Feminist 'Franzenfreude' Over Raves For 'Freedom'

Jonathan Franzen i i

Jonathan Franzen is also the author of The Corrections: A Novel and The Discomfort Zone, a memoir. Greg Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Martin
Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is also the author of The Corrections: A Novel and The Discomfort Zone, a memoir.

Greg Martin

Jonathan Franzen has a way of making people mad. When his last novel, The Corrections, was picked by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, Franzen made it known that he was not comfortable with the populist honor — so Oprah withdrew the offer.

This time around a couple of best-selling female writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, have tweeted their disdain for what they see as critical fawning over Franzen's new novel, Freedom.

Weiner has even come up with a phrase to describe her feelings: Franzenfreude.

"Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain of others," Weiner says. "Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."

But her angst is not just about the book — or even about Franzen himself.

Time Cover Jonathan Franzen i i

Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time magazine's Aug. 23 issue for a story that called him the "Great American Novelist." Courtesy of Time hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Time
Time Cover Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time magazine's Aug. 23 issue for a story that called him the "Great American Novelist."

Courtesy of Time

"It's about the establishment choosing one writer and writing about him again and again and again," Weiner says, "while they are ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books."

Weiner is known for writing "chick lit" — which she says is just a snappier way of saying "commercial women's fiction" — and though she's done very well with the genre, she knows it's not a critical favorite. But even "literary" novels written by women, Weiner says, do not get the same attention as a small group of men whose writing is taken very seriously by publications like the Times.

Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus acknowledges that the critical establishment takes certain kinds of books more seriously than others, but he insists there are no criteria used to decide what the Times will or will not review — the goal is to find books that will engage their readers and interest their reviewers.

"For us as editors, reviewers and critics, what we are really try[ing] to do is ... identify that fiction that really will endure," Tanenhaus says.

In his review of Freedom, Tanenhaus declared the novel "a masterpiece" and compared Franzen to such literary greats as Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. He says he believes Franzen deserves both the attention and the praise he is getting because he is that rare kind of writer who tells us something about "the secret life of the culture."

Freedom
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28
Read An Excerpt

"The extraordinary interest in Franzen derives from this," Tanenhaus says. "He somehow seems to give you a panorama of the culture but also tap[s] into the deeper anxieties, tensions and questions that animate us today. There are very few writers at any time who ever do this."

Tanenhaus says his interest in Franzen does not reflect any gender bias at the Times. He can list many well-known female writers the Times has reviewed recently.

But Weiner has her own list — a list of male writers who she says are given a different kind of treatment in reviews.

"It's just interesting to sort of stack them up against a Lorrie Moore or against a Mona Simpson — who write books about families that are seen as excellent books about families," Weiner says. "And then to look at a Jonathan Franzen who writes a book about a family but we are told this is a book about America."

Jane Smiley, who is regularly reviewed in the Times, has been cited by Franzen as a source of inspiration; she admits to having a favorable opinion of the writer. Still, Smiley says she can understand why some female writers whose work is commercially successful but critically ignored would be frustrated.

"Chick lit is no longer chick lit," she says. "There's an aspect of fiction that is being written by women that is really smart, really daring, in terms of the subject matter that it takes on — and really popular. And I think it's being overlooked because it's so, so straightforward and because the payoff is emotional rather than intellectual."

In the end, Smiley says, critics don't choose the writers who will endure — readers do.

"And whether the media elite in New York know who's really anointed or not ... we'll never know," she says.

But if the readers are the ones who will decide, then it should be noted that most readers of fiction are — in fact — women.

Excerpt: 'Freedom'

Freedom
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28

The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally-he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now-but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation's capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times ("arrogant," "high-handed," "ethically compromised") with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill-the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, "Hey, you guys, you know what?" Patty frightened nobody, but she'd been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

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. She said she expected to be "beheaded" someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she'd replaced. Her children were "probably" dying of trichinosis from pork she'd undercooked. She wondered if her "addiction" to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her "never" reading books anymore. She confided that she'd been "forbidden" to fertilize Walter's flowers after what had happened "last time." There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn't sit well-who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning.

It was known that Patty had grown up back East, in a suburb of New York City, and had received one of the first women's full scholarships to play basketball at Minnesota, where, in her sophomore year, according to a plaque on the wall of Walter's home office, she'd made second-team all-American. One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots. Whole seasons passed without her setting foot outside St. Paul, and it wasn't clear that anybody from the East, not even her parents, had ever come out to visit. If you inquired point-blank about the parents, she would answer that the two of them did a lot of good things for a lot of people, her dad had a law practice in White Plains, her mom was a politician, yeah, a New York State assemblywoman. Then she would nod emphatically and say, "Yeah, so, that's what they do," as if the topic had been exhausted.

A game could be made of trying to get Patty to agree that somebody's behavior was "bad." When she was told that Seth and Merrie Paulsen were throwing a big Halloween party for their twins and had deliberately invited every child on the block except Connie Monaghan, Patty would only say that this was very "weird." The next time she saw the Paulsens in the street, they explained that they had tried all summer to get Connie Monaghan's mother, Carol, to stop flicking cigarette butts from her bedroom window down into their twins' little wading pool. "That is really weird," Patty agreed, shaking her head, "but, you know, it's not Connie's fault." The Paulsens, however, refused to be satisfied with "weird." They wanted sociopathic, they wanted passive-aggressive, they wanted bad. They needed Patty to select one of these epithets and join them in applying it to Carol Monaghan, but Patty was incapable of going past "weird," and the Paulsens in turn refused to add Connie to their invite list. Patty was angry enough about this injustice to take her own kids, plus Connie and a school friend, out to a pumpkin farm and a hayride on the afternoon of the party, but the worst she would say aloud about the Paulsens was that their meanness to a seven-year-old girl was very weird.

Excerpted from Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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