Scourge of ebook readers everywhere, defender of eternal verities, Great American Novelist-because-it-says-so-right-there-on-the-cover-of-Time-Magazine, and all-round horn-rim wearer Jonathan Franzen is in the crossfiring line again over that loose tongue of his. Interviewed in Scratch by Manjula Martin, a family friend “since I became an adult,” Franzen was asked: “Consider the VIDA count, or the lack of reviews of books by writers of color in outlets like the New York Times. Can you understand, then, how some writers might look at you and your power, and see someone who looks suspiciously like ‘the man’?”
And he answered: “Well, I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history. I can only do what I’ve always done, which is try to be gender-balanced in the books I recommend, the authors I write criticism about, the characters I put into my novels. I wince as much as anyone else does when I read the table of contents of Harper’s or the New York Times Book Review and see mostly male names. The point where I draw the line is when politics starts dictating literary judgments.”
Exactly who the “her” in that quote might be is open to question, if it’s any one person rather than the conveners of VIDA. But Salon assumed it implicated Jennifer Weiner, already fingered (to coin a simile) by Franzen for “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” and reached out to her by email. What she wrote back sums up so much of what Franzenesque attitudes mean for women writers – and for the use of the social media he pours lofty scorn on – that it’s worth quoting almost in full:
“He’s more the beneficiary of a sexist system than its architect. However, in terms of what he’s done with his power, I think you can draw a very explicit causal relationship between his ’01 diss of Oprah and her choice to shutter the book club. Post-Corrections, Oprah never picked another debut female novelist…and the only female writers she talked about were Toni Morrison and Pearl S. Buck. He owns some of that.”
[For anyone who needs a refresh, when Oprah Winfrey selected The Corrections for Oprah’s Book Club back in 2001, Franzen distinguished himself with a series of lumpen interviews containing remarks like: “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.'”]
And furthermore: “he can’t rail about Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotion without acknowledging that, thanks in some part to his dealings with Oprah, social media is one of the things women writers have been forced to use to get the kind of attention he takes for granted. He has benefited tremendously from a system built on double standards, where a woman has to work twice as hard to be acknowledged as his peer, and he single-handedly eliminated one of the few routes women writers had to getting the kind of press he gets just by opening his mouth. His hands aren’t as clean as he’d like to believe.”
Franzen is all very well to espouse literary judgments – when the pre-judgments exercised before writing even gets to him determine what he can pass literary judgment on. And his rejection of self-publishing and online literature mean he’s cutting himself off from the main alternative avenue for those voices to get heard. He is defending canons of taste whose received values owe everything to sliding scales of high versus low, quality versus trash, as well as money and power, and nothing to actual literary or intellectual merit. He is the Winterhalter of his age: Court word-painter of edifying subjects and elevated social circles. In another time and place, he would have made a great fixture for the editorial desk of the Neue Freie Presse that his professed hero Karl Kraus despised. How is he ever going to write anything honest or meaningful about his own age if he dismisses social media and the internet? Kraus was himself a brilliant journalist and magazine publisher, despite his abuse of the popular press: Franzen, blind to the irony, hasn’t Googled himself in years.
“Hard to see Kafka tweeting, hard to see Charlotte Bronte self-promoting,” says Franzen. Look around you, and you see them all the time – if you’re not blinkered. And you just had a lesson from Jennifer Weiner in one reason why today’s Charlotte Brontes have to do just that, instead of walking through the portals of the New York Review of Books.