Hating Jonathan Franzen + debating literary elitism

Last week, I was browsing the LA Times book section, and stumbled across this fascinating article on “Literature and the moral question,” in which the author discusses whether literature truly can be considered, according to most definitions, “moral.” It’s a fascinating piece, and I encourage you to check it out. But what I was truly interested in, reading this article, was a passing mention to the kerfluffle surrounding the most recent Jonathan Franzen interview, in which Franzen discusses moral complexity in literature with Booth magazine:

…[Franzen] was getting at the difficulty of navigating a world with no clear markers, in which it’s all we can do, much of the time, to make it through the day.

“People don’t want moral complexity,” Franzen argues. “Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes. That’s exactly what you want if you’re having a hard life. Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?”

And so, here’s what I want to talk about: Jonathan Franzen and his haters. I’ve known that people in the literary world have beefs with this guy for quite awhile, but I’ve never jumped on the bandwagon, nor have I given it much thought. I read The Corrections in 2010 and thought the book was good, even if it felt like Franzen was trying a little too hard at times. I have Freedom on my shelf, though let’s just say there are other books I’d rather be reading first. But I have no reason to hate on Franzen, even if he likes to self-style himself as the “next great American author.” Well, sure dude. Go ahead.

But I guess he’s also kind of an asshole about it, and a little pretentious. And he’s pretty successful. And he was on the cover of Time magazine. OK, I can see where people might find it easy to hate the guy. In fact, Flavorwire took issue with Franzen’s quote on moral complexity, interpreting it as yet another of Franzen’s many knocks against genre fiction and YA literature:

It’s an interesting stab at kindness and empathy. He’s saying, “Hey, it’s OK to read books to escape reality, my hard-up fellow humans.” Yet I think it’s fair to say that this kind of statement ends up having the exact opposite effect. It’s condescending. It sweeps popular fiction under the umbrella “adolescent,” and assumes that people read such books purely for escapism rather than engagement with moral gray areas. For the latter, presumably, they turn to Jonathan Franzen novels.

And this is where I begin to take issue, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I just may be about to defend Jonathan Franzen (God help me). But you see, Flavorwire’s reaction isn’t the first backlash piece I’ve read railing against the “literary elitism” espoused by Franzen.  There’s Flavorwire’s other piece, “Why Book Criticism and Literary Culture Needs a Poptimist Revolution.” Over at Bookriot, there’s the snarky “Jonathan Franzen is a Parody of Jonathan Franzen,” in which the author compares the poor guy to Ann Coulter (harsh!). I can’t say that hating on the literary elite is a “thing” now, but since Fifty Shades of Grey exploded all over the place, I have noticed a lot more “apology” pieces for genre fiction and adults reading YA, as well as more snark-fests about how snobby book people can be.

Yet, I read through the Booth interview, and aside from a few indications of a ‘tude on Franzen’s part, I really didn’t find anything wrong with it. Does this make me as “bad” as Jonathan Franzen? Well, what if I don’t believe that Franzen is as Ann Coulter-like as everyone thinks he is? Is this OK? Let’s look at the interview:

Well first, let’s just call a spade a spade: Franzen does a lot of literary high-talk in this interview. Stuff about “emotional truths” and “first-person voice” (not point-of-view, mind you). Blah blah blah. Whatever. Am I hating Franzen yet? Of course not! Franzen is very smart, and it shows in his writing. Now, whether his kind of storytelling is right for you is a matter of opinion, but you can’t deny the man knows writing and literature inside and out. But that’s nothing to hate someone for – if that were the case, then I would hate every single critic I was forced to read as an English major. Are there hate pieces on Harold Bloom out there? He’s just as high-thinking and abstract as Franzen, but since we’re only asked to confront him in the classroom, that somehow makes it better? Well, I say go ahead Jonathan Franzen! Be a thinker, even if it makes you look like an egghead! Brush the haters off!

Now, let’s move on to the moral complexity statement and YA lit. Reading the interview, it’s clear the interviewer is trying to goad Franzen into saying something zingy about YA literature:

SL: There’s been heated discussion lately about the uptick of adults who read literature written for young adults. Recently in Slate, the journalist Ruth Graham declared that adults should be embarrassed if what they are reading was written for children, and that it would be a shame if readers substituted “maudlin teen drama” for the complexity of great adult literature. What are your thoughts?

JF: I don’t care what people read.

SL: You have no opinion on the question of whether or not readers might be cheating themselves if they’re reading YA lit?

JF: If it’s a loss, it’s their loss, not mine.

Well … that’s pretty much how I feel about YA literature as well, Mr. Franzen. Not my thing, really. So, no problems here.

Ah, but then he throws out the “moral complexity” quote, noting that YA literature is “morally simple.” Ah gotcha, now everyone’s pissy. But is this quote really that bad? I’m not arguing that YA literature doesn’t delve into morally complex issues – death and love are a big part of the genre. Let me be clear: I’m not trying to say YA literature is not “good,” powerful, or complex. However, let’s all remember that YA authors write for their audience, and their audience is the wide spectrum of tastes and opinions known as the American teen and pre-teen. And while you have Eleanor & Park, there’s also The Clique, which sells just as many copies as the good stuff. And so, while it is unfair to say that YA is just for immature kids and dum-dums, I don’t think it’s particularly far-fetched to say that the overwhelming majority of books published in the YA genre can not be legitimately compared with traditional “literary fiction.” They’re not selling Lolita in the YA section.

And so, when I read Franzen’s quote on moral complexity, I understood exactly where he was coming from. Is the man the biggest fan of YA literature? Of course not,  but you know what? That’s his prerogative not to like it. So, why should we expect Franzen to publicly support something he doesn’t even like? Why must we all in the book world be expected to throw a semi-positive twist on everything that happens in the literary community, even if we don’t believe in what we’re promoting?

Now I know, some people are going to say that it does matter what Franzen says, and what Franzen supports, because he’s styled himself as a great “voice” for American literature, and so when he craps on something, everyone notices. To that I remind you what I said above regarding Franzen’s “claim” that he’s the next great American writer – “whatever, dude.” Something can only be considered “a truth” when people provide affirmation. If you don’t think Franzen is the next great American writer, then don’t think itThen try reading his interviews again; you’ll soon find that when he’s just a guy, it doesn’t matter what he says. People are letting themselves get worked up over Franzen, his personal opinion regarding his self-importance, and the stuff he says. As Franzen clearly states in the interview, “I don’t care what people read.” Really people, he doesn’t care. So, let’s just take a step back, OK?

The last thing I wanted to point out from the Franzen interview is his comments regarding Jennifer Weiner. Now, I don’t like to see authors taking potshots at each other … unless, I happen to agree with them. It’s easy enough to be sympathetic to Weiner in this situation: “Oh, here’s a nice woman author who writes nice stories about women getting married, and look at this jerk who’s bashing her in the New Yorker. What a dick.” But what about when Stephen King praised JK Rowling and totally slammed the Twilight series? No one really made that much of a fuss (unless you’re a Twilight fan, I guess), even though it was a man-author poo-poo’ing a woman-author. Maybe it was because deep down, we all kind of agreed with him?

So, is the Franzen-Weiner “war” evil because Franzen is wrong? To that, I can’t say either way. I’ve never read Jennifer Weiner. The kinds of books she writes do not appeal to me, and I doubt I’ll become a fan in the near future, not even if she is a woman. But, let’s look at why Franzen gets so irritated with Weiner, because, dare I say it, I might agree with him on this point:

JF: It’s tricky because there’s something about Jennifer Weiner that rubs me the wrong way, something I don’t trust…

SL: What is it?

JF: What is it? She is asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits. To me it seems she’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically. And that seems like a dubious project that is ideally suited to social media, where you don’t actually have to argue, you just tweet. Where is her long essay about this, where she really makes a case? She has no case. So she tweets.

I mean, he has a point, guys. If we’re going to talk about gender bias in the serious literary canon, then is Jennifer Weiner really the appropriate figurehead for this battle? How about someone like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri? There are some amazingly talented and powerful women authors working right now, and yet we’re supposed to feel bad for … Jennifer Weiner? The author of Good in Bed and other similarly pastel-be-covered books? I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for Jennifer Weiner, and her books have their millions of fans. I’m sure she sells way more books a year than Jonathan Franzen, so let’s withhold our tears for now. And so, while Franzen’s beef with Weiner has become an obvious sore spot for him (and one I’m sure everyone likes to pick at), I’m not sure that his point should be discarded here.

And oh yeah, he bashes Twitter, and let’s all pile on Franzen because he’s this anti-technology Luddite, blah blah blah.

JF: …the fact that you can’t sit still for five minutes without sending and receiving texts. I mean, it does not look like any form of engagement with art that I recognize from any field. It looks like a distraction and an addiction and a tool. A useful tool. I’m not a technophobe. I’m on the internet all day, every day, except when I’m actually trying to write, and even then I’m on a computer and using, often, material that I’ve taken from the internet. It’s not that I have technophobia. It’s the notion that somehow this is a transformative, liberating thing that I take issue with, when it seems to me more like a perfection of the free market’s infiltration of every aspect of a human being’s waking life.

Unfortunately, the anti-Franzen camp doesn’t recruit me to their cause with this argument because I stopped tweeting about a year ago and am thinking of deleting my Twitter account all together. Again, this is a post for another time, but I’m actually on board with Franzen’s desire to unplug from the mindless “noise” of social media. So yeah … score another for team Franzen?

There’s a lot more in the interview, and again and again, I found myself agreeing with the guy. Or, I found myself not not agreeing with Jonathan Franzen. Maybe it’s just who I am: I know that I can be an odd duck sometimes. In recent years, I’ve gone from essentially being a social media “expert” and being tuned in 24/7, to now, when I can lose my iPhone and not even notice for half a day. I don’t really watch TV (though, stay tuned for a future post on this). I like to read a lot of really tough, morally complex books that are very often considered “literary fiction.” I can be kind of snobby about my reading tastes, and I have high standards for the books I read – and I’m not afraid to say they “suck” when that’s, in fact, how I feel.

If that makes me like Jonathan Franzen, well then, so be it. But here’s the thing: regardless of whether you “agree” with the stuff Jonathan Franzen says, or regardless how you feel about “literary elitism,” the kind of snarky, almost reflexive bashing I’m reading all over the Internet is not a good way to go about it either. To be honest, it doesn’t really mean anything to “hate” Jonathan Franzen anymore. Are we all so morally offended by him, or do we say we hate him so that we’ll fit in with the cool crowd on the book-ternet? “Oh, everyone is ganging up on this guy? I don’t want to be left out!”

It seems that we are currenly living in a strange moment in the literary community, especially as it exists online as chatter between various “book blogs.” We’ve moved away from “the canon is all important,” to completely tossing out the canon, moving onto a world where everything is welcome, everything is accepted, and everything is “good.” Along with it, it seems that we’ve also tossed out the notion of value judgments, and the right to make them, especially if you choose to judge works based on certain “patriarchal” concepts like “quality,” and “artistic merit,” or “good writing.” In fact, it’s suddenly become rude to make any kind of value judgments whatsoever, lest you risk hurting someone’s feelings, or making anyone feel stupid or uneducated. If you want to read trashy romance novels, read them! Anyone who says you shouldn’t is a fuddy-duddy and we’ll take them and their snobby ways down!

But here’s the thing: I don’t care if you read romance novels. But I do reserve the right to dislike certain kinds of genre fiction. And I’m allowed to say that many of these books are formulaic, and lack “artistic merit.” If that hurts your sense of delicacy, well, grow some thicker skin. This is the Internet, after all. And hey, you’re allowed to think I’m weird for really digging Tolstoy and Henry James.

All that being said, I really don’t think Jonathan Franzen needs defending. The man can defend himself, and frankly, I don’t think he really cares all that much. Because hey, we’re keeping his name at the top of the trending Twitter topics! And so even if he does “scorn” Twitter, he’s still there, and people are talking about him. You guys, Franzen is actually winning. If you don’t like what he says, it’s perfectly easy to ignore him. But you’re not, so who’s really to blame here?

But regarding literary elitism – whether you’re for, against, or neutral – I’m just hoping for a more fair, less judgmental discussion on literary tastes among the digital literary community. I don’t care if you like Jennifer Weiner, and I don’t care if you read YA lit as an adult, but that’s no reason to get your hackles up whenever someone else with a slightly more traditional – some may say “snobbier” – taste in books walks by. The current trend seems to be seeing how nontraditional one can be with your reading choices (more women! more writers of color! graphic novels! …. by the way, I love all of these things). But let’s not get so carried away that we forget that hey, people are still allowed to like “the canon.”

And yes, I am perfectly aware how this all sounds very much like a #firstworldproblem, what with me being a highly educated white woman living in America, one who has the time and leisure to debate “high art” on my blog. And even though I’m a woman, I don’t feel particularly marginalized or alienated by the dead white guys (or, alive white guys in the case of Franzen) who write the books I tend to read. However, this doesn’t discredit my right to think, debate, write about, and have an opinion on books, writing, and reading. We’re all allowed to have opinions, even if those opinions are negative, or unpopular, or stubbornly refuse to follow trends. And that applies to everyone … even Jonathan Franzen.



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