to be somebody I am not.

Besides, I have to save that mental energy for writing about the eighteenth century.

42 thoughts on “An almost unbloglich level of Franzenfreude

  1. Christ, what an asshole!

    I find that any time someone mentions Franzen, that’s usually all that I need to encapsulate my response. Thank you, interwebs for my favourite all-purpose response to this annoyance.


  2. Sounds pretty messed up, especially the coin-throwing part. Everybody’s knees are going to be like that someday. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of this guy, but not totally settled on who he is/was. Did he write something called the Reflections, or Refractions, or Replacements, or something like that? Anyway, I don’t know.


  3. So *that”s* what that long Franzen essay was about. I tried it, couldn’t discern a point, and gave up. Contempt for women–and the elderly, and Germans, and maybe anybody whose initials aren’t JF?


  4. Actually, you should say Arschloch. This joy of walking around pissed used to be reserved to underdeveloped countries where life is really tough and smiles are worth a lot.

    Anyone with the idea of “the good old days” should be ignored, at best.


  5. He’s pretty much a douche. Jennifer Weiner’s response is the best of the lot, for my money. I laughed out loud at her line, “All of this probably makes J-Franz want to drop-kick an old German lady’s Kindle.”

    For my part, at least, the upshot of Franzen’s whinging about supposedly lesser writers is my newfound interest in reading one of Weiner’s books. Frankly, after reading those excerpts of his and her response, she strikes me as the superior prose stylist.


  6. After reading the Franzen’s essay, I can sort of understand his point, even if I don’t totally agree with it. You don’t have to think of the past as “the good old days” to think that not everything about our contemporary world is necessarily an improvement on the past – some things can get worse even as other things get better.


  7. It’s kind of like when he snubbed Oprah, because *his* book wasn’t low-brow $hit for average Americans to discuss in their crappy little book clubs. No sir-ee Bob.


  8. At the risk of party-pooping, it seems to me that Weiner and Hess completely missed the point of Franzen’s essay (or rather excerpt from his new book on Kraus). I would think that the thoughtful denizens of this blog would actually agree with much of what he writes there, especially since much of the techno-utopianism and unregulated capitalism that are his main targets are also driving such disturbing corporatist trends in academia such as MOOCs and the over-reliance on adjuncts. Here’s one wonderful quote, which is punchy enough to be worthy of Tenured Radical herself:

    “Technovisionaries of the 1990s promised that the internet would usher in a new world of peace, love, and understanding, and Twitter executives are still banging the utopianist drum, claiming foundational credit for the Arab spring. To listen to them, you’d think it was inconceivable that eastern Europe could liberate itself from the Soviets without the benefit of cellphones, or that a bunch of Americans revolted against the British and produced the US constitution without 4G capability.”

    Zygmunt Baumann, John Gray, and many others make parallel arguments (not to confuse technological progress with moral or social progress), just from slightly different starting points. I confess I’ve never quite understood the animosity that Franzen elicits, but sometimes even people who rub us the wrong way make points worthy of consideration.


  9. VL, you’re right that this post (and the linked articles) don’t engage Franzen’s ostensible “point.” I share some of his technoskepticism, for sure–I don’t use Twitter either.

    I am interested in his nostalgia for a world in which a coterie of male writers wrote books, made piles of money, and reviewed each others’ books in the New York Review of Books. I understand why a guy like him feels like he missed the party. He can’t be John Updike, John Cheever, or Norman Mailer, but who the hell would want to be? I think it’s a character flaw to want to be like those guys, as well as a major failure “to imagine what it’s like to be somebody you are not.”


  10. Maybe if Franzen didn’t embed his so-called point in a lengthy screed of onanistic privilege with a side order of misogyny and sadism, people would be more likely to engage the “point” rather than the onanism, privilege, misogyny, and sadism. If he wanted a specific point engaged, he should have followed what Strunk and White recommend for getting one’s point across instead of whatever lengthy bullshit he spewed in that article. (I guess there’s a reason I don’t generally read “great” works of modern fiction. Who has the time to read someone else’s masturbatory prose?)

    Also, I think Ray Bradbury had old-man technophobia pretty well covered.

    I also have never had sex with Franzen. With that I must be content.


  11. Well, he embeds his argument in a discussion of a writer who is deliberately difficult, and does it in a way that mirrors his description of Kraus. So it’s hard to tell whether the point is the evils of technology or the marvels of Kraus, about whom he is publishing a book. It is not surprising, then, that people miss or ignore the point: part of the way he writes here – and from what he says, Kraus writes – is to make it impossible to find “the point”. As I read his essay, the goal was to render such a reductive reading impossible.

    What struck me was the way he embeds this in his own intellectual genealogy, so his college German teacher, “something of a second father”, gives him the Kraus as a wedding present. Huh? What kind of wedding present is that?

    As historians, we know that apocalyptic ideas come round fairly frequently. Franzen’s apocalypse is intellectual and cultural, not the environmental one that seems so much more likely, or indeed the Christian one potentially heralded by the Syrian civil war, or the various other folks who predict the end of the world from time to time. His apocalypse is Apple, twitter, Facebook and Amazon. Twitter can be silly or smart, FB is an electronic water cooler, amazon has made buying books cheaper and easier, and is now making self publishing simple. It’s only the apocalypse for the New York three martini lunch crowd – and they mostly disappeared in the 70s, when the corporate conglomerates took over publishing.

    For the record, I have not slept with Frantzen, but I won’t tell whose decision that was.


  12. For what it’s worth, while I agree that Franzen comes off like an asshole and has an unfortunate inability to handle his literary celebrity (he seems to want to pretend he’s “just” an obscure writer, then he writes offensive things or says offensive things, and then everybody gets pissed off at him)…. piling on Franzen feels like it’s just too easy. He is the novelist we love to hate, even though, and I really believe this, he is one of the best and most innovative novelists writing today.

    And as for Jennifer Weiner, have you guys read her books? Because I have (like 4 of them). The reason she doesn’t get the acclaim or attention that Franzen does isn’t that she’s a woman writer who is trapped in the ghetto of chick lit: it’s because she’s not very good. I mean, her writing is fine for what it is, but I would never teach a Jennifer Weiner novel in a literature course under any circumstances. Her vendetta against Franzen bothers me because she’s going after an exceptionally talented novelist in order to try to legitimize her own mediocrity. And frankly, I’d rather read amazing novels by a gigantic asshole (though I will say that I don’t actually perceive Franzen as a misogynist – I perceive him as a misanthropic elitist) than read lame novels by people who aren’t assholes.


  13. I fail to see what the literary merits of Franzen vs. Weiner novels have to do with anything regarding the article or its coverage. Weiner is only in there because Franzen attacked her for being on twitter, as if that’s a bad thing (which in itself is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule, no offense twitter-haters, I respect your opinion so long as you don’t attack folks who disagree). If her novels suck, what does that matter? It’s like saying a victim deserved what she got because of how she dresses. It’s irrelevant to the matter at hand.

    Unless the argument is that you agree that only lousy writers are on twitter or something and good writers should stay away from it, but given n=2 that seems a bit week. There are a lot of lousy writers who are not on twitter!


  14. Weiner is a lesser writer than Franzen, but I think she has a reasonable critique of gender, status, and publishing. Franzen is hardly her only target–maybe just one of the more deserving ones, but he’s not the only one. from what I’ve seen.

    I was kind of surprised that Franzen rose to her bait–she’s been baiting him for a long time. I’m sure she thought the personal shout-out was pretty awesome! It has only fueled her Franzenfreude schtick.


  15. I actually like Franzen’s writing: I have two of his books, The Corrections and Freedom, and I thoroughly enjoyed both of them. (I think I remember Weiner’s essay about how, when Franzen writes about familial relationships, he’s writing Great Literature, but when she — or any woman, is what I think I remember her arguing — does the same thing, she’s writing Chick Lit. I thought it was a great point, even though I do think Franzen’s a very good writer; he has still benefited from the automatic benefit-of-the-doubt given to him because he is a man).

    It’s so depressing when you find out a writer you really like is an asshole.


  16. Only to add this, without comment, from _Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux_ by Boris Kachka: Franzen wrote Oprah a note when _Freedom_ came out, offering to reconcile: “Franzen’s girlfriend had argued against faking redemption with someone he didn’t even like, but he retorted that it wasn’t real life–it was promotion. On the show, he flattered the audience whil just slightly undermining Oprah’s questions. ‘I thought it was one of my weaker performances,’ he says, betraying his FSG-funded media training. ‘They had done something to my hair backstage.’ Still, ‘It was the right thing to do.'”


  17. Thanks, Undine. Do you recommend that book (Hothouse, that is?) I have to confess that it intrigues me.

    I thought Freedom was weirdly implausible, while The Corrections was for the most part very true to life. Freedom seemed more like a middle-aged man’s fantasy than anything true about middle-class family life.


  18. Why the relative talent of the two writers matters, I think, is because the only reason Jennifer Weiner has a platform to talk about Franzen is because she went after the way he was being publicized – and after him – when Freedom came out. She started it. She’s kind of making a career out of being his righteous antagonist. It’s annoying to me. Further, what she says about women writing about familial relationships or domestic or everyday life being ignored or merely categorized as chick lit is patently false. Claire Messud’s book The Woman Upstairs from this summer comes to mind, but also Booker winner Anne Enright, Zadie Smith, A.S. Byatt… if you read reviews of their books, they are similarly praised for their nuanced portrayal of family life and/or relationships and friendships.

    Look, I am a person whose research and teaching 1) is in literary studies, focusing on 20th and 21st century novels and 2) focuses on gender and sexuality in literature and 3) my current book project focuses solely on women writers. So on the one hand I’m sympathetic to thinking about how women writers’ critical receptions differ compared with their male counterparts, and I’m actually committed to thinking about literary aesthetics as it relates to gender. But on the other this is precisely why I get annoyed by popular discussions about Franzen that rely on media celebrities like Weiner or Hess to give them a pop feminist opinion of him as a novelist/essayist. Look at it this way, H’Ann and other historian readers over here: it’s just like how you guys get annoyed by The History Channel or pop biographies of the Founding Fathers. Just like those aren’t “real history,” this shit about Franzen isn’t “real literary studies.”


  19. Um, of that list of women novelists, the only name I (as a person who doesn’t seek out “great literature”) recognize is A. S. Byatt… and she uses her initials. Probably for a reason. I call bullshit on women getting “great American novel” cred. (If you made a similar list of male names, I guarantee you I would recognize most of them, even though I have read none of their work. Because I read and listen to the news.)

    My fault with the Franzen article is the Franzen article, which is the only thing I have read by Franzen. It’s technophobe whiny bullshit with some bizarre German woman thing going on wrapped up in the language of pretentious stupid. He may write wonderful novels. Weiner may write shitty novels. Her article is still better and also not insane and makes excellent points. He should probably stick to fiction and leave op-eds (and non-fiction) to people who aren’t privileged assholes. But he won’t.

    Complaining about this privileged screed has nothing to do with literary studies. The so-called “point” is whether or not there’s something wrong with advertising your art (hint: there isn’t, and yes, Weiner is right that Franzen doesn’t have to dirty his hands because the media does it for him). Additional complaints stem from the guy complaining that some German woman didn’t have sex with him and that makes him throw coins at old German women who hurt themselves trying to pick them up because they’re old and poor. That’s whacked. And has nothing to do with his novels or literary criticism.


  20. n.b. I never claimed that Jennifer Weiner or Amanda Hess offer a “real literary studies” critique of Franzen. Instead, I think they’re offering a feminist analysis of how celebrity and male privilege work to the benefit of some writers & to the detriment of others.

    It’s not a dig on Franzen’s literary skills to recognize that he benefits from his own celebrity, and has engaged in his own Weiner-esque provocations of a still bigger fish. After all, isn’t that what he did in spurning the Oprah book club in 2001? Even if his goals were pure and literary, the effect was probably to bring him even greater attention (not to mention literary acclaim, in distancing himself from a popular forum like the Oprah book club) than gamely going on the book club and talking about his book. Maybe he’s still playing this game–after all, who would have cared if he wrote an essay about an impenetrable Austrian writer and NOT also made himself look like a complete dick? As Paul suggests above, everyone is ignoring the point of his essay & focusing on his dickishness.

    This split between literary fiction and popular fiction mirrors the distinction that has roiled history for at least 200 years (the split between popular and academic/”scientific” history), as Bonnie Smith explains in The Gender of History (1998, 2000). Interestingly, the split is gendered in exactly the same way, with men totally dominating the literary/academic work and women the popular, lucrative writing in both fields, at least through the 19th C. More recently, men have dominated the writing of popular/commercial histories as well.


  21. Thinking about this further: who among the women writers of domestic fiction listed above (Byatt, Smith, Messud) would be able to get away with dickishness as an integral part of their literary celebrity? Do we really think they’d be praised or rewarded for being a jerk the way Franzen has deployed dickishness to his benefit?

    I would say that the female writers of literary domestic fiction (let’s also remember North American writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, and the like) for the most part have nice-lady or kindly-grandmotherly literary celebrity status. (Only Margaret Atwood these days dares to be a prickly personality, but maybe that’s because she’s always been identified foremost as a feminist writer & now is all into science fiction.)

    I’ve been thinking about the ways in which white men can be rewarded for showing anger or even dickishness at work, whereas I’ve never seen it work for women the same way. And forget using anger if you’re a Latino or African American man who works in an overwhelmingly white workplace–your colleagues might think you’re going to pull out a knife or a gun! Maybe some of the same things are at work in Franzen’s literary persona.

    (And no, this is not intended as serious literary criticism! Just some feminist musings.)


  22. Y’all are going to think what you want to think, and that’s cool. But it’s worth noting that yes, this DOES have to do with literary studies, just as Virginia Woolf’s essays and reviews in the Times Literary Supplement have to do with literary studies. Also, it’s worth noting that women authors haven’t quite dominated the “popular” genres: they’ve dominated “romance” – and then chick lit. Horror, sci-fi/fantasy, police procedurals, westerns, etc. are male-dominated genre fiction. What women DO dominate is the reading public – women are the primary *audience* for popular fiction, while the audience for literary fiction tends to be more evenly split. And this has been true since the feminization of literacy in the 19th century. And perhaps this fact about who’s doing the reading – and buying – of literary fiction accounts for the inequities in the ways that literary fiction is reviewed and received.

    I do think that there is a real case to be made against media outlets for reviewing women authors less frequently than male authors, but that ultimately *doesn’t have a thing in the world to do with the fact that Jonathan Franzen is a dick.* As far as I can tell, he’s a dick to everybody – he’s an equal-opportunity dick, and not just a dick to women. And he isn’t on the editorial board of the NYRB, or the NYT Book Review, as just two examples, so he’s not the one who is deciding he deserves the attention that he gets.

    Of course, it doesn’t seem that way from the popular press – which, frankly, isn’t doing deep feminist analysis any more than it’s doing deep literary criticism. Basically, what we’re talking about here is gossip. Which is fine as far as it goes, and surely it’s high-brow gossip, but to me it doesn’t seem all that different from regular celebrity news and speculation and controversy. Seriously, people: this is the intelligentsia equivalent of the Paula Dean scandal this spring or of the Miley Cyrus uproar of a few weeks ago. As such, sure, Franzen is worthy of critique: HE CERTAINLY IS. I’m just saying that taking Hess (by trade a food writer and cookbook author) or Weiner (who is ONLY appearing in The New Republic, I guarantee you, because she made her name by attacking Franzen on twitter when Freedom was released – from out of nowhere) as authoritative *feminist* responses to Franzen, without considering other voices alongside them, is perhaps not ideal.

    So, two final things: I really recommend that those who are interested read Franzen’s essay in his collection _How to Be Alone_ about the Oprah kerfuffle, as I think it really illuminates his position on that whole thing, and second, this is the best response to this Franzen nonsense that I’ve read (and even though I clearly am a Franzen apologist, I laughed out loud when I read it and it seemed the perfect response to his nonsense.)


  23. H’Ann, we cross-posted. For what it’s worth, Zadie Smith gets grief for being bitchy, and Anne Enright took a lot of hits for an essay she wrote right after the Booker win, if I recall correctly. And yes, I named British women writers primarily because that’s what I work on so I’m familiar with their reviews from my work, but Ann Patchett, Marilyn Robinson, Toni Morrison, Atwood… there are many more I could have listed who get the same kind of praise (of their fiction) that Franzen gets but who don’t get ghettoized as chick lit, but yes, you’re right, they don’t get congratulated for their dickishness as Franzen does.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think Franzen is *deploying* dickishness to his benefit: I think he is genuinely, if his writing is any indication, a dick. I don’t think insincerity is is problem. (Though he clearly has many, many others!)


  24. I didn’t know Smith got flack for being a bitch! Everything I’ve seen about her has been about how adorably precocious she is (or was. She’s probably 40ish now, or nearly so.)

    Maybe because I like both her writing and what I’ve seen of her celebrity author persona, I have tuned out people complaining about her bitchiness.


  25. @Dr. Crazy. Just a quibble. Amanda Hess and Amanda Hesser are not the same person. Hesser is the food writer. Hess writes for Slate, often on feminist issues.


  26. Wait! DAMN! I just read carefully what you wrote, Sharon, and now I realize I’m an ass! Please ignore the past two comments I wrote, and realize that I’m tired! Yes, you’re right! I’m conflating two different people! Because while I might know my novelists, I’m sloppy with people who aren’t novelists! I’m going to bed, and I am stupid.


  27. @Dr Crazy – your posts have been hugely informative, and even though I would’ve come up with Zadie Smith as a woman who writes about families, like Franzen does, and is given the same (or higher) literary status, I wouldn’t have been able to list any other names. Don’t know how I forgot Kingsolver.

    I actually see the label “immigrant writer” or “writer of immigrants’ stories” attached to Zadie Smith way more than “woman writer”; immigrant, multicultural, next-generation … those are the words I see people using for her. So maybe comparing her with Franzen isn’t apples to apples — she could fit into multiple boxes, while (a hypothetical) LadyFranz probably couldn’t. I also think a lot of the writers you and Historiann mentioned write stories with a lot more scope to them than either The Corrections or Freedom. The Poisonwood Bible was a story about a family, but it was also about white American missionaries in 1960s Africa. And Zadie Smith’s work, too — it might be dealing with less extreme examples of cultures coming into contact (or conflict) and social conditions rapidly changing, but it still does deal with those themes. Franzen … doesn’t, really. He writes middle-class suburban white Americans. He does it well, he handles generational differences and subtle intergenerational differences with a deft hand and a sympathetic gaze — but Kingsolver and Smith do this too, in addition to everything else. Their stories of families play out on a bigger canvas than his, with a lot more going on in the background. (And A.S. Byatt — don’t know her work apart from Possession, but Possession‘s canvas was positively sprawling.) Toni Morrison too — she’s had a much longer career than Franzen has, but her stories take place in so many different eras, and she does such a great job of evoking each one, that I also think of her as writing on a much grander scale than Franzen, even though she too tends to anchor her novels around one family. (She also tends to involve more generations — with Franzen, you get two, sometimes three.)

    Not sure where I was going with all that, but there it is.


  28. Oh, and also @Dr Crazy – urban fantasy is female-dominated! I’m not sure where it fits in popular genre fiction — it has elements of fantasy, horror, and romance, so I guess it would get shelved according to whichever predominates in a particular book. But they’re almost all written by women, and almost all feature female protagonists, even when the story is primarily action- or suspense-oriented rather than romantic.


  29. One thing about those women literary writers — I think it would be interesting to compare the literary community’s responses to women who center men in their writing — Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, a lot of A.S. Byatt’s work — versus those who center women — Claire Messud, e.g.

    My impression garnered over twenty years of reading reviews is that a woman writer is far more likely to receive critical attention if she’s writing about men.

    Hmmm….. what other women writers, publishing right now, center women’s lives and also receive critical acclaim? Emma Donoghue for Room, though the narrator was male child. Elizabeth Strout for Olive Kitteridge, though now her latest, The Burgess Boys, centers men.

    It’s actually not all that easy to think of current literary fiction written by women that centers the experience of women.

    The word “family” obscures the question of gender. Where is the point of view situated? Which character faces the greatest conflict? Philip Roth has written about families too. But not exactly with POV situated in a female character.

    As for Franzen, to my taste, he writes very good sentences.


  30. Great points, dandelion.

    I would say that Alice Munro and Alice McDermott always write about women, and put women’s experiences at the center of their writing. (I haven’t read as much McDermott as Munro, so please correct me if I’m mistaken.)

    I need to read Messud’s latest novel. I thought her 9/11 novel was kind of a cheesy airport read rather than lit fiction, but maybe I’m misremembering.


  31. Bit of inisider gossip here, but Franzen revealed he was close to George Avery. Avery was among the worst teachers I had at Swarthmore. After I took his class, I think I didn’t read serious fiction for about a decade. That guy made me hate books. [NB: I took that class at a time when I had some bad family stuff happen, and I remember that my semester as my worst at Swat for a whole bunch of reasons, but lots of people told me not to take Avery before that class so I don’t think it’s just me].


  32. Franzen certainly doesn’t come off well in that article, and I haven’t read his novels, so I’m certainly not here to defend him. But speaking as a lover of BOOKS I am both worried and depressed at the possibility that most writing may end up on Kindles, or that actual bookstores may go extinct outside of major cities, leaving us Amazon as the only way to browse. Perhaps this is technophobia or mere nostalgia, but I don’t think so. Even a cheaply printed book may survive a hundred years. But electronic devices have an increasingly limited lifespan, and every time we “upgrade” not all the catalog of things available in the “old” version makes the jump.


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