If it feels like forever ago that Real Man of Genius Jonathan Franzen was extolling the virtues of obscure German pessimists, bitching about Teutonic women who wouldn't sleep with him, and picking lit fights with happy-endings cognoscente Jennifer Weiner, there is good news: Franzen has more thoughts on Weiner.
Franzen, a white man from the Midwest who gained fame and riches with a novel about the momentous travails of a white family from the Midwest, is perhaps best known today for turning away from his fiction to chronicle the intellectual poverty of most contemporary literature that is not, oh, say, his fiction.
Much of that notoriety stems from a 2013 Guardian jeremiad, which is titled "Jonathan Franzen: what's wrong with the modern world" and delivers very nicely and perhaps unintentionally on the promise of that title. In it, he rails against the Amazon-Apple complex driving written literature into a technocratic apocalypse, "so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion." The dig at Weiner—who's been associated with chick lit and middlebrow—and her social-media mavenry was taken by many readers, including Weiner herself, as a broader dig at women and the literature they consumed.
(Weiner also surmised that The Corrections author was pissed at her for coining the term Franzenfreude: "Perhaps Franzen's recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he's the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won't be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn't have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him.")
Franzen has something more to say. In an interview with Butler University MFA student Susan Lerner, published today on the college's website, Franzen revisits his bizarre fixation. His Weinerlust, if you will:
SL: In The Kraus Project, as part of your lament about Amazon's power, you wrote that "literary novelists might be conscripted into Jennifer Weinerish self-promotion." Given that women writers are generally swimming against the established current, what are your thoughts about the use of social media by women to promote their work? And what are your thoughts on Weiner, in particular, who tweets to promote not only her work, but also to advocate for equal representation of women writers?
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.
We should note here that Weiner has written extensively about this, and has also had extensive writing written about her writing about this, and Franzen has evidently not read any of it. Or he has, and he is simply unimpressed by the length of her essays.
SL: No case for herself, you're saying?
JF: Yes. No case for why formulaic fiction ought to be reviewed in the New York Times.
SL: But I think she also advocates for other female authors whose work might be termed more "literary" rather than "commercial."
JF: Good for her.
SL: She's written that because she perhaps has less at stake in the literary community than women who write more "literary" fiction, she's become the de facto spokeswoman.
JF: That's unfortunate, because it's an important issue and she's an unfortunate person to have as a spokesperson.
SL: Have you read any of her books?
JF: I have yet to hear one person say, "Oh, she's really good, you should read her." And basically if two people say that about a book I'll read it. I know no one, male or female, who says, "You've got to read Jennifer Weiner."
Let's, for a silly moment, give Franzen the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is not about gender (he never did answer Lerner's original question about women vying for exposure), or about high-versus-low art (or its correlation, in Franzen's paradigm, to a gender dichotomy), but about the death of the lidərəCHər author and his replacement by the self-marketing socialite.
In the Guardian essay that launched this angstfight, Franzen grants that "the yakkers and the tweeters" on Amazon's hot-sellers list—the Weiners, presumably—will do just fine, financially. "But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement?" he asks. "What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?"
According to Franzen in his interview with Lerner, here is what happens to them:
JF: Well, I always liked The Simpsons, so it was fun to be on. Those guys are smart. They are all-powerful and all-wealthy and can do whatever they feel like. They can get the best talent in the country, and they have some of the best talent in the country doing the voices. So it's like, Boy, those lads are doing well.
Cool. Just as long as we're clear on this distinction between crass self-promoters and les artistes.
Okay, I don't *hate* Jonathan Franzen. What I hate is the way the New York Times transforms itself into his personal PR machine when he has a book out, to the exclusion of the books people are actually reading, so he's sort of a symbol for a whole binary hierarchical....oh, fuck it, I hate that smug motherfucker, and I vote we TP his house.
[Photo credit: AP Images]