Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen’

Freedom – Rant Alert

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

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.