books,  fiction,  writing

The Franzen Fight

For the first time in ten years, Time magazine has a living novelist on its cover.  The last time was in 2000, when Time featured Stephen King.  This time, it’s Jonathan Franzen.

Given the hype over Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (out August 31), it is unsurprising that Michiko Kukatani gave it a rave review in the New York Times. (Fun fact: any of you Sex and the City fans will remember that Kakutani was the reviewer who fictitiously slammed Carrie’s book.) I have to admit that I have not yet read Freedom, but I am very much enjoying the internet wars going on over Franzen’s latest.

In the interest of full disclosure, I really enjoyed The Corrections (2001). With its brutal and darkly funny observations of upper-middle-class America, it shook me to my English major core. I’ve been known to read portions of it aloud to friends when I’ve had one too many glasses of wine. I went to see Franzen speak at the Wisconsin Historical Society when he was here in Madison a couple of years ago.

On the other hand, I also love smart and well-written commercial fiction, and read much more of it than literary fiction. I like it so much, it’s the genre I’ve chosen to write in. I’ve been known to press copies of chick lit titles like Bridget Jones’ Diary and Something Borrowed into friends’ hands, singing the praises of witty, funny authors like Helen Fielding and Emily Giffin.

My favorite author of chick lit and smart women’s fiction, Jennifer Weiner, has declared an all-out, online war against Franzen. She has long been vocal about the under-representation of women and commercial writers in the review sections of the New York Times and other major newspapers. Jen isn’t exactly ignored by the media, though. She’s been on “The Today Show,” just wrapped up a nationwide book tour called “Cupcakes Across America,” and frequently tops the bestseller lists. She even has her own iPhone app. Still, Weiner and another best-selling women’s fiction writer, Jodi Picoult, recently have been railing against the “white male literary darlings” that dominate the realm of critically-acclaimed fiction. Jennifer Weiner even coined a hashtag on Twitter to express her fury over the fanfare surrounding Freedom‘s release–she calls it #franzenfreude.

I enjoy both Frazen’s and Weiner’s books, for different reasons. I’ve gushed over and recommended both to friends. I will not say that Franzen’s acclaim is undeserved. Who else can write an opening like this one, from The Corrections?

The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.

Weiner and Picoult do have a point, though. It’s not just The New York Times that gives paltry praise to books by women. It’s the whole of the canon. In college, in order to gain access to more than a smattering of women writers, I had to enroll in literature classes that were cross-listed with “Gender Studies.” In all the hulking and sometimes clumsy mass of English-language literary tradition, women were swept to the margins or wrote under men’s names–if included at all.

I don’t care if you read Freedom. Franzen doesn’t need you (and he’d tell you that),  nor does he need any of the press he’s getting. The man already has a National Book Award. But what I take away from the debate–all this #franzenfreude–is that it is important to step out of your reading comfort zone once in awhile. Read something by someone of a different race, gender, culture, or religion. It’s an invitation into a mind you otherwise would not be able to inhabit. And that’s not an opportunity any of us can afford to squander.