Oh, Jonathan Franzen, whatever will we do with you? We love you, we hate you, we love to love and hate you. “A Rooting Interest,” Franzen’s recent essay in The New Yorker, has stirred up a fair bit of controversy: the essay is a celebration of Edith Wharton on the occasion of her 150th birthday, but though he purports to admire her work deeply, he doesn’t seem to like her very much — or at least, have very much sympathy for her.
Franzen writes, “I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.” While it’s relatively universally known that in order for a work of fiction to be enjoyable, the reader has to find some point of sympathy with at least one of the characters, it’s not so clear that the same is true about the character of the author.
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. Whether that’s his fault or not doesn’t matter, the point is that it makes him unlikable to many. I’d like to point out that Franzen’s masculinity did not distract this reader from recognizing that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which came out the same summer, was a much better book. It didn’t distract the Pulitzer Prize board either.
At The Awl, Emily Gould makes the excellent point that the main trouble with Franzen’s New Yorker article isn’t that he has these “unattractive personal biases,” but that he is attributing them to the reading world at large. (Side note: This is all not to mention that, like many of the detractors of this article, I don’t find Wharton unsympathetic. Nor do I find her particularly unattractive – while perhaps indeed no Grace Kelly, she seems good-looking enough to me.)
Gould points out, however, that Franzen is absolutely correct in one important respect: that everyone has their own biases when it comes to reading, and the act of choosing which authors to read and care about can depend heavily on these biases. She says that finds it difficult to “see the books’ merits clearly” when she finds out the author was abusive or cruel to women. I myself have similar reservations when I find out that I’m reading the work of a religious fanatic or homophobe. A good friend of mine, a first generation New Yorker whose parents were born in Russia, is most stimulated by immigrant stories and completely put-off by middle-class melodramas like Freedom. Some people may, as uncomfortable as it is to admit, do not to want to read books by women.
That doesn’t mean that these biases are noble, or even the least bit stable. After all, reading a book by a person is not the same as giving that person tacit approval for everything they’ve ever done or said in their life – imagine what we’d be taking on if we let ourselves think such a thing. Nor can we expect our biases to either stay put or evaporate, however much we prod them, so in all their nebulous nature, they can only continue to have an affect on our reading lives.
What are your own personal biases when it comes to choosing what to read? Are you ever swayed by the personality, social status or attractiveness of the author?