Friday, April 6, 2012

Jonathan Franzen Just Pissed Me Off

I don't disagree. But man, I'm steamed.
What I am about to write is not strictly germane to this site, as it a) references an ages-old New Yorker
article and b) is of little interest to anyone not either familiar with or interested in Edith Wharton. But this is the only soap box I have available, and I'm climbing on up.

I am perennially and perpetually behind on the New Yorker, so I just cracked opened the February 13 & 20 double issue, which contains this article by Jonathan Franzen. The link will only give you an abstract, but don't pay to read it. I don't want you to read it. It's perhaps the most ill-conceived, shoddily written, and bafflingly wrong-headed sexist essay I've read since one of my other favorite writers, Christopher Hitchens, proclaimed women unfunny. And I love Jonathan Franzen. I wish The Corrections and Freedom were people, so I could marry them. But for this, I beg you to indulge me in some Franzenfreude, which has rather awkwardly been translated to indicate feminist friction with Franzen. (To my mind, it would actually mean joy at Franzen, but whatever.)

First, the premise: Franzen posits that "a fiction writer's oeuvre is a mirror of the writer's character" and that "Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering." Um, okay; but then he makes the rather mind-boggling claim that because Edith Wharton was remarkably wealthy, her "privilege isn't easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage." Apparently, Wharton's wealth makes her a less sympathetic and moral figure, and therefore a writer whose works have a harder time "mattering," than the anti-Semitic statements of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, William Faulkner's vow to shoot anti-racist Northerners in the street to "defend Mississippi" from outside agitators, Norman Mailer's identification of contraception as "an abomination" or comparison of homosexuality to "a murky smog," or William Burroughs, who accidentally shot his wife during a drunken prank. Now, I admire the works of all these writers (some more than others) and think they indisputably matter, but according to Franzen's argument, they're all more "sympathetic" than Edith Wharton because she was, um, rich?

But it gets better--Franzen assures us that despite her privilege, we can sympathize with Wharton because of her "one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty." Because she wasn't conventionally beautiful, we all naturally feel sorry for her, because after all, what else do women have to offer? I know that's certainly why I sympathize with, and therefore more highly value, the works of the weak-chinned John Updike, the jowly Henry James, or the bug-eyed and rabbity Sinclair Lewis. Franzen enlightens us that even this sympathetic shred in Wharton's character is undone, however, by her "relatively few friendships with women" her tendency to sustain "close and lasting friendships with an extraordinary number of successful men" whose wives she treated with "indifference or outright jealousy" and unfortunate love life, which included a divorce from her philandering and embezzling husband, whom Franzen snarkily adds she "forced . . . to pay up" and an affair with a bisexual journalist. Franzen concludes by affirming that she "might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she'd looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy." Which is a little like saying Franzen might have been nominated for--or even won!--the 2010 Pulitzer for Freedom if he'd looked like Ryan Gosling.

Following this witless analysis so sexist that I was certain it was going to be a parody, we get misreadings of Wharton's major novels so egregious as to beg the question of whether he's actually read them. His take on The House of Mirth includes a reading of heroine Lily Bart as "the worst sort of party girl" "in no danger of starving," even though her lack of an independent income or any marketable skills put her precisely in such danger by the end of the novel. He blames Lily, rather than the series of men who toy with her, exploit her, and abandon her for her ultimate fate, and additionally badly misinterprets the opening line that identifies Lily as "always roused by speculation" to indicate her calculating nature, rather than the speculative bets men place on her fading beauty. Plus, he claims Wharton "saddled her lily-like heroine with a beard--in German, Bart" as evidence of the "sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn't be." Seems to me that a more generous, and much more interpretively rewarding, reading of her last name is one that points toward bartering--what she must do with her body in order to survive.

By the time I got to the end of the essay, where Franzen confidently, and totally inaccurately, claims that Newland Archer wants Countess Olenska "but, being married, can't have her" (Archer is engaged, not married, when he meets the Countess). I had about had it with Franzen. And, if you've made it to the end of this essay, you might know the feeling. Since this was so long ago, all of these complaints might already have been raised by writers smarter and more eloquent than I. But I had to get it out. Now I'm going to go read Fifty Shades of Grey, which at least I *expect* to be bad for women.

1 comment:

  1. Franzen and Flanagan should hook up for a co-write sometime.