Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Shut Up, Jonathan Franzen

with 10 comments

by Bronwen

Jonathan Franzen is driving me nuts.  He seems to be clinging to celebrity more and more tenuously every day.  First it was David Foster Wallace bashing.  Then it was e-book bashing.  And now it’s a grudgingly sort of positive review of Edith Wharton.

As someone who has been the cause of feminist opprobrium in the past, maybe he thought his article on Wharton would get him into the good books.  Or maybe the New Yorker just wanted someone to write something about her and he wasn’t busy.  Who knows.

The review is meant, I think, to be a positive endorsement of Wharton’s novels.  Instead, what comes across is Franzen’s inability to sympathize with Wharton because 1) she’s rich (but not in a ‘good’ way, like Tolstoy) 2) she was conservative (because she didn’t like populist politicking) 3) she left America 4) she acted like a spoiled writer (‘writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary’… no other writers ever did that…..).

He claims, in fact, that her only ‘sympathetic’ characteristic (his words: ‘potentially redeeming disadvantage’) was that ‘she wasn’t pretty,’ and that this made her a social outsider, which made her a good writer.  After speculating about her love life (or lack of one), her relationship with her mother (who apparently drove her father to an early death), her lack of friendships with women (of whom she was apparently jealous), we finally come to the crux of Franzen’s problem: ‘Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly’ etc.

Now, I get that the rhetorical purpose of all this is probably to then set up the peculiarly sympathetic characters that Wharton created and who are the reason that Wharton’s fiction ‘matters’ in contrast to her, whom we apparently don’t like.   But the standards for not liking her?  They could be applied to hundreds of writers!  These same qualities, in fact [feminist outrage alert], applied to male writers are usually seen as the eccentricities, graces, and charms befitting a Great Novelist.  Wealth and privilege?  There are literally too many wealthy, privileged writers to know where to begin, but F. Scott Fitzgerald being mentioned in the article  (in a different context) comes immediately to mind.  Expatriatism? Again Fitzgerald, but also Henry James who is, yes, also mentioned in the article in a different context.  And acting like a spoiled writer?  Well, even Franzen doesn’t let that one stand, recanting near the end of the article.  And really, attributing her writing genius to the fact that ‘she wasn’t pretty’?













Shut up, Jonathan Franzen.


Written by apini

February 9, 2012 at 20:18

Posted in writing

10 Responses

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  1. I read the first page or so of “The Corrections” but couldn’t get into it. I read Ethan Frome in grade 7. I didn’t love it, but I got through it.

    David Weinfeld

    February 9, 2012 at 21:51

    • 🙂

      Bronwen Everill

      February 10, 2012 at 07:41

  2. Jonathan Franzen’s next essay: “kids these days: why do they play their rap music so loud?”

    Sarah Marian

    February 10, 2012 at 09:33

    • haha, so true!

      Bronwen Everill

      February 10, 2012 at 11:36

  3. […] Shut Up, Jonathan Franzen […]

    Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

    February 11, 2012 at 22:46

  4. Franzen defended Alice Munro in the New York Times, so I’m not sure he’s just trying to look like he’s a big supporter of women writers. He might actually support them, or be aware that he’s been overindulged by the mainstream press.

    I do agree that he is very annoying; perhaps the fact that he’s overrated plays into that. He self-consciously writes “great American novels” with titles like “Freedom”. (oddly, he praised Alice Munro because she’s too modest to ever write a book with a title like “American Pastoral.:). Freedom, by the way, ends like a silly soap opera, something only the French critic Le Monde seemed to pick up on (they called Franzen out on the American “happy ending.”).

    Inverness (@Inverness)

    February 12, 2012 at 13:30

    • haha, well, one of my favourite (sets of) books is Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and that has an arguably happy ending, so I won’t discount Freedom for that reason. But yes, he is certainly overrated, and I think one of the reasons he frustrated women writers so much to begin with was exactly that ‘Great American Novel’ idea….and the fact that he was essentially just writing family drama, but because he was a Serious Writer it was therefore super insightful or whatever….

      Bronwen Everill

      February 13, 2012 at 11:19

  5. […] Ph.D. Octopus […]

  6. […] speeches. Should be interesting, considering that every time this guy opens his mouth these days, he sounds like a bitter old man. So hopefully topics like the global and personal effects of modernizing China will have a little […]

  7. […] speeches. Should be interesting, considering that every time this guy opens his mouth these days, he sounds like a bitter old man. So hopefully topics like the global and personal effects of modernizing China will have a little […]

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