Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner: Comparing apples with high-heel shoes

Jonathan Franzen is grabbing headlines (again), in literary circles, for his comments about fellow author Jennifer Weiner in an interview given to Butler University’s literary journal Booth.

If you’ve not heard of this great literary feud before now, allow me to summarise: Weiner has repeatedly tweeted complaints about the New York Times’ bestseller list not featuring enough women.

And she has held up Franzen as an example of a male dude who writes fiction about families and relationships and gets accolades, while her books and those written by other female dude authors like Jodi Picoult get filed under the banner of “chick lit”.

Jonathan Franzen (Reuters)

She has also given an interview in which she said the following: “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book — in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

Franzen’s latest comment on the matter is this: “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.”

As a reader of both Franzen and Weiner, a user of Twitter and a feminist, I feel that I am positioned at the nexus of all of these issues and therefore qualified to comment upon this furore authoritatively.

Gender bias is real
First off, let me clarify that I do believe that women have to work harder in just about any industry, and that literature is no exception. There are old-boys’ clubs in every established profession and new-boys’ clubs in most of the news ones.

However, and here’s the crucial point, I don’t think that’s the reason that Franzen has never been accused of chick lit, and Weiner has never been accused of literature.

If I may illustrate, using two randomly selected excerpts from their works. This is Franzen: “For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else.”

Here, on the other hand, is Weiner: “You know how in scary books a character will say, ‘I felt my heart stop?’ Well, I did. Really. Then I felt it start to pound again, in my wrists, my throat, my fingertips. The hair at the back of my neck stood up. My hands felt icy. I could hear the blood roaring in my ears, as I read the first line of the article: ‘I’ll never forget the day I found out my girlfriend weighed more than I did.’ ”

Now, here’s the thing. Although Franzen is one of my favourite writers, like, ever, there are times when I’m more in the mood for a bit of Weiner. Those times are usually when I’ve had a bit too much on my plate, or I’m going on holiday, or I need to recover from a book I haven’t enjoyed so much by immersing myself in a light page-turner.

Franzen doesn’t offer me solutions to any of these. He makes me think, he makes me cringe about my own life and the lives of his characters, and he makes me reread sentences and paragraphs for the sheer joy of the eloquent wonderfulness with which he is gifting the world.

Great writing the difference

While we probably shouldn’t have chick lit in the same way that we should have pink Lego for girls and swords for boys and activities targeted at either gender, I accept that there is a literary categorisation for Weiner’s kind of writing. Call it “beach reads” if gender stereotyping is not your thing, but Weiner doesn’t like that label either.

I think she’s being disingenuous to demand that reviewers give her and Picoult the same kudos that they grant Franzen. Does she spin a good yarn? Yes. Does she look into interesting aspects of the human condition? Maybe. Does she write sentences so gloriously articulate, moving and astute they may have been sung by the gods themselves? Not so much.

Sorry, Weiner. I dig your books. I really do. And I love how you stand up for the fact that female heroines don’t need to have tiny waists and pouty lips. But what you’re writing isn’t great literature and it’s not the stuff that people will be reading in 100 years.

While the battle for equal recognition must rage on, at the same time, Meg Wolitzer, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Donna Tartt and Margaret Atwood are all getting the rave reviews they deserve for their exceptional writing. And Nicholas Sparks is branded square in the middle of his forehead with the label “chick lit”.

I’m willing to defend any credible feminist issue on the table, but I’m afraid that Weiner’s complaint against Franzen ain’t one of them. That said, I’m not sure she’s actually “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias” as Franzen puts it either. I think it’s possible that she’s genuinely unaware of the respective merits of each of their canons.

A note on social media
However, eloquent, articulate, clever and insightful though Franzen might be, the man’s a dinosaur when it comes to social media. By putting her argument across in that forum, Weiner is making herself heard in a powerful way, and Franzen’s constant belittling of any activity in a space like that, in which remarkable and progressive things are happening, does set him apart as an eccentric and outdated (and increasingly out of touch) author who is failing to engage with the masses.

Weiner, babe, I love your work and I wish that I could have half the career that you’ve had. And seriously, please keep adding your voice to the call for more recognition for female writers. But don’t complain that Franzen gets praise for his work, which, regardless of subject matter, is superior to that of just about any other living writer.

Franzen, honey, buy a ticket to the 21st century.

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