Franzen, The Times and Chicks—Oh, My!
It should be mentioned at the outset that none of this is Jonathan Franzen’s fault. No doubt there are plenty of things that are Mr. Franzen’s fault; this just isn’t one of them. And by this, just so we all have our technical terms straight here, I’m talking about the wide-ranging literary-world debates about whether he’s worthy of all the attention he’s getting; about who should get attention and why; about what is the right level of attention for each author in the universe.
The definition of is should always be obvious but the definition of this can be endlessly various.
Fact: Jonathan Franzen has a new novel out called Freedom. [Note: As far as I can tell, at least in terms of anything mentioned in this piece, this is the only thing Jonathan Franzen is at fault for, and in this instance I’m only saying the existence of this new novel is his “fault” because he did, in fact, write the novel.]
Fact: Freedom is getting a lot of attention. This is not Mr. Franzen’s fault but rather his good fortune.
Fact: Some writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner among them, think Freedom is getting too much attention, in particular from the New York Times, which is in danger of doing the Full Monty for the book. (More on this Full Monty thing later.) This is not Mr. Franzen’s fault but it is also his good fortune since it adds to the free advertising he’s getting everywhere.
Fact: Some writers, Tess Gerritsen among them, respect the work of Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner but think that since they already make so much money as writers, they shouldn’t care what the New York Times says about Mr. Franzen or, more importantly, what it doesn’t say about them since the paper of record never bothers to review any of their books. As far as I can tell, this is also not Mr. Franzen’s fault, unless of course he’s been secretly telling Ms. Gerritsen what to write on her blog and I just don’t know about it.
Fact: Some people think Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner are picky and whiny, suffering from an advanced case of sour grapes, and that it’s the height of absurdity for two women—two women who have jointly sold well over 10,000,000 copies of books—to think that anything they’ve written is worthy of serious critical review. These some people who think this don’t necessarily seem to have actually read any of Ms. Picoult’s or Ms. Weiner’s books and, further, a subset of these some people label both women as authors of Chick Lit, which is inaccurate because while one of the two has written books that can be characterized this way, in the true sense of the label, the other has not, which just goes to show that one can no longer rely on the accuracy of some people. This is, once again, not Mr. Franzen’s fault nor is it troubling in the slightest since this sort of thing gets said any time a woman tries to say that maybe the literary landscape is not quite fair.
In fact, this whole Franzen/NYTimes/Chicks thing feels like déjà vu all over again. Literary v. Commercial; Male v. Female; Chick Lit v. Everything Else. It seems as though I’ve been taking part in, and sometimes spearheading, these debates for as long as I’ve been writing, which on days like today feels too long. I was writing about this five years ago, minus the Mr. Franzen part, taking my cheers and lumps, and now I’m writing about it again, feeling as though nothing has changed. Except for when time flies, it just grinds so slowly.
Sorry about that. I had to take a little break and go outside to sit on my bench for ten minutes. I had to do that because my head was about to explode. And the reason my head was about to explode, I realized, was because the topic of Franzen/The Times/Chicks is simply too vast; the issues of Literary v. Commercial, Male v. Female, Chick Lit v. Everything Else having become conflated into one big messy stew. So let’s return to the facts, along with a few personal opinions.
Fact: Freedom is getting a lot of attention everywhere and in the New York Times in particular. Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the NYTBR, calls it “a masterpiece of American fiction”; asserts that “the family as microcosm or micro-history has become Franzen’s particular subject, as it is no one else’s today”; concludes “Like all great novels, ‘Freedom’ does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.”
Personal opinion: This is just . . . too much. Why too much? Oh, I don’t know. I suppose labeling something a “masterpiece of American fiction” is OK enough since it allows the possibility of other current masterpieces. But the idea of Mr. Franzen owning the subject of family? The implication that the poor dim reader cannot properly know the world without Mr. Franzen’s roadmap? It’s just all a bit much.
Fact: The New York Times routinely ignores the works of Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner.
Personal opinion: Well, it does! But why, you ask, should the Times pay attention to them? And if it doesn’t, why should they care? “It’s the Times!” you say. “The Times is not for the likes of them, writers of commercial fiction. The Times is literary!” Except the Times does not ignore the works of best-selling male novelists. Stephen King. John Grisham. Michael Crichton, even after death.
Fact: The Times regularly ignores Romance fiction or anything else that can be perceived as having been written primarily by, about or for women.
Personal opinion: Well, it does! In terms of your reaction to this, see what I quoted you as saying two paragraphs up. You’re right, it is the Times. The Times that covers every other genre and area of writing that can be construed as commercial: Mystery; Sci-Fi, Graphic Novels. It just doesn’t cover Romance. In a post-Harry Potter world, it even covers Young Adult and Children’s Books to an extent it never did before. In fact, the Times has previously made concessions to popular taste, like when it created a separate bestseller list for Children’s Books in response to the fact that Harry Potter was dominating its Adult Fiction list.
But really, why should the Times cover commercial fiction written by women? I don’t know. Maybe because some of it is culturally relevant? In the particular instance of Ms. Picoult, fault her torn-from-the-headlines style all you want to, her books often raise serious ethical issues worthy of open debate. And of course when it comes down strictly to a Literary v. Commercial issue, in other areas of the arts the Times gives more than ample space to both. Reviews of the latest Chipmunks movie run side-by-side with reviews of the latest foreign film. On this very day in history, Justin Bieber is on the front page of the Arts section. What’s popular regularly runs side-by-side with what is deemed more edifying. Except in books and if the author happens to be a woman.
Is anyone saying that Mr. Franzen should not get the front page of the NYTBR or that the NYTBR should henceforth restrict its coverage to that which is most popular? No. I promise you, there are zero people saying this. What people are saying, or at least a few people, is that it would be nice if someday the status quo were to change and we had something different than one guy getting everything while some women get nothing.
And now we come to the Full Monty. Six years ago Chang-rae Lee received that for his novel Aloft. Reviewed in the daily Times. Reviewed in the NYTBR. A roundup article in the daily Times by Charles McGrath citing Mr. Lee as an example of a group of authors writing about suburbia. A glowing profile in the Sunday Magazine, also by Charles McGrath and mentioning the two had golfed together. Even—wait for it!—a clue in the crossword puzzle. That’s what I call the Full Monty, at least when it comes to the Times, and Mr. Franzen seems poised to receive his own Full Monty. Yes, plenty of women have been reviewed in the Times, but name one woman who has ever received that overabundance of print space the Times reserves for the Full Monty. I’ll go sit on my bench outside again while you work on that.
There used to be an active site called FameTracker that you can still find although it appears that no fresh content has been added since 2007. One of the features of FameTracker was the Fame Audit in which a celebrity’s whole career would be analyzed in depth, including assets and liabilities and concluding with a Fame Barometer stating “Current approximate level of fame” and “Deserved approximate level of fame”; in other words, the comparison between perceived worth and actual worth. A bad outcome here, I would submit, is if either one of the two is out of synch with the other: if your current level is higher than your deserved level, well, that stinks for you because you’re overrated and there’s always a chance people will figure this out (like Ben Affleck in 2000 having a current level of Johnny Depp v. a deserved level of Omar Epps); or if your current level is below your deserved level, meaning you’re underrated (like George Clooney in 2001 having a current level of Freddie Prinze, Jr. v. a deserved level of Tom Hanks). But the ideal? Having your current match exactly with your deserved and both matching exactly with who you are, meaning you’re exactly as famous as you should be, which, in 1999 and long before Oprah’s couch, would be Tom Cruise whose then Fame Audit revealed that he was currently Tom Cruise and deserved to be Tom Cruise. Come to think of it, that’s probably true now too but for entirely different reasons.
Here’s where I’m going with this.
If there was a FameTracker for authors, and an accompanying Fame Audit to go with it, and if the Times were the prism through which those audits were conducted, Mr. Franzen would be enjoying a current fame level of William Shakespeare while Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner would have a level of, what my dad used to call, my aunt Fanny. No, come to think of it, they wouldn’t even be Aunt Fanny. They’d have a zero audit because they’re not even in the game. And that’s what’s really wrong with this picture. (OK, just one of the things.)
Woo-boy, this piece is all over the place! Oh, well. I did warn you that it was too big for my pretty little head.
And now I’m going to go back out to my bench, only this time I’ll take my Times crossword puzzle with me. Will there be a clue concerning Mr. Franzen? Maybe not today. But if not today, it’ll still happen.
Books mentioned in this column:
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010)
Aloft by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 2005)
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Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold twenty-three books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; The Education of Bet for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first five of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their ten-year-old daughter Jackie. Later in 2010 she'll have two more books published, including the sixth title in The Sisters 8 series and the YA novel The Twin's Daughter. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren’s life and work (and contact her) at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.