Sometime during the Purity publicity blitz of 2015, I added “Franzen apologist” to my Twitter bio. I was tired of defending every out-of-context interview quote and excerpt individually. The only truly snark-worthy event was the “adopting an Iraqi war orphan” thing, which I maintain was just a joke (right?).
So it’s rare for me to directly address Franzen haters, but, it is Franzen in February, and I’ve just come across an instance that’s too good to pass up. It’s not the usual “uh, I’ve never read him but he’s like, gross” hating, either. It’s a clear cut case of Franzen blaming.
Earlier this year, someone took it upon themselves to purchase the URL ciswhitemale.com and redirect it to Franzen’s Facebook page (try it, it still works as of this writing!) which is not the instance I’m here to write about today, but illustrates the phenomenon of Franzen blaming. Think about it, what’s the point of this stunt?
- That Franzen *is* a cis white male (duh)?
- That he only writes *about* cis white males (not true)?
- That he only writes *for* cis white males (…nope)?
- Or, that he is the poster boy and scapegoat for cis white male bias in the publishing industry (ah ha!)
Today, I direct your attention to “The Unsung Letter”, published by writer Helen McClory, “featuring one new(ish) under-hyped book, sung to the rafters by a different writer/poet/critic/book-pusher every time.” In its second issue, the writer is A.N. Devers and the unsung book is Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut The Last Samurai – already on my radar as an overlooked classic, and it’s recently back in print. So far, so good.
Why read The Last Samurai? For one, it is far superior to Franzen’s The Corrections, arguably as intellectually demanding as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and yet, DeWitt was never put on the cover of a magazine for The Last Samurai. She was never offered Oprah’s Book Club, and she never entered into the media’s great push to proclaim the new great American writers, Franzen and Wallace, who notably published their big books around the same time. There wasn’t room on the stage for DeWitt, somehow. She didn’t even enter get a piece of the conversation. I heard later it many times that it was partly her fault that she was difficult. Well.
Typos aside, we’ve got a classic case of Franzen blaming on our hands, with some DFW blaming for good measure! I double checked my dates when I read “notably published their big books around the same time” because… no they didn’t. The Last Samurai came out in September of 2000. Infinite Jest was published in February of 1996, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say DFW specifically was taking up all the room nearly five years later. DFW didn’t publish any books in the year 2000, and his next novel didn’t come out until after his death, in 2011. But sure, he was a well-known writer at the time, and a poster boy for a certain kind of bro-literature.
But Franzen? In September of 2000, he was the author of two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novels: The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He didn’t start taking up cultural space until The Corrections came out in 2001, and the only thing “notable” about its publication date is that 9/11 happened nine days later. A full year after The Last Samurai.
I dug a bit deeper to see who was taking up literary cultural space in the year 2000 (I was 19 and the main cultural space I inhabited was Rum Jungle at West Edmonton Mall):
- Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin
- Michael Ondaatje won the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for Anil’s Ghost
- Susan Sontag won the National Book Award
- Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer
- JK Rowling dominated the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list.
Not a cis white male* among them.
Bias towards cis white male authors in literary culture is real. They are reviewed more; they are more likely to be the reviewers. They are longlisted and shortlisted for, and winners of, literary prizes in numbers that far exceed their natural incidence in the population. Did DFW and Franzen benefit from this bias? Surely. Are they specifically to blame for one novel by a cis white woman failing to find an audience, in a year in which neither of them published a book, and in which several women and people of colour enjoyed mainstream and critical literary success? Well.
*I’m not 100% sure about Michael Ondaatje’s ethnicity, and in light of recent events I hate to speculate, but his Wikipedia page says his ancestry is Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil so I’m running with that.