As literary contretemps go, the great Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner debate of 2013 might not measure up with the best of them. It’s not exactly Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald or James Woods panning Zadie Smith’s writing as “hysterical realism.” But it’s nevertheless a bookish debate with some fire to it playing out in the commons, and thusly rare enough to deserve note.
In short, Franzen started things, as is his wont, with a cranky screed in The Guardian against, well, things he doesn’t like about the modern world. It’s a lengthy piece, with some well-considered points about Austrian satirist Karl Kraus and how (now, as in Kraus’ time in fin-de-siecle Vienna), “the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past.”
But there’s also a good dose of simple ornery lashing out against a modernity that has been much more artfully critiqued elsewhere. Franzen also doesn’t seem to think that novelists have ever in history been dragooned into doing anything to sell their books besides writing more of them better. To him, just being asked to take part in social media for the sake of publicity is anathema. Of course, the jury is definitely out on whether an author’s Twitter or Facebook presence actually helps sell books. But Franzen’s above-it-all attitude rankles here, as it did back in the days of his tantrum over seeing an Oprah Book Club burst on the cover of The Corrections.
Then there’s Jennifer Weiner. A writer of middlebrow popular fiction, Weiner’s books (like those of Jodi Picoult and others) are exactly the kind of thing which sell plenty of copies and yet never get any critical attention. She’s been having a go at the New York Times and other publications for not covering books of this sort. Whereas Franzen’s books—which might deal with more serious subjects but are difficult to classify as literature—are covered in depth. More particularly, Weiner’s been denouncing the Times, and correctly so, for having a dire shortage of female contributors.
Now, replying to Franzen’s line about “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” Weiner herself penned a swift and lightly denunciatory piece for The New Republic where she calls out Franzen for essentially whining from the mountaintop:
In 2010, I coined the hashtag Franzenfreude. It was very bad German for a very real problem: When Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, newspapers and magazines devoted thousands of words to the book and its author, while giving other literary books far less attention, and, in some cases, ignoring commercial works completely. Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn’t have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”
As Weiner points out, Margaret Atwood tweets. So does Joyce Carol Oates. And it probably doesn’t help sell a single extra copy of their books. Maybe they just like having a new format to write in. Is that so horrible?