ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.
LYNN NEARY: 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 this populist honor. Oprah withdrew the offer.
M: Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain of others. Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.
NEARY: Weiner says her angst is not just about the book - or even about Franzen himself.
M: It's about the establishment choosing one writer, and writing about him again and again and again and again and again, while they're ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of the New York Times, entire genres of books.
NEARY: But if you ask Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, what criteria the publication uses to decide what to review, he'll tell you...
M: There are none.
NEARY: Tanenhaus says the Times looks for books that will engage their readers and interest their reviewers. But Tanenhaus acknowledges the critical establishment does take certain kinds of books more seriously than others.
M: For us as editors, reviewers and critics, what we're really trying to do is something that's probably impossible, but in our Panglossian optimism, we hope is maybe now and again achievable. And that's to identify that fiction that maybe really will endure.
NEARY: 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 believes Franzen deserves both the attention and the praise he's getting because he is that rare writer who tells us something about the secret life of the culture.
M: And so the extraordinary interest in Franzen derives from this, that he somehow seems to give you a panorama of the culture but also tap into the deeper anxieties, tensions and questions that animate us today. There are very few writers at any time who ever do this.
NEARY: But Jennifer Weiner has her own list of male writers who she says are given a different kind of treatment in reviews.
M: 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. And then to look at a Jonathan Franzen, who writes a book about a family, but we're told this is a book about America, this is a book about the way we live now.
NEARY: One woman writer who is regularly reviewed in the Times is Jane Smiley. Jonathan Franzen has cited her novel "The Greenlanders" as a book that has inspired him, so she admits to having a favorable opinion of the writer. But Smiley says she can understand why some women writers, whose work is commercially successful but critically ignored, would be frustrated.
M: Chick lit is no longer chick lit. There's an aspect of fiction now that's 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 been overlooked because it's so straightforward, and because the payoff is emotional rather than intellectual.
NEARY: In the end, says Smiley, it's not the critics who anoint the writers who will endure, it's the readers.
M: And whether the media elite in New York know who's really, really anointed or not, we'll never know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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