On ‘Franzenfreude,’ gender, and genre

ETA: This has been cross-posted on Salon.com:

Having finally released three different but related books back into the wild of the Brooklyn Public Library system — Freedom, Catching Fire, and The Passage — I feel the time is right to weigh in on the literary meme of the moment, Franzenfreude, a term that, loosely defined, indicates that Jonathan Franzen represents all that is wrong with the contemporary high-brow book world.

Is that stupid? Quite! Except there’s a caveat. The phenomenon referred to by “Franzenfreude,” that the high-brow book world restricts its highest praise and most fawning attention for the works of men, is absolutely true. It just happens that Jonathan Franzen is a terrible poster boy for that problem.

Franzen writes gorgeous women. Fleshed-out, interesting, three-dimensional, vivid women, women with brains. He writes for them, too, and perhaps most importantly of all, he READS THEM. When, at a Brooklyn Book Festival panel, someone asked him what he was reading, he replied, “Edith Wharton.” To the follow-up question of what should we, his audience, be reading, he listed several books, all by female authors, including the Ms. Hempel Chronicles, of which, up to that point, I hadn’t even heard. (Then I read it. It was good!)

A friend and I cornered him after the panel to ask whether he’d realized he’d been promoting work by ladies. He blinked for a moment, then laughed and said it honestly hadn’t occurred to him.

Thus: “Franzenfreude” is the wrong label for this particular can of worms. (As a language nerd points out, it’s also stupid for other reasons.)

That said, let’s address the can of worms itself. Yes! Fiction by women is customarily and routinely dismissed by the intelligentsia in favor of fiction by men. Because why should fiction be any different than anything else? The most exalted spaces in any pantheon are reserved for men. So it has been, so it will be. This is because women can have babies, whereas men can only have egos, and also testicles, or something.

However! The less important the pantheon, the more likely it is that you can find a woman at the top of it.

The high-brow book world also dismisses almost all genre fiction. Genre fiction is where women reign supreme or, at the very least, hold their own: romance, mystery, young adult, sci fi, fantasy. Having just ingested the Hunger Games trilogy, a sci-fi YA extravaganza that took not just me but America by storm, I feel particularly drawn to this point right now.

Even in most genre fiction, there remains an idea that boys won’t read books about girls. Hence the sad-but-true fact that J.K. Rowling couldn’t publish under the name “Joanne” for fear of frightening off huge numbers of young male readers. But this to me feels wrong. Step on the NYC subway right now and look around — I guarantee you that someone on that car is reading, not Freedom, but the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. About, as you’ve perhaps heard, Lisbeth Salander, one of the most kick-ass female characters in any book of any genre. The Golden Compass books didn’t suffer for focusing on Lyra, another quite impressive young woman. Even Dan Brown’s idiot bestseller the Da Vinci Code was a FEMINIST conspiracy theory.

Best of all, perhaps, is Suzanne Collins, whose hugely popular Hunger Games books center around Katniss, who doesn’t want to get married and doesn’t understand why having leg hair is bad. Written by a lady! Starring a lady! Yet everyone’s reading them. Hopefully the next J.K. Rowling can be inspired by this and publish under her full name.

This doesn’t, of course, solve the problem of the white male taste-makers — and the sufficient numbers of female taste-makers who concur — giving all the plaudits that matter to white male authors. As Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker author I admire, put it just this year in his tribute to Salinger: “In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'”

What Gopnik meant to say, no doubt, was, “Here are three books I really dig!” He’s hardly the first intellectual to fall into the tar pit of generalizing from his own experiences. But it’s a disturbingly prevalent trend among white male taste-makers: assuming that what they relate to and find meaning in, the rest of us must as well, AND that those books must be “the best.”

It’s bullshit, and I’m glad people are finally beginning to realize that. But leave Jonathan Franzen out of it, would you? He’s one of the good ones.

7 thoughts on “On ‘Franzenfreude,’ gender, and genre”

  1. I really don't understand why someone can say with a straight face that "Gatsby" and "Catcher" are perfect novels at all, much less ones that speak to every reader and condition! (Is every reader and condition deeply troubled by the Loss of American Innocence? Was every reader and condition bored in prep school? Is every reader and condition out of their element in New York? Does every reader and condition find women uncomfortable, and vaguely threatening?)

  2. I agree. They're all novels I happen to enjoy & appreciate, but it's nonsense to think everyone comes from the same place of urban malaise & disillusionment. Maybe novels are like cable TV shows: there are so many of them that they're designed to — and function best when they — speak to targeted audiences.

  3. Good post! I haven't read FREEDOM yet, but I'm looking forward to it. And I was arguing just yesterday with someone about the Gopniks of the world (no offense to him personally, Franzen does it too) holding up their personal picks as some greater good and picking on writers who are just trying to get by, goddamnit, and write.

  4. ester–
    I have to disagree.
    (a) Patty's autobiography isn't sufficiently different in tone from the rest of the book. It's very clear you're hearing Jonathan Franzen as opposed to Patty
    (b) A lot of women aren't given much personality–Lalitha, Jenna, etc.
    (c)One issue that comes up with Franzen is the issue of unconcious bias and authority. Let's go through some of these again. "Masterpiece of American Fiction," "Great American Novelist,""Tolstoy of our Internet Era," and "Novel of the Century." Would this kind of coverage be given to a woman?
    (d) His focus on the emotional and the domestic. Would a woman be praised the same way for that kind of content?

  5. Anon:

    I loved Patty's autobiography but I was disappointed that it felt so much like the rest of the book. The voice is pretty clearly the same as the book's narrator's.

    But that doesn't, in my mind, detract from the value of what's in it. That chapter — when I first read it in the New Yorker and then here in context — struck me as incredibly insightful & wise. Patty as a character was made as clear to me as she could have been.

    I don't think the women you mention are sketchily drawn. They have quirks & faults. No "manic pixie dream girls" here.

    The issue of whether Franzen is overpraised for doing what other female writers do is a different one. My point is that he is not a boor, but the mainstream book world could still have (and does have) boors in it.

    On some level, it's like the phenomenon of men being expected to do so little around the house that they're cheered for not burning dinner. To my mind, Franzen didn't just cook spaghetti without ruining it; he actually made a delicious meal, and we can acknowledge that without losing sight of the bigger picture.

  6. Now I see what all the fuss is about. Ester you truly are a hateful bitch…but really what is the big deal. Funny, thoughtful, and nothing about this even really screams feminism. Its more about breaking away from the dominant paradigm.

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