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Critic's Notebook: With Jonathan Franzen, judge the novel, not the man

'Freedom' deserves to stand on its own merits. What people think about the author personally should not matter.

September 04, 2010|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Jonathan Franzen is the author of "Freedom."
Jonathan Franzen is the author of "Freedom." (Los Angeles Times )

Although Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom" came out only on Tuesday, it has been the subject of impassioned debate for the better part of a month now, both in the review pages of most major media outlets — he is the first living writer to appear on the cover of Time magazine in a decade — and in the more ethereal corridors of the digital world.

Well before publication, novelist Jennifer Weiner organized a Twitter campaign, under the hashtag "franzenfreude," to gather negative reaction to the book, which tells the story of a middle-American family in slow collapse.

Weiner's label is a variation on "schadenfreude," or pleasure taken in the misfortune of others: "Franzenfreude," she told NPR late last month, "is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."

Yet in an irony noted by several Twitter commentators, Weiner tangled up the reference. "Franzenfreude," one Tweet suggests, "would translate to pleasure in Franzen"; apparently, it would have been more accurate to call it "schadenfranzen."

Word games aside, Weiner is incensed about what she perceives as the engrained sexism of mainstream media, especially the New York Times, which showers coverage on male writers such as Franzen while leaving women out.

That's a valid concern; this week, Slate reported that, of 545 works of fiction reviewed in the Times between June 29, 2008, and Aug. 27, 2010, only 207, or 38%, were written by women. Even more, of the 101 books to receive two reviews during that stretch (one in the daily paper and the other in Sunday), just 29 were by female writers.

The numbers are probably similar at most major newspapers, including this one. It's exactly the kind of issue we should be discussing. But none of this, really, is what the uproar over "Freedom" has been about.

With 300,000 copies in print, "Freedom" is No. 1 at Amazon.com; it has received critical raves and even the president is said to be reading it. The furor over its success smacks of gossip, envy, a mean-spirited approach to literary life. It's personal, people reacting to a writer they don't like.

An Aug. 26 Newsweek piece made that point explicitly, calling Franzen "the writer we love to hate." For writer Jennie Yabroff, the issue isn't Franzen's writing, which she acknowledges is, at best, "fantastic," but his position in the culture, his "peevishness," which, she believes, "undermines the humanistic intentions of his work."

In the age of the Internet, Yabroff insists, it is "difficult to separate how you feel about an author's personal life from how you respond to his work, despite your best efforts to read the writing, not the writer."

She continues: " 'Freedom' comes from the man who dissed Oprah, complained that the Tony-winning musical 'Spring Awakening' was a bastardization of the 1891 Frank Wedekind play (which Franzen himself had recently translated from the German), called [New York Times] book critic Michiko Kakutani 'the stupidest person in New York,' and claimed such affectations as writing in an earmuff-and-blindfold-equipped sensory-deprivation chamber."

Really? Is that where we are now, framing the discussion over literature in terms of public image rather than language and narrative? What does this have to do with the quality of Franzen's work?

Writers have always been eccentric, outspoken, unpleasant, even dangerous — it's an inevitable side effect of a profession that requires you, to steal a line from sportswriter Red Smith, to "sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

Norman Mailer brawled and bragged his way to literary celebrity, stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales, at a party, and writing about himself in mock-heroic terms.

Hemingway was unbearable, Celine a Nazi sympathizer, Dorothy Parker a maudlin drunk. It's all irrelevant to their writing, which sings and screams with a music of its own.

This is true of Franzen's work as well. He is the most ambitious novelist of our moment — not for who he is, but for how he writes, his willingness to explore the emotional depths and complexities of the most apparently mundane lives.

At heart, the tempest over "Freedom" reveals a fundamental immaturity in our collective thinking, a child's eye view of the way art and culture works. This is not a new thing, but it's distressing to see it so widespread.

Rather than a discussion of what gets covered and how, we have a campaign of personal invective, turned against a single author. Rather than a consideration of the book, we have a conversation about the writer's image, as if that matters in our reading of the work.

In his 1968 book "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," Mailer described his ambivalence about a youth culture that seemed to him as much of a threat as the conservative status quo. He did not want "to lose even the America he had had" because "it had allowed him to write.... He had lived well enough to have six children, a house on the water, a good apartment, good meals, good booze, he had even come to enjoy wine."

Had Twitter existed then, Mailer probably would have been pilloried for his counter-revolutionary sentiments, but all these years later, his observation rings with the weight of truth.

What he is talking about is the difficulty of being a grown-up, the necessity of looking inward, at our contradictions, and reconciling them as best we can.

That's the message of "Freedom" also, as it was of Franzen's previous novel "The Corrections," and it stands as a powerful rebuke to those who judge the novel — or any novel — on terms other than its own.

david.ulin@latimes.com

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