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.
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.
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.
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.
Welcome to Franzen in February. That’s right, in the off chance that I didn’t alienate my entire readership when I reviewed Purity thrice last year, I’ve decided to devote the whole month of February to the fabulous Mr. F. Here are just some of the goodies I have in store:
- My conspiracy theory regarding the Franzen/Weiner feud (I just watched episode #1 of the X-files reboot, so I am ready to go in on this. THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.)
- Q&A with Franzen Fan Club President and author of The Wallcreeper and Mislaid Nell Zink (!!!!)
- Q&A with CanLit darling and Franzen fan Sigal Samuel, author of The Mystics of Mile End
- Q&A with the fanatic behind Franzenfreude
- Guests posts from a couple of Franzen newbies (your first Franzen is a very special experience)
Oh, yeah, I’m going to read stuff too. Maybe even review. Here’s the thing, though: I read three of Franzen’s books last year, and I’m not really in the mood to read another one right now. Write about them, yes. Read more of them…no. That could put a damper on the whole event.
I figured it out a way around it. Part of Franzen’s mystique is how everyone seems to have an opinion about him, and many authors have come out in support or on the attack. I’m going to read books by authors who love him, who hate him, who’ve been blurbed by him, and so on. FranzenFriends and FranzenFoes, if you will. Here’s my stack:
A couple friend & foe ideas for you:
- FranzenFriends: Nell Zink, Sigal Samuel, David Foster Wallace, Emily Gould, Jami Attenberg, Chico Buarque, Laura Miller
- FranzenFoes: Jennifer Weiner, Roxane Gay, Curtis Sittenfield, Jodi Picoult
Get involved: read a book by Franzen, or a friend/foe; pitch me a guest post; or just follow along and comment. I’m not messing around with sign-ups, prizes, or read-alongs. I want to spend my time writing up all these fun posts.
I don’t really have an agenda. I’ve read his three “big” novels plus his memoir, and rated them three or four stars. I don’t even count him in my top ten authors. And I don’t give a shit if you refuse to read him for whatever (probably misinformed) reason. He’s just so fun to talk about. He’s a force in modern literature, but he can be, to quote a heroine of classic lit, so adorably clueless.
Whether you’re a FranzenFriend or FranzenFoe, stay tuned, this’ll be fun.
So there is this article, in which guy-author Jeffrey Eugenides accuses lady-author Jodi Picoult of “belly-aching” about the fact that she doesn’t get any love from the New York Times. I hate how soundbites are taken out of context, so here is the full quote, emphasis mine:
I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind — so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There’s plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.
Hmm, you mean she wants to be commercially successful AND respected? How dare she! Complainer! And really, does ANYTHING have “nothing to do with gender?” My feminist spidey-sense are tingling…
Then I read this Jezebel article. Jezebel has a feminist perspective, and I was ready to be righteously outraged… but I totally wasn’t. The author doesn’t deal with the fact that Eugenides writes literary fiction while Picoult writes commercial fiction, so all the ranting about how ladies aren’t taken seriously is moot because literary fiction is more deserving of publicity and attention… isn’t it? Maybe Eugenides is right, it’s all about the marketplace…
I was feeling very conflicted and icky. I didn’t expect to agree with a guy who accuses a woman of “belly-aching” because she demands the same sort of respect her peers are getting. But then, I don’t see a situation in which I would ever read a Jodi Picoult book on purpose. Jeffrey Eugenides is brilliant and wrote one of my favourite books, The Virgin Suicides. So am I sexist, a book snob, or both?
Then I read this article (tweeted by @jenniferweiner. Follow her.) The author takes the time to research the background, present some actual data, and break down the issues. There are a couple of things going on:
- Commercial fiction is not seen as important or worthy as literary fiction
- Female genre writers like Picoult are treated differently than male genre writers, like, say, Nick Hornby.
- Female genres like romance and YA are treated differently than male genres like horror and mystery.
The whole “belly aching” controversy seems like a smoke screen to distract from the real issues. Kind of like that whole “mom wars” silliness a few months ago. There is ABSOLUTELY sexism in publishing and in writing and in reading. I’ve been reading the classics for years, and it is a vast sea of dead white dudes. Think it’s not a problem today? Nearly all of the current New York Times hardcover bestsellers are by male authors. If you add e-books to the mix, suddenly half are by female authors – thanks to E.L. James are her ilk.
I’m trying to assuage my feminist guilt by stacking my Classics Club list in favour of female authors. I still only made it to 19/50 books, and that was difficult. Maybe I need to write a book.
Do you think the publishing industry is sexist? Do you make an effort to read female authors?