Tagged: Franzen in February

Jonathan Friendzoned: Some Thoughts on Purity

Our next #FranzeninFebruary guest post is courtesy of Matt Bowes, who’s pun game is on point (see post title). Matt is the General Manager at NeWest Press, my favourite Edmonton publisher. He sent me my very first review book  back when I was a just a baby book blogger. He used to dabble in book blogging himself, but these days you’ll find him podcasting about Bollywood movies at Bollywood is for Lovers.

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Jonathan Franzen can be a hard writer to like sometimes, but paradoxically I find him to be easy to love. The eternal English major in me thrills to see his recurring writerly tics crop up in each new fiction work, stuff like detailed descriptions of bird species, bathroom humour, the Club of Rome, and an uncomfortable sense of détente with the modern world. It’s one of the reasons people also like Wes Anderson: when an artist sets the table with recurring themes and preoccupations, it breaks down a sort of barrier, allowing readers to see what the deeper truth on offer is this time out. It’s like Commedia del’Arte, a set of agreed-upon motifs that act as a gateway to entertainment.

I’ve only read The Corrections, Freedom and now Purity, so I’m not entirely sure if these recurring traits appear in his earlier novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, but I would be surprised if they weren’t in there somewhere.

So while it’s easy to see a critic latching on to Franzen’s straightforward obsessions and calling them out as being on the nose, it’s this exact heart-on-the-sleeve nature of his work that makes me really like him, and stick up for him in conversation, even as Franzen the reluctant public personality often gets himself into trouble. His jeremiads against social media and its practitioners, his bemoaning the state of book promotion and his attempts to embody The Great American Writer archetype are well-documented and rightly mocked, but unlike some other claimants to that throne, Franzen always comes correct with the literary goods in the end. Continue reading

On not reading The Corrections

And now, the first guest post of Franzen in February 2017! The lovely Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses valiantly took on The Corrections, after promising to do so last year. Read on to see how she fared – though the title probably gives you an idea – and do check out her blog. Her Last Week’s Reading series is particularly good, if dangerous for the TBR; she is also a certified poetry concierge!

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I’ve read a few of Jonathan Franzen’s essays (hated the one on Edith Wharton, in which he repeatedly comments on her looks; thought better of the one on Antarctica) and I’ve caught the general flavor of his views on technology and the reading public. I’ve also been delighted to read Laura’s spirited posts about the novelist over the last few years.  All of this to say I came to Franzen in February wary of Franzen, but willing to be pulled in by his writing. Continue reading

Literary Jonathans

Portraits of the Jonathans as young men

Remember when Jonathan Franzen took a minor swipe at his not-quite-contemporary, Jonathan Safran Foer, in Purity?

“And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire? So many of my students are…So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America.”

I don’t know that I’ve noticed a plague*, but I did just finish Foer’s latest, Here I Am, so let’s do a little comparing and contrasting.

Comparing the Jonathans

  • Breakout novels in the early aughts (The Corrections and Everything is Illuminated)
  • American Novels with side trips across the ocean: Chip’s Lithuanian vacation in The Corrections, Berlin in Purity, the whole Israel thing in Here I Am
  • Voice of their respective generations: Franzen gets that label more than Foer, maybe, but remember, Foer isn’t even forty**. Give it time.
  • Insufferable public personas: Do I really need to link to something for Franzen? And in case you missed it, Foer did… whatever this is.
  • Environmentalist: Franzen is all about looking at birds, Foer is all about not eating them.
  • Fascination and disgust with technology: I love how both include realistic technology in their novels (email exchanges in The Corrections, text messages in Purity; sexting, constant screen time, and a Minecraft-like online environment in Here I Am) but they both really hate it, too.

Contrasting the Jonathans

  • The generation they are supposedly the voice of: Franzen’s a boomer, and Foer is technically a Gen Xer. Really though, he’s on the edge of Gen X and Millennial – just like me. Some call us Generation Catalano, but I prefer baby Gen Xer or elder Millennial, depending on my mood.
  • Experimental vs realism: Franzen has a lot of range, but most of his writing is pretty straight up, realistic, and chronological. Foer experiments; not so much in Here I Am, which is much more Franzeny than his previous work, but in the invented language and mythology of Everything is Iluminated, and the flipbook at the back of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
  • Wunderkind vs Late Bloomer: Franzen was in his 40s with two novels behind him before he found success, while Foer was 25 and a debut novelist.
  • Adaptation: Attempts have been made, but so far, Franzen’s work has not been adapted (Purity was in the works as a mini series but I haven’t heard anything in quite some time.) Both of Foer’s previous novels were made into movies; I wonder if Elijah Wood is free to play Jonathan, I mean, Jacob of Here I Am?

As for the books, I’ve only read two of Foer’s but each of them affected me more than anything of Franzen’s. I love ’em both, don’t get me wrong, but Franzen’s writing is a bit too sterile to give me that emotional devastation I crave. I have teared up for Franzen – but only for The Corrections, and only for one late, revelatory scene which I won’t spoil. Foer’s books don’t just make me cry, they have me weeping through entire chapters. Or the last 100 pages, in the case of Here I Am.

So, who’s your fav literary Jonathan? Meet me here for #FoerinFebruary in 2018?

*Jonathan was the 124th most popular name the year Franzen was born, and the 28th by the time Foer was born in 1977. It peaked in 1988 at #15, which suggests that the plague of literary Jonathans is far from over.

**He turns forty on Tuesday!

 

 

Good grief, Franzen!

Jonathan Franzen is a Peanuts fan. Big time. It’s well documented in his memoir, The Discomfort Zone (excerpt here):

Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had an intense, private relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house… He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognized as a child.

I bet he set Freedom in St. Paul just so he could visit Charles Schultz’s hometown and these sweet statues:

statues

Photo by yours truly; also just realized that the heroine in Freedom is named PATTY

In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen draws parallels between Peanuts and his own life, but did he draw Peanuts into his fiction? Santa brought my boys a Peanuts collection this Christmas, and I’ve been compiling the Franzeniest strips. Here’s a selection with accompanying quotes:

Unnatural relationships with inanimate objects:

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The night of Alfred’s seventh-fifth birthday had found Chip alone at Tilton Ledge pursuing sexual congress with his red chaise longue. (The Corrections)

 

Brain chemistry

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Gary understood this feeling. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in three weeks. His circadian schedule was 180 degrees out of phase, he was revved all night and sandy-eyed all day, and he found it ever more arduous to believe that his problem wasn’t neurochemical but personal. (The Corrections)

Turning into the thing you hate:

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His conception grew dropsical and comprehensive. What if he was the city? More than centrally located: the thing itself? (The Twenty-Seventh City)

Adult-speak (panel wasn’t in this collection, but the passage was too good to pass up)

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“Noun adjective,” his mother said, “contraction possessive noun. Conjunction conjunction stressed pronoun counterfactual verb pronoun I’d just gobble that up and temporal adverb pronoun conditional auxiliary infinitive-” (The Corrections)

As an aside, we didn’t read Peanuts as kids, and I recently found out why: when my mom saw that Santa has brought the kids this Peanuts book, she told me that she hates Peanuts, and it’s the unfunniest comic strip ever. This was not an offhand comment; she was angry and rather suspicious of my (or Santa’s) motives. Henry adores it.

Franzen blaming

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.

Then this:

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.

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Franzen reacts.

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.

jklaugh

Jonathan Who-zen?

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.

 

My First Franzen: Eff you and your flat female characters! (Freedom, 2010)

The second in a series in which I convince hapless readers to take on the Fran Man, today’s First Franzen is courtesy of my sister Caitlin Higgins. Caitlin is a sometime-vegan Canadian ex-pat living in St. Paul, Minnesota and previously shared a tour of Freedom’s notable settings. Check her out on Twitter or on her blog, The Angry Vegan, now defunct, but worth reading the archives.

So many feelings happened as I read this book, but surprisingly, when I finished I didn’t know how to share my opinion. I didn’t love Freedom; I didn’t hate it. There were points where I felt both of these feelings as I read, but I walked away thinking, “Really??? That’s it??”.

I started out selfishly thinking it was going to be a great book, because it was set in St. Paul, MN and I moved to St. Paul just a few months before. I love reading books set in places I have been. I really like recognizing streets and landmarks (I found out later that Barrier Street does not really exist… was it supposed to be symbolic?). There is something about walking in the same place a book is set that gives you an instant connection. freedom

There is so much flipping around in this book from one character’s story to the next, making it a tricky read. Most of my reading is done in 20 minute spurts at the gym with long breaks in between, and I was constantly forgetting where I was in the story. I can’t blame Franzen for that one though. Now that I have a hard copy, I can see, this is no gym read!

The story is told in a mix of Patty narrating her own life and marriage, and a variety of characters in Patty’s world narrating: husband- Walter, son- Joey, BFF/Lover- Richard, and a little bit from daughter Jessica. Franzen is great at giving these characters depth. I truly felt I understood the character under the spotlight and then as the story went on, I would change my opinion as I learned more and more. However, as I continued to read, it was clear he is only good at that for his male characters. I went through so many emotions about Walter. First, I liked him, and even compared him to my husband. Then, I hated him. He seems so spineless. (No longer comparing to the husband!). I was either shaking a fist at him or rooting for him to do the right thing.

Patty, on the other hand, seemed to be a victim, never having control, never truly making decisions, and never having her own true plot, even when she should have. Looking back, this happened with Jessica’s character as well, and Joey’s girlfriend. Really, there was not one female character in Freedom that had the depth of the male characters. It made me really dislike this book. Everything centralizes around Patty, so how could she not be more than some helpless lump!?! Shame on you, Franzen! Is that how he sees women? Maybe, maybe not, but I walk away thinking he is a sexist jerk.

10-Things-I-Hate-About-You-Less-Sexist-Take-Taming-Shrew

Putting my thoughts on Franzen and female characters aside, I really got into the book. I was forever rooting for someone to do something (anything!!). In the end, after everything that everyone had been through, Patty goes back to Walter and Walter takes her (Of course, after some passive aggressive punishment). Why would she go back!? WHY does he take her back?! I hated the ending so much I almost threw my Kindle across the gym. The end left me wondering why I had wasted the last few weeks reading this well-written, anger-inducing, yet somehow dull story. I wanted the book to get outside boring and normal life in some way. I wanted Patty to be OK, and all I was left with is Patty right back where she started. To me, Franzen took the easy way out.

So what do I think about Freedom? I guess it is OK (I am rolling my eyes as I type). It clearly evoked emotion, which in my case can be tough to do. I would rather spend a month reading a novel that allows me to escape from the dreary reality I live in (OK, not always dreary, but not all that exciting either). This did not do that. Despite the lack of female character depth, I did think that the book was so well written, that I’d give Franzen one more chance… even though I have a feeling I will be angry again if I do. Maybe I am a glutton for punishment.

cait reading freedom edit

Caitlin, seething with anger, reads Freedom

Alright, well, I’m zero for two. I need to convince someone to read The Corrections. Everyone loves The Corrections!

My first Franzen: Motion sickness (Strong Motion, 1992)

As part of Franzen in February, I asked some of my favourite readers to pick up their very first Franzen novel, and a few of them actually did. I guess I’m what you’d call an online influencer (come at me, brands.) Today, #CanLit poster boy Jason Purcell reviews Strong Motion. For more of Jason’s brilliance, check out his YouTube channel, his Instagram, his blog, or just stalk him on Twitter.

I wonder now if I went into Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) planning to dislike it, perhaps as a way of proving my politics, whatever those may be, however they may speak to Franzen’s. I admit that I approached this, my first Franzen, with suspicion, with my eye already mid-eye roll, pencil poised to write some critique in the margin. I certainly did do these things. But then I stopped altogether. As of this moment, I’ve only made it 116 pages in, and so I don’t have a lot to report. The protagonist is a white male who is a social outcast of one kind or another. There are a number of damaged women who surround him who exist to be critiqued by our protagonist. There are earthquakes. There are several earthquakes.

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I may never know why there are so many earthquakes, because as I’ve said already, I’ve given it up. This brings to mind a 2010 piece by Julia Keller called “When to give up on a book” which reads: “Like a spouse who has already made a secret appointment with a divorce attorney, … I found myself smitten with guilt. ‘It’s not you,’ I murmured to the novel. ‘It’s me. Really.’” But in this case, is it me? It appears that this novel received mostly praise, and the criticism is largely concerned with Franzen’s ambition, that he has written too much here. And, when I think of this novel, and of abandoning it, I don’t feel “smitten with guilt,” though I do feel each individually—glad not to be reading it and guilty for not having finished.

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But there were too many moments in this novel that caused visceral discomfort that I feel I can’t even fight through it. Selecting the most revolting is a real Sophie’s Choice.

“You’re fucked up,” he said without looking at her. “You’re really fucked up. And you’ve got the wrong idea about me.”

“But you like me, right?” she asked him from the doorway.

“Yeah, sure. I like you. I like you.” (75)

I was warned that this novel is not Franzen’s most mature, and I’m willing to believe that his later work really does deserve the praise they have received, and I’m even willing to believe that Franzen might be worthy of his title as one of the greatest living American novelists. But the first hundred pages of Strong Motion are littered with clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl moments rendered in lackluster prose that I don’t feel willing to sacrifice my time trying to understand. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it. As Keller notes at the end of her piece, “I did finally finish Wolf Hall. Part of that was a sense of professional responsibility; the novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is simply too highly regarded by too many smart people to be ignored.” Franzen, too, is highly regarded by many smart people, someone whose work I’d love to read and understand. But Strong Motion is to be shelved until someone is able to convince me it is worth the struggle, that it is a great novel that deserves my attention. There is so much to read. So much so that to spend time reading something as uninteresting as this seems the saddest thing to do.

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Okay, so this didn’t work out so well. I’ve advised Jason to give himself time to recover, perhaps indulge in some self-care, and then try again with The Corrections. Stay tuned for another edition of My First Franzen in the next couple of days.

Sigal Samuel reads sexist books so you don’t have to (but you should anyway)

Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mystics of Mile End, a novel about Montreal, Kabbalah, and family secrets. She is working on a middle grade novel about a boy named Zeno who goes to a hotel and discovers that it has an infinite number of rooms – it’s based on a real paradox in math called Hilbert’s Paradox of the Grand Hotel. Are my kids middle grade yet? Visit her at sigalsamuel.com and follow her on Twitter.

sigalSigal Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, has so much going on that I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering who might have influenced it. In hindsight, the multiple narrators, the prominence of place, the middle-class neighbourhood, the failing patriarch, the young man coming of age, and yeah, even the queer female protagonist, should have tipped me off. This novel has Franzen written all over it.

It was Samuel’s essay, “What Women Can Learn From Reading Sexist Male Authors“, that alerted me to her FranzenFriend status. She questions the mass writing-off of Franzen’s work, particularly by those objecting to his supposed sexism:

Franzen, whose character Denise’s storyline in The Corrections is among the best depictions I’ve encountered of queer female desire? Whose first 50 pages in Freedom form one of the strongest indictments of rape culture I’ve ever read?

(Note to self: reread the first 50 pages of Freedom.)

The essay is a response to Rebecca Solnit’s essay “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” itself a response to an asinine list of “80 books all men should read” that appeared in Esquire a few years ago. (Esquire has since responded with an all-female list of 80 books all people should read, and honestly, the most offensive thing about both lists is that they are slide shows.)

Rather than presuming to prescribe specific books, à la Esquire, or satirizing those lists, à la Solnit,  Samuel examines what readers gain when they read outside their ideology. She also argues that to imply women shouldn’t read certain books is actually pretty darn sexist:

It’s pretty insulting to women’s intelligence to imply that we’re incapable of separating out the good from the bad in these works.

Sigal Samuel kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Franzen, sexists, and The Mystics of Mile End. Check out this review by Buried in Print for more about Mystics; it’s a great read.

Reading in Bed: You’ve admitted to liking Franzen’s work (shock! horror!) Do you count him as an influence? In what way has his work influenced yours?

Sigal Samuel: I absolutely count Franzen as an influence. I think I’ve learned a lot from him, both on the sentence level (remember that “crepuscular”sentence near the beginning of “The Corrections”?) and on the structural level. The opening section of “Freedom” — the way it starts with a bird’s eye view of a neighborhood, then zooms into one person’s perspective, then swivels horizontally into a neighbor’s perspective — directly inspired the structure of the closing section of my novel, “The Mystics of Mile End.”

RIB: Franzen is know for alternating perspectives between multiple narrators. How important was it to tell The Mystics of Mile End from multiple perspectives? Did you ever think about telling it from a single point of view, and if so, whose?

SS: So, yes, following from the last question, multiple perspectives are very important to me! I did actually start by writing “Mystics” entirely from one perspective — that of Samara, a twentysomething university student who’s climbing the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. But it began to feel pretty claustrophobic to spend 300 pages inside the head of one increasingly insane narrator. Plus, it seemed more interesting to be able to show how other people in Samara’s life were perceiving her obsession, and noticing clues that she was missing, and vice versa. I’m always most interested in drawing connections between people, and across time and space and ideas, and alternating perspectives allows you to do that.

RIB:  You wrote about how reading sexist literature can be instructive. Have you ever read a book where the sexism was just too much? How does a book (or author) cross that line?

SS: You know, a friend of mine asked me this question recently and was surprised when I answered that, no, I’ve never encountered a book where the sexism was just too much. That might be because I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish world. If I can get through the Bible and the Talmud, with all their deep-seated sexism, and still manage to appreciate them as great works of literature — well, I can probably get through anything!

And then, in a moment of Franzen in February zen, she had a run-in with the man himself earlier this month:

Freedom IRL

When I recommended Freedom to my sister a couple years ago, in a post that proved to have a broader appeal than I thought it would, I only did so because it was about marriage. Caitlin was about to get married to her American boyfriend, and due to immigration law, would likely be a housewife for at least the first few months of her marriage. “American housewife” immediately brought Freedom‘s Patty Berglund to mind.

I’d completely forgotten that Freedom takes place in St. Paul, Minnesota, the very city Caitlin was moving too. She got around to reading it recently, and her contribution to Franzen in February is a Freedom-centric tour of St. Paul.

Ramsey Hill

 

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.

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If you’re one of those people who like to describe settings as being like a character, Ramsey Hill would be the main character here.

 

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Ramsey-Hill-Nice

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A bit more gentrified over here

Summit-Lexington Intersection

 

According to Blake, the morning’s KSTP weather forecast had been stupid, the Paulsens had put their recycling barrel in a stupid place, the seat-belt beeper in his truck was stupid not to shut off after sixty seconds, the commuters driving the speed limit on Summit Avenue were stupid, the stoplight at Summit and Lexington was stupidly timed…

Summit-Lexington

What is going on with these signs? I don’t like it. Also, the Cathedral of St. Paul.

 

Macalester College

He got an Ivy League scholarship offer but instead went to Macalester, close enough to Hibbing to take a bus up on weekends and help his mom combat the motel’s encroaching decay (the dad apparently now had emphysema and was useless).

Fun fact: Marlon James teaches here

Fun fact: Marlon James teaches here

Central High School

It happened that one of the popular ninth-grade girls at Joey’s own school, Central High, had come home from a family trip to New York City with a cheap watch, widely admired at lunch hour.

Looks like a cheery place

Looks like a cheery place

 

Caitlin and I are indebted to this article, which appeared in a local paper just as Freedom was published. The author’s excitement at his hometown’s prominence in a novel is embarrassingly Canadian. There are a couple gems in the comments, too: “too much sex geez the guy needs an editor.” Yeah, yeah, we know.

Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner: The Shocking Truth Behind their Bitter Feud

Wake up, sheeple.

You think you know what the Jennifer Weiner/Jonathan Frazen feud is all about? VIDA counts? Unchecked egos? Social media? Literary vs. commercial fiction?

You’ve been lied to. It’s time to uncover the truth.

HOW MUCH DOES OPRAH KNOW

HOW MUCH DOES OPRAH KNOW

FACT: Jennifer Weiner coined the hashtag #Franzenfreude on August 15th, 2010, just two weeks before Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, was published. Jennifer Weiner’s eighth novel, Fly Away Home, was released just two months earlier, on July 13, 2010.

Nothing too surprising there, right? Of course both authors were spoiling for a fight; they had books to promote. Let’s go a little deeper.

FACT: Jennifer Weiner’s debut novel, Good in Bed, was published on May 8th, 2001, less than four months before Franzen’s breakthrough novel, The Corrections. 

Weiner and Franzen both broke out in 2001 with semi-autobiographical novels, and both were alternately criticized and lauded for breaking down genre barriers. Weiner elevated chick-lit, while Franzen made serious literachah accessible; both were nudging their way to the middlebrow, one moving on up, one slumming. They’re more alike than they’d like to admit.

Their books are more alike than they’d like to admit, too. Or at least, more than one of them would like to admit.

THE SHOCKING TRUTH: Weiner started the feud with Franzen to deflect attention from the fact that Fly Away Home is a watered-down version of The Corrections.

THE EVIDENCE: Yeah, both books are about family break down and middle class malaise and how parents fuck up their kids, but, what book isn’t? This goes way deeper. SPOILERS AHOY:

  • The Mom Who Just Wants The Family To Be Together For The Holidays, Damn it: In Freedom, mom Enid is a neurotic mess (his moms always are.) In Fly Away Home, mom Sylvie is a Strong Woman (her heroines always are.) Both moms fixate on One Last Family Dinner with Everybody, Even My Ne’er Do Well Youngest Child and Even My Awful Husband. Hilarity ensues.
  • The Stoic Dad Who Ruins Everything: Both patriarchs are men used to being taken care of by women. Both get into trouble, of the financial and health variety on one side, and of the “oops slept with an intern” variety on the other, and both proceed to do fuck all about it while heir wives and children bear the brunt. Resentment, and eventually, groove-back-getting, ensues.
  • The Abused Teenage Daughter: In The Corrections, teenage Denise “dates” someone at her father’s work, though “date” is a stretch since she’s just graduated high school, and he’s a middle aged man. We don’t find out till much later how much dad Albert knew, and how it affected and still affects the Lambert family. In Fly Away Home, Lizzie is sexually assaulted as a young teen. Her parents find out immediately and don’t really do anything. Both sets of parents knew their daughter was being abused, and dealt with it by not dealing with it. Trauma ensues.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy: In The Corrections, Chip is the inept man-child. He’s always running some harebrained scheme, avoiding his problems, and abusing substances. In Fly Away Home, Lizzie is an inept woman-child. All her harebrained schemes and substance abuse is in the past (no fun,) but she definitely can’t adult. Redemption and maturity via marriage and babies ensues.
  • The Capable Adult Who Acts Out In Inappropriate Ways (That Means Sex): Two inappropriate work place romances and two names that start with D. Fly Away Home‘s Diana is the good sister. She’s got the house, the family, the career. She’s also banging one of her medical students. In The Corrections, good sister Denise is a rising star in the culinary world.  She’s also banging her boss’s wife. Graphic sex ensues.
  • Gross Guys Named Gary: In Freedom, Gary is the older brother, outwardly the most conventional of the Lambert siblings, but inwardly such a mess of neurosis, addiction, and anxiety it’s a wonder he’s still standing. He does fall off a ladder, actually, at one point. He’s depicted as dripping with sweat, bleeding, muttering, exploding in anger, and generally just “unlikeable” personified. In Fly Away Home, Gary is Diana’s hapless husband, a beta-male extraordinaire, also sweaty, and flabby, balding, pale, whiny, dependent, shiftless… he has no redeeming qualities and I somehow hated him more after Diana cheats on him. Emasculation ensues.

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I was going to end the post here. But then I thought, what is it’s every more complicated? This is a conspiracy theory, after all. Maybe Weiner didn’t want to hide the fact that Fly Away Home is sloppy The Corrections fanfic. Maybe she wanted us to know it.

FACT: Fly Away Home spent eight weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list in 2010 and peaked at #2. Freedom spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list in 2010-2011 and spent three of those weeks at #1. Fly Away Home fell off the list the very week Freedom debuted at #1.

By Weiner’s standards, Fly Away Home was a flop. Her website boasts that her twelve books “have spent over five years on the New York Times bestseller [sic] list,” which, by my calculations, means most of them stick around a lot longer than eight weeks. Getting bumped off just as Franzen ascends was enough to send her over the edge.

She needed a boost. Some publicity. You know what they say about publicity, right?

THE EVEN MORE SHOCKING TRUTH: Weiner started the feud with Franzen to deflect attention from the fact that Fly Away Home is a watered-down, simplified version of The Corrections UNTIL it didn’t sell, at which point she intensified the feud in hopes that someone would uncover the horrible truth, boosting sales and recovering her best seller list honour.

There’s just one problem. There are two types of people in this world: Those who read Weiner, and those who read Franzen. Okay, clearly, there is a third type who doesn’t give a fuck, but work with me here. No one noticed, because no one read both The Corrections and Fly Away Home. Until now.

And if all this doesn’t convince you that you’ve been lied to for years?

FACT: On October 4th, 2010, Franzen was in London promoting Freedom when his glasses were stolen. As in stolen off his face. A 27 year old student attempted to ransom them for $100,000 before being caught by police, who were aided in the chase by a helicopter and dogs.

FACT: Jennifer Weiner was in London on October 4th promoting Fly Away Home. Coincidence?

This isn’t over. I will be vigilant. I’ve got my eye on you, Ms. Weiner. If your next book is a thinly-veiled retelling of Great Expectations, except with Internet and fascism, a la Purity, I will be there. If any of your post-2010 novels feature a stay-at-home mom and/or birds and/or washed-up rock stars, a la Freedom, I will be there.

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And Mr. Franzen, don’t think you’re off the hook. You don’t become The Great American Novelist without some kind of shady dealings.

The truth is out there.