Freedom – Rant Alert

I am reading Jonathan Franzen’s already acclaimed novel Freedom. I’m not very far along and perhaps my opinion will change, but I confess, so far I am spitting mad.

I’m reading on my iPhone so I don’t know how far I am in terms of paper pages, but I would estimate about 1/20th of the way through. So, really, plenty of time for me to change my mind and admit, perhaps, that I was snookered by the opening pages and Franzen isn’t really clueless.

For anyone who’s been living under a literary rock, Franzen’s novel is 1) hugely anticipated and 2) the subject of controversy unrelated to its merits. Some female writers have pointed out that the New York Times Review of Books seems to privilege white male writers over women and writers of color. They also pointed out that while the NYTRB has reviewed some genre novels they have been exclusively in genres thought to appeal to men — or to put it another way, the NYTRB only reviews popular fiction that is popular with men (regardless of whether women also read the genre which of course, they do). Those two genres are hard core mysteries and thrillers. Why, these authors pointed out, doesn’t the NYTRB like girl-writers and why do to sneer at books that don’t seem to appeal to men? I’m actually not going to comment much on that because its been covered, recovered and misinterpreted by boy-pundits who from what I’ve seen so far have failed, deliberately or otherwise, to understand the point being made.

Anyway, all the hoopla made me decide I would read the dang book to decide for myself if Franzen is indeed a Major Literary Genius. So, I am doing that. I’ve read a lot of books. I went to grad school to learn more about reading books. I studied books with lots of really, really smart people, so it’s not like I’m a dunce about books. I think I’m at the very least an educated judge of literature. I think I can give a moderately informed opinion.

Here we go!

Of course Franzen can write. Doh. The issues I’m having are not related to craft. The issues I’m having are related to a male writer who, so far, seems to think he has something true to say about the female characters in his story.

I didn’t get very far before he’s describing a college-educated woman who is a housewife (there is NOTHING wrong with that), but what he describes is a woman who feels like a man’s idea of what it’s like to be the primary, if not the sole, caretaker of one’s children and family. Which means, I am sorry to say, that many male writers completely fail to understand. The literary canon is chock full of Important Books By Men that purport to say something about women and in fact say much more about what those writers think or wish about women. Worse, the literary canon is full of books that purport to say something about the human condition and in fact represent only the male position.* Real women are obliterated in the pages of these books. Here’s three examples: Madame Bovary, The Grapes of Wrath, Jude The Obscure.

So far, in Freedom, the same obliteration is taking place. The women on these pages are empty. He’s written all around them, describing, giving details of their lives, doling out vignettes and so far I can only say, over and over, as I read, these are not real women. They are a man’s ideas about women. All the big “female” issues are there so far; marriage, children, violence against women and every single one lacks emotional truth. I am sick and tired of reading stories that purport to depict truth about the lives of women and don’t. There are men who can and do. But so far it’s not Franzen.

Like I said, it’s so early in the book and maybe I’ll find out in a bit that somewhere in there Franzen gets around to depicting women in way that doesn’t, once again, misrepresent what it is to be female.

* It’s like all those drug studies that only included men because, gee, women have all that hormonal stuff going on, how abnormal is that? And hey, oops! That drug has lots of unpleasant and deadly effects on women. Who knew? Too bad 51% of the population isn’t normal.

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22 Responses to “Freedom – Rant Alert”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carolyn Jewel, Monica Kaye. Monica Kaye said: RT @cjewel: My first and incomplete thoughts about Franzen's Freedom. Warning: Rant Alert – I am not kind. http://bit.ly/dqGrZS […]

  2. Mina says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    I appreciate your preview review. I myself am about 1/2 of the way through The Corrections. I am enjoying it immensely, however, and have become a fan.

    Enough of a fan to do my own research on Franzen and find that he is neither misogynistic, egotistical, or looking down on women.

    I would like to add, that from what I have read so far, ALL of his characters are empty. It’s a good word you chose.

    In the book I’m reading, each character starts out as a cliche and Franzen builds, dissects, and peels them until they feel real to us. Well,
    me. Each character is fighting an internal fire while trying to appear normal on the outside, even when things are falling completely apart. Franzen isn’t writing about the type of family I have (frankly, neither do romance authors), however, as I read I find myself relating to each and every character on a level I did not expect–a level I forget to think about. I wonder if that will happen with Freedom as well. I am not sure it will. Sometimes an author’s first work can do things to you that his/her subsequent books can not.

    FWIW Franzen would be horrified to know you are reading on an iPhone. I myself am reading on an iPad. He feels these mediums, on some level, give a disposable, or draft-like quality to the text, and concentration on such devises is compromised. He may be right. I am easily distracted on this toy.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your review. For me, I am reading to see what I can learn from him, both from his story, and from his craftsmanship, which, in some passages in The Corrections, is superb to the level of sublime. in other areas he yammers on.

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      Mina: Thanks for your comment! I know a lot of people who thought The Corrections was an amazing book. I’ve not read it so I can’t offer any opinion. But the people who’ve said that are people whose opinions I respect.

      Although the reading experience between paper and a screen is quite different, I would disagree with Franzen that the quality of the story is somehow diminished on an eReader. I’ve read many many books on my iPhone and I don’t feel the stories I read that way were in any way diminished. A good story takes away the noisy waiting room, the knowledge that the laundry is waiting or that you should have eaten dinner an hour ago. As to the disposable argument! Good Lord. A mass market paperback costs me $8.00. A hardback $26. My iPhone, on the other hand, cost me $299. I in no way feel there is anything disposable about it. The books I download to my iPhone are, oddly, less disposable than a paperback. Just the other day, it took me half a second to throw a paperback into the trash. If I give up on Freedom, I’ll probably just let the file sit there forever, or until Amazon decides to vaporize it or we’ve moved on to some shinier technology.

      Keziah: I have heard great things about The Corrections, so I will probably read it at some point.
      At this point, I’ll say only that I have encountered a passage that makes me want to cry with frustration and anger — and not in a good way.

      It doesn’t take misogyny to misrepresent women. All it takes is blindness to the non-default position, and the default position of our culture is White and Male. There is nothing I’ve read so far that leads me to think he isn’t blind. But, we’ll see! (Heh!!)

  3. Keziah Hill says:

    I’m so with you on Madame Bovary Carolyn. I get tired of men who hold it up as some kind of sublime insight into women. I’ve read The Corrections and liked it a lot. Everyone was flawed in major ways but if I recall correctly there was female character (his sister?) who the reader had sympathy with. I’ll be interested to read this one.

  4. Susan says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful “early” review. I have to say, I probably won’t pick Freedom up. I read (a *lot*) but it isn’t the story of story that appeals to me. Perhaps I’m missing out, but alas. My loss. 🙂

    Your comments on Franzen’s portrayal of women got me thinking because I’ve read similar complaints (from men) about how women write male characters — that we write men as we *want* them to be. I don’t know that I agree with this statement (most heroes in romance novels start off deeply flawed and not the sort of men we desire), but I can see how our “female filters” would interfere with our abilities to portray accurate men.

    I honestly don’t know how a man feels in most situations, and no matter how much I pester my husband or have him proof my writing, my male character was still written by a woman.

    Do you have any thoughts on how women writers characterize men in stories?

  5. Mina says:

    Oh, I’m onboard with the usefulness of ereaders. By “disposable,” I meant mentally disposable, not physically so. I am new to it–this is maybe my 4th book on the iPad (the others were Catching Fire and 2 Kristan Higgins novels). When reading on iPad, I do find myself stopping to check mail, tweet, or whatever, at places I would not have stopped before. Perhaps I need to develop some discipline as a reader, or the pull of the internet will lessen with experience, I don’t know. Last year I saw a special on Frontline called “Digital Nation.” It was about how electronic media and the very act of multi-tasking changes your brain. There have been studies (ongoing) whereby students/subjects “thought” they absorbed more than they actually did (when multi-tasking), consistently rating themselves higher than actual measured performance. I read another article whereby the author documented how she began living her life by tweets–rather than being in the moment, she was going through motions, mentally in a tweet, distracted from real life. One of my good friends is a Twitter addict and she has definitely changed. Her opinions are sketchy now, and I don’t fully trust her to remember what I say to her. These studies and this friend were high in my mind when reading Franzen’s statements, and I am with-holding final judgment on it (as a mother, friend, and multi-tasker) until I learn more. That said, I do not believe YOU are suffering in this way–I mean, I don’t know you. I am thrilled and think it’s handy that we two strangers can have such a dialog in this medium. I AM saying these things are in my mind and lend some credence to Franzen’s thoughts on it. (In case anyone is interested: Digital Nation: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/ and I Tweet Therefore I Am: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01wwln-lede-t.html?_r=1)

    In response to Susan, how timely! Did you see this article? http://j.nelsonleith.com/2010/08/26/the-unasked-question-in-the-franzen-picoult-fracas/

    I know when I first started writing (contemp. romance), a man I know sent me a picture of my bald, overweight 5’7″ businessman husband– who is a great guy and an alpha hero in his own way– with a paste-up wig of Fabio hair. It was hilarious and we all had a good laugh of it. But it brought me the question–does he think I am writing about Fabio? Does he think I am writing about my husband? When he reads what I write, is he thinking I’m portraying a man? Because I’m not. I’m portraying a feeling. I’m recapturing the feeling of falling in love and sharing it with my reader, and in no way is that reflected on my husband as a man, or me, or any other person I know. My hero will not fart in bed and he does not look like Wally Shawn. He looks like Gerard Butler or Matt Damon and he can lift me out of danger or over the threshhold without complaining his back hurts. If the criteria for worthy fiction is to be realistic, then I (and 99% of romance novels) fail.

    I give Franzen the same leeway on that I give myself. It might be more enjoyable to read for themes.

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      Mina: No question, I’m totally distractable in the manner you mention. Sometimes I have to turn off the internet until I make my word count. For whatever reason, when I’m reading on my iPhone I don’t check my emails or tweets. There’s an iPad in the house but I can never get it away from my son. I wonder if the larger screen would tempt me to go play scramble before I finish reading a chapter. I remember when answering machines first came out. Bill Cosby had a very funny routine in which he described the perceived horrors of an answering machine and all the ways in which he would defeat the dread beast (by leaving a rambling message that filled up the tape but never got to the point, or cutting of his message at some critical moment.) But today, the thought of not having voice mail is awful! People now place calls and HOPE they get voice mail. That Luddite-like reaction to answering machines now seems silly. We’re seeing the same thing with eReaders now. The Luddites are concentrating on all the ways in which eReaders disrupt what they are used to. It’s uncomfortable. Change is hard. In 5-10 years we’ll be laughing at those “digitial reading is disposable” Luddites.

      The Washington Post has a video review of Freedom that mentions some of the same issues I’m having with the book.

      Also, dialog is great! I love hearing what others think.

  6. Susan:

    There are a lot of writers who do a great job portraying characters of opposite … whatever. In a sense, it’s the writer’s job. It’s certainly true that we can never know exactly what it’s like to be someone else, whether that someone else is a man or a women or transgender.

    I’ve also heard/read the criticism about romance heroes, but this criticism almost never comes from someone who’s actually read any romance. Mostly, it’s people (men and women) trotting out tired cliches and referencing studies that have since been roundly discredited as justifying the conclusions drawn.

    This does not mean, by the way, that I therefore think romances portray men accurately. What I think is that, as with any author, romance authors have degrees of talent and areas of craft in which they excel. Of course there are romances that do not accurately reflect men. But there are romances that do.

    But even that doesn’t really get at the issue. Franzen is writing Literary Fiction, a genre which we are to believe is above cliche and has the purpose of revealing truths about ourselves through the characters on the pages. If the female characters are empty of any truth about what it’s like to be a woman what possible truth could he be pointing out?

    My own opinion is that women are raised to be empathetic. As mothers we are almost without exception the primary caretakers. We raise sons and daughters and see the differences between the genders and between individuals. This is not to say that man cannot see this. Of course they can. Those of us who are not the White Male Default live every day bumping up against all the ways in which we are not the default.

    I see no reason to give Franzen a free pass for crafting female characters who aren’t believable as women because he’s a guy any more than I would give a woman author a pass to create a male character who is nothing but a reflection of the author’s lack of insight.

    It’s difficult to express these thoughts in a comment and these are certainly issues that are deserving of more care than I can manage in this space.

  7. Susan says:

    Thanks for the response to my comment, Carolyn. I think you do a great job articulating your point, and I 100% agree with you.

    And I love this line: “Literary Fiction, a genre which we are to believe is above cliche and has the purpose of revealing truths about ourselves through the characters on the pages.”

    Non-genre readers (and non-readers) tend to poo-poo genre fiction, but in reality, isn’t all writing about “revealing truths about ourselves through the characters on the pages”? Literary fiction is as cliche as the rest of it.

    Oh, and I also love and agree wholeheartedly with you on this: “My own opinion is that women are raised to be empathetic. As mothers we are almost without exception the primary caretakers. We raise sons and daughters and see the differences between the genders and between individuals.” C’est vrai, c’est vrai.

  8. Mina says:

    I loved that Washington Post video.

    I do agree there is no turning back with the ereaders, etc. One terrific benefit is that now authors and readers can interact in ways they never could before.

    Franzen, it appears, doesn’t interact with many people. Shy, introverted, spent childhood hanging around mostly with adults, spent first marriage tandem writing, spent the last 9 years sitting in a plain, unconnected room trying to give birth to something that could follow The Corrections. I feel some sympathy for him. He isn’t his publicity machine. He didn’t write the obnoxious cover title of Time. He didn’t write the A+ reviews that came out before the release.

    I think he’s a phenomenal writer, worthy of notice. And a bit of an old faddy duddy too.

    I think we disagree somewhat on a definition for literary fiction. It is NOT above cliche. Post-modernly, Lit-fic plays with forms, plays with subjects, mocks itself, satires the world and itself, reflects itself and refutes itself. Characters are important in some books and not in others. Same with culture, same with plot, same with gender. Franzen is not a gender writer; these aren’t the issues he is addressing. Walter and Patty (I think, I’ve only read the free excerpts) are empty shells for the conundrum of liberal consumerism. it is set in the Bush years??? Is it not? This is how I appreciate him, by going in through these angles to see what he has to say.

    I would like to know your most recommended romance books for studying the male character–who does them brilliantly? I am asking as a new writer and a student. thanks.

  9. Mina wrote:
    I think we disagree somewhat on a definition for literary fiction. It is NOT above cliche.

    Of course it’s not. But writers of literary fiction as well as critics love to think it is. They also think it’s better and more meaningful than base commercial literature — the irony being that a lot of canonical writers wrote with the aim to have commercial success (Shakespeare, anybody?). But try to tell that to your average literary critic!

    Frankly, I’m sick to death of the male voice and the male gaze that dominates not only the literary but also the cultural discourse. For centuries we’ve had (white) male value systems thrust upon us, but for me enough is enough.* With a few exceptions (e.g., Terry Pratchett and Guy Gavriel Kay) I only read books written by women for entertainment. One of the reasons I was so thrilled when I discovered romance was that for the most part the genre presents a female view of the world and, indeed, a world in which women are strong.

    *I also have to admit that in most cases I don’t “get” modern literary fiction. It either bores me to tears, or I don’t see the point of the story, or both. So I’d rather stick to the baggy (and not so baggy) monsters of Victorian literature. 🙂

  10. JHW says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    Happened to come across your post…all I could think of as I read it was Virginia Woolf’s opening chapter (I think it was the opening chapter) in, __A Room of One’s Own__, where she discusses all the Very Important Books men have written about women, none of which have enabled them to actually understand women. Great post!

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      JHW: Thanks for the comment. I am ashamed to admit that A Room of One’s Own did not even pop into my head as I was writing that post, and it should have! Woolf made many seminal points (irony intended) in the essay and stated them better than I ever could. By the way, I visited your web site and it’s seriously awesome. Fascinating subject, the taming of data.

  11. cjewel says:

    In Re Literary Fiction vs. Not: I didn’t intend to define literary fiction as writing that is above cliche. As both Mina and Sandy point out, there’s lots of literary fiction that is, in fact, cliche. What I mean is essentially what Sandy mentioned, that we’re supposed to believe that literary fiction is never cliche but that popular fiction is. That’s why we’re asked to eschew popular fiction for literary fiction.

    Regarding Romances that I think do a good job of representing male characters, I’d offer up Suzanne Brockmann and, specifically, the Seal Team 16/Troubleshooters books and Meljean Brook’s Guardian Series. Ann Aguirre is another writer who does that well.

  12. Cathy says:

    I have found that male authors tend to write women a little “off” (I suppose female authors do the same for men…we are just different creatures.) Maybe that’s why my favorite authors (Alice Munro, Ann Patchett, Anne Tyler, Louise Erdrich) tend to be women…it just rings truer to me. It seems especially glaring when a man writes in the first-person as a woman (Jewell by Bret Lott was a recent read that comes to mind) – she seems a little robotic. I think they aren’t capturing the emotions, etc. and I say that as a tomboyish, very practical woman. There are just differences. And since we can’t crawl into each other’s skins, maybe we’ll never get it exactly right. Just my view.

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      I think Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series does a great job of portraying women as well rounded and real. Barry Eliser’s Fault Line was well above the average for a political Thriller, which in my experience do not do well in that regard at all. His Rain series, though light on female characters, still presents women as more than sexual objects and as competent in many many surprising ways. Brian Sanderson’s Elantris and his Mistborn trilogy up to the end of the 3rd book are exemplary in women characters who are real.

      So, it’s not that one gender can’t accurately portray the other. But I would agree, that there’s often a sense of something being “off”

  13. Susan/DC says:

    I started “The Corrections” twice, got to page 75, and asked my husband (who had read it) if there was anyone remotely likeable in the book. He said no and I put it down forever. I’m willing to say that Franzen may be a literary genius, even if I don’t care for his works.

    I think that the J. Nelson Leith column has it wrong about “Eat, Pray, Love”: we do expect women to read books about men leaving their wives in order to find themselves and create art or find inner peace or whatever. Much of the literary canon is about men doing exactly that. But to be Great Literature the women in these books must be fully realized human beings and not empty shells who merely fill the role of Spurned Wife #1 or Exotic Lover #3. It may say something that I think Henry James, who quite possibly was gay, wrote wonderful women.

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      Probably some day I’ll read The Corrections. I’m thinking back to the Henry James I’ve read . . . and find that I will probably have to review because my brain in currently confusing a series of short stories I read and can’t recall if it was Henry James or Joseph Conrad. I think the latter. I read the Turn of the Screw so long ago … in High School, I think, and Daisy Miller I believe, some years later and did not like it much, as I recall. I should never try to think deep thoughts so late in the day.

  14. JHW says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thank you re: my web site. I actually wanted to be a historical romance writer, once upon a time…. 🙂 As for Woolfe, I figured you had to have read her, but I didn’t think you were deliberately paraphrasing her. I just thought it was fun to see another female writer make the same points.

    Best Regards,

    Jewel

  15. Mina says:

    We can all do both. Someone, somewhere can write a great romance novel that is also literary: a new literary, beyond Pride and Prejudice, new beyond the constraints of our genre. Blow the critics and the world away with it. Why not?

    Sometimes works speak to us and sometimes they don’t. I know a couple of books that got deep under my skin 20 years ago, and I can hardly stomach them now, and vice versa.

    Alice Munro is one of Franzen’s most admired authors. _Freedom_ is inspired by her (in part).

    At the Decatur Book Festival, Franzen did say he is vaguely aware there is a kerfluffle. He does not do Twitter. He does believe the subject (why women’s fiction and commercial fiction get little respect from lit. critics) merits discussion. He did not dismiss it and based on the transcript I got the impression he feels Weiner/Picoult have asked valid questions.

    I’m not sure what else is fair to ask of him. He did his writing, he’s having his career. Let’s have ours.

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      I’d say that Pam Rosenthal has already written several literary Romances (Almost a Gentleman in particular). I think the case could be made for Jo Bourne as well. The critics, however, are not reading Pam or Jo.

      Franzen, of course, has no obligation to do anything but write the book he wants to write. The question of the reception of Women’s Fiction is completely separate from Franzen and his work. For good or ill, better or worse, Franzen has been held up to us as The Great American Writer (see the cover of Time Magazine). In my opinion, Freedom does not justify praise of that level. And certainly our tastes grow and change and books that we liked do not hold up to a re-read. There are books that I could not get through in the past, that only a few years later, I could and quite admired. But books are put before the public for us to remark on if we see fit. I hope I haven’t made my remarks sound as if I’ve conflated the product (Freedom) with the author.

      In the case of Franzen, so far I’m finding his portrayal of women to be incomplete and not reflective of a real woman’s life. It would not be fair of me to to say that’s a comment on Franzen personally, but it is fair for me to point out that in his book, that’s so.