Writers’ Corner: Franzen vs. World

Jonathan Franzen

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.

the-corrections_oprah_book_club1In 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.

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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?

Readers’ Corner: Banned Books Week

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It’s national Banned Books Week, when bookstores and libraries put up their displays of frequently challenged or censored titles that various bluestockings have tried to keep from us over the years. Given the ever-declining reading habits of the country, it’s nice to see that some people out there still find the printed word (Adventures of Huckleberry FinnSlaughterhouse-Five, Beloved, and so on) so threatening that they give it the perverse honor of trying to ban it.

This isn’t an issue of the past, school districts are still coming under fire for assigning certain books. In 2011, Sherman Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was challenged for use in a ninth-grade Washington state class.

tempestJust last year, the Tucson school district — in a fit of reactionary pique — decided to eliminate any books that offended their knuckle-dragging sensibilities. They removed any books that dealt with Mexican-American history; in a district where over half the students have some Mexican-American ancestry.

Not content with banning history, in January:

...administrators informed Mexican-American studies teachers to stay away from any units where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes,” including the teaching of Shakespeare’s classic [The Tempest] in Mexican-American literature courses.

Once upon a time, Decline of the West-styled conservatives like Allan Bloom were lamenting that American education was ignoring the classics in favor of a multiculturalist agenda. Now the very people who once might have once sided with Bloom are going after Shakespeare.

If you go here, you can find out how to submit your very own Virtual Read-Out video.

Readers’ Corner: Francomania

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A modest proposal from Minh Lee over at Bookriot which deserves at least some consideration: Let’s put James Franco on all book covers. See his Franco-fied version of The Picture of Dorian Gray above and other classics (the best of which must be Lolita) here.

asilaydyingThe idea came from the waves of dismay that arose from many literate corners on the release of the movie tie-in cover for Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Franco directed and wrote the film adaptation coming out later this year. Any concerns about the book design, though, are overshadowed by the fact that the film is co-starring his buddy Danny “Eastbound and Down” McBride. Perhaps the film uncovers Faulkner’s funny side?

Judging by the trailer, probably not:

Quote of the Day: Men Don’t Read

Men. Reading.
Men. Reading.

Depressing, provocative, or just plain true, here’s something to consider from Bryan Goldberg; he made millions off co-founding the incredibly popular crowd-sourced sports site Bleacher Report and is now trying to do the same for women-centered writing (whatever that is) at a site called Bustle. According to Goldberg:

Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read … When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’? My girlfriend always tells me about these books she’s reading, and I don’t even see her reading the book! Where does this book live?

Apparently it doesn’t occur to Goldberg to just pick up a book and find out what this fascinating and mysterious hobby is all about.

But in any case, he is not wrong in the aggregate, as any bookstore employee can tell you: Women buy books, men don’t. There is the occasional squawk of disagreement on this issue and plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but mostly, the numbers bear it out.

A 2007 story from NPR reported that even among avid readers, the typical woman read nine books a year, compared to five for men. Men make up just 20 percent of fiction reader. It’s hard to believe that those numbers have changed much in the past six years.

Back in 2005, novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement, the amazing new Sweet Tooth) tried an experiment. He and his son went around a London park distributing books for free. The result?

Every young woman we approached – in central London practically everyone seems young – was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, “Read that, read that, read that …” before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.

The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. “Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.” Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.

“Frowned in suspicion, or distaste.” And remember, this was before every man had a smart phone to obsessively check up on sports scores.

New in Theaters: ‘After Tiller’

Dr. Susan Robinson in 'After Tiller'.
Dr. Susan Robinson in ‘After Tiller’.

after_tiller posterAfter several recent documentaries about abortion that have hewed to a closely nonpartisan viewpoint (12th & Delaware, in particular), After Tiller stakes out a definite position. In staunchly defending the heroism of the four doctors who still provide late-term abortions after the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, the filmmakers have created a powerful but still thoughtful investigation of a tough subject.

After Tiller is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

When Dr. George Tiller was assassinated at his Wichita church by a pro-life fanatic in 2009, he became the eighth abortion clinic worker in America to be killed. At the time he was one of the country’s only doctors who performed third-trimester abortions. Tiller continued his work despite fulminations from extremist groups like Operation Rescue and pundits like Bill O’Reilly (who referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer”) and the threats that followed all that overheated rhetoric like a storm. He said at one point, “Everything has a risk to it.” That risk shrouds all the stories told in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s hopeful, quietly optimistic documentary After Tiller; there’s a reason that none of the patients in the film have their faces shown…

You can watch the trailer here:

Writers’ Corner: Flannery O’Connor

flanneryoconnor1Nobody ever accused Flannery O’Connor of being a lightweight. Books like Wise Blood got her slapped with the Southern gothic label; all those eccentrics and deeply wounded souls. But her writing exists in a curious, dark, God-haunted world all of her own.

Last week’s New Yorker featured a surprise installment: Selections from the journal that O’Connor kept while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946 and 1947 when she was in her early 20s. The excerpts included in the article reveal a work that is less personal journal than it is a series of impassioned pleas to a God who seems both loving and unimaginably punishing:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon…. I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell…. I believe in hell. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven…. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God.

No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me.

There’s a lot of overheated adolescent self-punishment in these entries, but also a powerful dose of love, looking for a target. In addition, O’Connor shows an acknowledgment that many non-religious writers would agree with: That she is not the author of what she writes. Many aren’t sure where that gift comes from, but they don’t completely trust that it emanates from themselves alone.