The Danger of the Single Story & Thoughts on Franzenfreude

(via The Awl’s unconvincing response to the current Franzenfrenzy)

The article makes a few interesting arguments, but I disagree with the central presumption that the issues Franzen tackles in his books apply only to the “white, male, middle class […] American experience.” Some of his focuses may speak very closely indeed to the “white, male, middle class American experience,” but not exclusively. He frames his themes in the context of a white, middle class American family, but who’s to say that those themes don’t cross social or racial divides? His themes have universality.

Franzen has called Enid The Corrections’ “hero,” and it appears from everything I’ve read that Patty is Freedom’s main character, which is interesting to consider when reading about the feminist rally cry against NYTBR’s supposedly phallocratic review system. It’s not that Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult are upset about female characters or viewpoints being underrepresented (or, for that matter, misrepresented by male writers), though. It’s that, they feel, there aren’t enough popular women writers being treated seriously by outlets like NYTBR.

Do Weiner and Picoult really need the Times to review them, though?* Isn’t the central question that a book reviewer sets out to answer, ‘Should the reader of my review read the book I’m reviewing’? In the same way that Franzen has said in interviews, and in “Why Bother?,” that he doesn’t want or need to use the novel as a means of revealing something grandly important about the world-at-large (because his readers can just as easily get that kind of information from a newspaper or from TV or from Franzen’s nonfiction), NYTBR doesn’t really need to comment on the new Weiner or Picoult book (because it’s likely not to make a difference on the average NYTBR reader, not that it matters to either’s book sales). What would happen if someone took a critical knife to today’s best-selling books? What would happen if Sam Tanenhaus approached Jennifer Weiner’s new book with the same expectations he approached Freedom, or any other “serious” and “literary” book, with? Would the NYTBR reviewer have to re-scale the rubric by which he assessed the success or failure of a book?

I feel like no serious critique, no matter how scathingly deft or accurate, of books by Weiner or Picoult or Glenn Beck or James Patterson would matter. Their books would still be bought and enjoyed, just as shlock still sells at movie theaters every weekend. (Unless of course Weiner and Picoult and Beck and Patterson are putting out sincerely “high art,” in which case I’m demonstrating the kind of ignorance Weiner and Picoult are crying for an end to. And in which case, I’m sorry.)

Personally I hope this all leads to a) a response from Franzen, in essay-form, about the binary reductiveness with which the literati treat “chick lit,” likely littered with loosely relevant references to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, (or a very meta essay about how this situation in some ways parallels Oprah’s dismissal of Franzen after he told Terry Gross that Oprah Book Club books are generally frowned upon or flat-out ignored by male readers) and b) a full-fledged review of Weiner or Picoult’s next book in the Sunday Review.

*Moreover, do they deserve the review space in the Times? How does their work stack up against Franzen’s or, to use a female example, the very talented Mary Gaitskill? Jennifer Egan’s new novel received a front-page review a few weeks ago. How do Weiner and Picoult compare to her?
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