Saturday, March 03, 2012

Responses to Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker article, part I

Franzen's article:

From The Daily Beast:

Why Jonathan Franzen Can’t Appreciate Edith Wharton

For a certain group of successful male authors, dismissing women writers is so much more pleasant than taking them seriously.

There were many travesties committed in Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton, which has caused so much outcry and sizzle in recent days for its disdainful tone, its relentless focus on the author’s looks, and its odd assertion that sympathy is hard to come by for this grand dame of letters.

Among his assertions: that she was ugly, which didn’t cause her marriage to be sexless, but probably didn’t help; that Lily Bart is the opposite—beautiful—but a “party girl” whom Wharton punishes for her looks; that the central problem in reading Wharton is how to grudgingly “get over” her cosseted, wealthy existence as she swans around European hotels. But his worst sin is one of omission—what Franzen did not write about.

Specifically, how Wharton was just like Franzen—an ambitious American author who strove to balance literary reach with public taste.

This was pointed out the other night by novelist Pamela Redmond, at a book group of fellow women authors, all of us incensed by the essay. “It would have been far more interesting to find out what he identified with in Wharton,” she remarked. “That’s an essay I would have liked to read.” [more at the link above]

From Flavorwire:

Franzen argues that we don’t feel sympathetic towards Wharton for several reasons: because of her privilege, which he says “put her at a moral disadvantage,” her conservatism, her ultimate rejection of America, and the fact that “she was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned letter of complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella.” Her sole “potentially redeeming disadvantage,” Franzen says, is the fact that (according to him) she wasn’t very pretty, but he goes on to decide that no, that doesn’t help, because the “odd thing about beauty… is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do,” and he thinks “Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d look like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.” So, he suggests, her work is neglected (is it?) or less appreciated because the author herself is not likeable.

For this author, Franzen is pretty much a walking argument against his point here. Everyone I talk to seems to express at least a little bit of distaste for the guy, and sometimes more than a little (no one crosses Oprah, even if they take it back later), but those same people will leap to tell you that well yes, they loved Freedom, and of course they count him among the great American novelists of our time, if not the greatest. Personally, he has not ingratiated himself to me by making all of those dismissive and coarse comments about David Foster Wallace, who was supposed to be his friend.

He’s also a touchstone in the ongoing discussion about how male authors get an inordinate amount of attention as compared to their female contemporaries, with many critics complaining that Freedom won Franzen way too much acclaim, to the detriment of deserving women.

From the L.A. Review of Books:

Not Pretty

Edith Wharton was born 150 years ago. Jonathan Franzen’s piece
on the occasion in the New Yorker got VICTORIA PATTERSON mad.

Victoria Patterson’s work has often been compared, for good reason, to Edith Wharton’s. This Vacant Paradise, Patterson’s first novel, is a contemporary retelling, quite consciously and intelligently, of The House of Mirth, transferred 100-plus years and 3000 miles from Wharton’s Old New York to Patterson’s Newport Beach. For all the cultural and historical distance, the two write of emotionally identical, muscular family struggles involving inheritance and strategic marriage; they chart matching dramas of cash-nexus beauty, analyze the power of sex and their characters’ debilitating combination of over-consciousness and under-consciousness of that power; and they pay the same attention to the way people find themselves, no matter their intentions or ethics, divided almost randomly into the blithe, oblivious, cruel winners and the flotsam- and jetsam-like losers strewn about as wealth patrols its waters. When Jonathan Franzen wrote about Wharton’s 150th birthday in The New Yorker (“A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy,” February 13, 2012), he harped on her looks and read the biographical record in ways that prompted Patterson to respond.

— Tom Lutz

Not Pretty

After reading Jonathan Franzen’s essay in the New Yorker about Edith Wharton, I couldn’t sleep. I admire Franzen’s work and usually appreciate his commentary about social media, eBooks, etc., but his depiction of Edith Wharton was so mean-spirited and off-key that I tossed and turned. Why would he link her husband’s mental illness with her success? Why claim that she was only interested in male friendships? And worst of all: Why would he focus on her physical appearance, claiming that she was unattractive? He’d taken a literary hero and written about her as if ranking a Maxim photo spread.

I reread the piece the following morning. Franzen’s essay is a tribute to Wharton and her work. Yet there’s a strange negative slanting of Wharton’s biography and a peculiarly misplaced concentration on her physical appearance. There are other problems with his essay as well: It is either disingenuous, or uninformed, for instance, for Franzen to reflect on Wharton’s disagreeable politics without also noting that throughout the war, she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees (mainly women and children) and, in 1916, that she received the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in recognition of her commitment to the displaced. But it is her facial features that structure Franzen’s response, and it is his constant return to them that bothers me the most. [...]

From the New York Daily News

Jonathan Franzen's female 'problem'

image_2.jpegIt started, as it is so often does, with Edith Wharton.

To be more precise, it started with a New Yorker essay on the “Age of Innocence” author, written for the Feb. 13 issue by Jonathan Frazen. Called “Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy,” the essay was, by many accounts, a snide and mean-spirited appraisal of Wharton’s career.

Anyone forced to read Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” in high school may question her talents as a writer, but Franzen went much further than that, speculating on aspects of her life that are far beyond the ken of an essayist:

“That [Edith and Teddy Wharton’s] ensuing twenty-eight years of marriage were almost entirely sexless was perhaps less a function of her looks than of her sexual ignorance.” (Franzen and Oprah Winfrey / AP)

“[Wharton] did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty.”

“Wharton might well be more congenial to us now, if alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”

“[The House of Mirth] can be read … as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be.”

This is, plainly put, nonsense. Critics pounced at once. The Kenyon Review blasted him, as did the blog Girls Like Giants.

But the definitive response to Franzen’s article did not come until last Saturday, when novelist Victoria Patterson shredded him in a fine, pithy essay in the LA Review of Books (which, by the way, is quickly establishing itself as the Left Coast’s most serious literary outlet).

wharton_pic.jpeg“He’d taken a literary hero and written about her as if ranking a Maxim photo spread,” Patterson says in the opening paragraph of the piece, "Not Pretty," pointing out that Franzen seems far less concerned with Wharton’s art than her appearance. (Edith Wharton / Photofest)

Defending Franzen

The Awl--an article by Emily Gould defending Franzen that concludes with this insight: he's just calling "attention to the fact that we all have prejudices that influence our reading."

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