Lunch Read Roundup: Franzenphobia

Periodically, novelist Jonathan Franzen pokes his head out of whatever birdwatching spot he’s fond of lately to deliver some comments expressly designed to get people in a furor. Being anti-Internet, he’s basically a self-taught troll. But more than that, he seeks to remind you now and then that he is what gives the world polarity—standing in opposition to all that is the future. “There is Jonathan Franzen,” he wants you to think, “and then there is everything else.” Since nobody cares about that, let’s just rehash some of the best burns that came in the wake of his latest dreadful essay.  

Jennifer Weiner, an author vaguely insulted in Franzen’s recent essay, wrote for New Statesman:

"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. … The fact is, Franzen’s a category of one, a lonely voice issuing ex cathedra edicts that can only apply to himself."

SFist took things back to—can it be?—the novels themselves.

" … we hated The Corrections in part because it was more brutal and obviously the product of a younger, angrier Franzen who thought we all needed a punch in the face. He’s a man who’s capable of great character development, but not always great compassion or lyricism. (Or self-awareness, since for all his whining about the plague of the internet, his little essay’s viral spread is likely to mean a lot of extra book sales… on Amazon.) His essay only drives home to us that there’s a stubborn laziness and willful disengagement to his point of view, and to that of anyone who wants complain about digital killing print, etc."

Indie publisher Melville House favored coolly rational action:

"Franzen is a curmudgeon, and increasingly, a fan of denouncing things. The safest reaction to his essays, almost always, is to treat him as you would any other yeller-at-clouds: to smile and kindly look the other way."

But Mic Wright responded in force for The Telegraph:

"Julie Burchill nailed it when she said Stephen Fry is ‘a stupid person’s idea of a clever person.’ That sentiment came to mind reading Jonathan Franzen burbling about technology in Saturday’s Guardian. Franzen is the non-thinking person’s thinker, a snap, crackle and pop insight peddler trying to do a Malcolm Gladwell. … Perhaps Jonathan Franzen and Glenn Greenwald could get a little shack in a desert somewhere and talk about how brilliant they each are. It would spare us their hysterical fantasising about the state’s fingers rooting around in their dark recesses."

And Salman Rushdie’s retort to Franzen’s Twitter-bashing (he said Rushdie should have "known better" than to "succumb" to it) was short and to the point—it was on Twitter, after all.  





Bonus feature: take this quiz and see if you can tell the difference between Franzen gripes and annoyed YouTube comments about "saggy pants." Sadly, I got a perfect score.

Jodi Picoult Talks Franzengate, Chick Lit

New York Times Magazine interviewer Andrew Goldman appears to have learned his lesson after chastisement for his repeated sexist blunders in interviews with Tippi Hedren of The Birds and Whitney Cummings of Whitney. In this week’s magazine, Goldman interviews My Sister’s Keeper author Jodi Picoult — another human being with a vagina between her legs  — and manages not to make an ass of himself. 

Picoult touches on several gender-related issues, including her 2010 criticism of the New York Times after it reviewed Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom twice in one week, once in the Review of Books and again in the paper:

Just one week later, conducted an old-fashioned byline count and confirmed what both Picoult and her writer pal Jennifer Weiner had publicly stated: men get more books reviewed than women. 

Goldman asked Picoult about Franzengate in his interview this weekend, asking:

In 2010, you were critical of this paper because it reviewed Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” twice in one week, which you found unsurprising because he is a “white male literary darling.”

It took me by surprise when that blew up. I didn’t feel like I was saying something that everyone didn’t already know, that women are reviewed less frequently and differently than men and there are fewer female reviewers.  

Goldman then nailed his followup question, asking the author who she thought deserved more attention instead:

A woman who writes genre commercial fiction would be great, even better if it’s a woman of color. I don’t have anyone in mind.

Picoult also touched up on the characterization of her books (which often feature female protagonistis in domestic settings) as "chick lit." She seems to acknowledge that "chick lit" is a valid descriptor for a category of books, yet doesn’t explain why it is that she believes she doesn’t write it — insinuating that it is because men read her books, too:

I don’t mind the term “chick lit.” I don’t happen to write it, so I think it’s funny when people assume I do just because I happen to have a vagina. It would be news to the 47 percent of people who write me fan mail who happen to be men to find out that I write chick lit.  

Forty-seven percent of her fan mail is from dudes? That’s a hell of a lot more than I would have expected. Anyway, Picoult also doesn’t deny that her book covers are marketed towards women (oftentimes with pictures of young women or girls looking solemn) and says she trusts that the marketing departments know what they’re doing. Which I find to be kind of a half-assed answer: it certainly works for Picoult’s book sales but there are a hell of a lot of female authors who are less willing to have their book covers marketed in such gendered ways. Anyway, it’s a good interview and worth reading in full.  

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‘New York Times’ Review Of J.K. Rowling’s Adult Novel: “Harry Potter Isn’t In It”

New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani, contrary to popular daydreams, does not have such a great gig. As far as I can tell, her duties are to act as lightning rod for vitriol from cranky authors—Jonathan Franzen infamously called her the “stupidest person in New York City”—and read every new Philip Roth book to the bitter end. Often she is obligated to use the word “limn.” Likewise, reviewing The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s 500-page career move into the world of adult-targeted fiction, is a thankless task. So Ms. Kakutani elected to talk about Harry Potter the whole time.

With two paragraphs of perfunctory plot summation crammed in at the tail end, and just one icky example of Rowling’s prose, the column could mark any writer’s cold reception. Except that we apparently need it repeated to us, a few dozen times, that there’s no magic here, it’s “Muggle-land,” the climax is not a battle between good and evil wizards, Hogwarts doesn’t really exist, and that really, no joking, kids won’t like it. There are seventeen separate mentions of Harry Potter. Here’s one telling passage:

In some respects “The Casual Vacancy” is grappling with many of the same themes as the Harry Potter books: the losses and burdens of responsibility that come with adulthood, and the stubborn fact of mortality. One of the things that made Harry’s story so affecting was Ms. Rowling’s ability to construct a parallel world enlivened by the supernatural, and yet instantly recognizable to us as a place where death and the precariousness of daily life cannot be avoided, a place where identity is as much a product of deliberate choice as it is of fate.     

Yes, those wonderful themes of aging, death, identity, choice, and fate—monumental elements of narrative that were never available to us before Harry Potter showed up in a basket on our doorstep. I get that we want to weigh any art against the value of the work that preceded it, but if this book is such a departure, do I really need an exegesis of the old stuff? Which, by the way, had its fair share of clichés and tedium and clunkiness, though I’d never point that out for fear of being beaten to death with brooms.

Follow Miles Klee on Twitter.

Oprah To Save Book Publishing Once Again

After a two-year break, former Queen of All Media Oprah Winfrey has decided to reinstate her famous, revenue-driving book club. And this time around her first pick is Wild, the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, who was not too long ago outed as Sugar, the once anonymous advice columnist over at The Rumpus.

La Winfrey’s book club has been a BFD in the past, driving sales to books by new and established authors alike. And Winfrey has had broad taste: authors as varied as Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, Isabel Allende, Carson McCullers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, naturally, Bill Cosby have been on the list.

The literary experiment hasn’t been without its problems, however. When Oprah picked Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections for her list, the author poo-pooed the idea, saying that some of her other choices made him “cringe.” The O did not appreciate this and uninvited Franzen from her fancy, televised authors dinner party and then rebuffed his attempts to get alone time with her to explain. Oprah doesn’t need Jonathan Franzen, the world knew before he did, Jonathan Franzen needs Oprah. (The two patched things up, presumably thanks to much ring kissing, and his latest tome, Freedom, was another book club pick.)

Perhaps Oprah’s most famous flap was with A Million Little Pieces writer James Frey. After she picked his book for her club in 2005, it was discovered that his “brutally honest” memoir was, in fact, brutally made up. Frey was given a very public spanking on air (as was his publisher) and was basically made into public literary enemy number one. Even now, the author carries the stink of Oprah’s shame on him. But that’s all in the past!

Surely Strayed has nothing to worry about and the return of the book club—which, it has been reported, can increase sales by millions. Winfrey has released a video alerting her forces that she has reactivated operation Book Club and will be taking back America shelf by shelf. Check it out below.

The News: Tyler Perry’s Compound is on Fire, Also Dissidents Unhappy Everywhere

Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest last month and was taken in by the U.S. Embassy, left the safe compound after Chinese officials promised to reunite him with his family, move them someplace safe and allow him to attend university. China’s demanding an apology from the U.S., though, because they don’t like other people playing with their citizen-prisoners without asking. [WaPo

There’s nothing funny about the huge fire that ravaged filmmaker Tyler Perry’s Atlanta compound Tuesday night, causing one building to partially collapse. There’s no word on what started the fire at the money-minting Good Deeds director’s 60-acre estate. [CNN

All over the country yesterday, thousands clashed with police during May Day protests. And it wasn’t all peaceful. In the Bay Area, after a peaceful march ended, activists began throwing bottles at police, who responded with tear gas and “flash-bang” grenades. Protests were held in Seattle, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and more. [WSJ]

One-time club queen Amy Sacco, who was the toast of New York for a hot second thanks to owning clubs like Bungalow 8, got into a scuffle with JD Samson, a member of the queer electropunk outfit MEN and former member of Le Tigre, over what Samson considered to be rude comments at a Manhattan nightclub. Sacco accused Samson of using her for publicity, but that seems like projection to us, considering Samson is rather well known in certain circles and Sacco is the one who’s been off the radar for years and is about to open a new gastropub. [NYP

A Few More Great Literary ‘Simpsons’ Moments

Last night, in honor of The Simpsons airing an episode this week paying homage to David Foster Wallace’s beloved essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, we highlighted some other great literary moments from the show, from a Hamlet retelling to cameos from J.K. Rowling and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Of course, after posting the thing, we realized that in our brevity, we forgot a few true gems. Here are a few more moments worth mentioning from those times when Homer met, well, Homer:   

“Bart Vs. Thanksgiving”

In “Bart Vs. Thanksgiving,” Bart learns the true meaning of the holiday after terrorizing Lisa and destroying her centerpiece. Lisa strikes back the only way she knows how, with an angsty homage to Allen Ginsberg’s beat opus “Howl” titled “Howl of the Unappreciated.” “I saw the best meals of my generation destroyed by my brother,” Lisa laments. “My soul carved into slices by spiky-haired demons.”

“Das Bus”

The show did an entire Lord of the Flies episode, in which the children of Springfield Elementary are marooned on a desert island after a bus trip gone wrong. “Most of the references to the book are pretty direct, just stopping short of shoving Milhouse off a cliff: “the monster” is a wild boar the kids eventually eat, and the chant used to go after Bart and Milhouse — “Kill the dorks! Bash their butts! Kick their shins!” — echoes the “Kill the pig!” chant from Golding’s novel.

“Moe ‘N’a Lisa”

Lisa Simpson, the cartoon role model for budding feminists, bookworms and frustrated nerds all over the world, is perhaps one of television’s best-read characters of all time, a point driven home with the wonderful blog, Lisa Simpson Book Club, which highlight’s Lisa’s reads from The Brothers Karamazov to Ethan Frome to the Atlantic For Kids, Junior Skeptic and Non-Threatening Boys magazines. Lisa rubs elbows with contemporary literary giants, including Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and Gore Vidal, when she helps Moe become an accomplished poet in a 2006 episode. (It’s a catty exchange between Chabon and Franzen that steals the show: “That’s it, Franzen! I think your nose needs some ‘corrections’!”)

“The War of the Simpsons”

One of the earliest episodes of the show centers on Homer trying to catch a legendary catfish named General Sherman, with his relationship to the fish and the thrill of the chase echoing Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Except, I don’t think Hemingway ever had Santiago sing “We Are The Champions.”

The Corrections Gets Erased From The HBO Lineup

The decade-plus-long journey to bring Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award-winning novel The Corrections to first the big, then the small screen, has once again hit a stall. Despite its impressive cast and credits, HBO has decided not to move the project forward following a viewing of the pilot, according to Michael Ausiello.

Ewan McGregor, Dianne Wiest, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper were among the stars of the miniseries, with Wiest and Cooper playing the roles of Enid and Alfred Lambert, respectively, the parents of Franzen’s Midwestern family who recount their history while spending their last Christmas together. Franzen and The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, who also directed, wrote the adaptation for the screen.

The Corrections road to the screen had been an arduous one and one of many forms, beginning with Scott Rudin’s purchase of the adaptation rights in 2011. A number of big names were tied to the project in its various incarnations, including Stephen Daldry, David Hare, Judi Dench and Brad Pitt at various points.

Just this week, the network picked up two new shows, Lena Dunham’s heavily dissected dramedy Girls and the Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy Veep, for second seasons.

Afternoon Links: Tila Tequila Hospitalized For Brain Aneurysm, Jonathan Franzen Hates Twitter

● Tila Tequila has been hospitalized for a brain aneurysm and consequential drug overdose that left her near death. "It was terrifying for Tila," says someone who knows. [Radar]

● China is getting a Gossip Girl spinoff of their very own called China Girl, and Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage will consult. [LAT]

● The 1972 Dodge Sportsman Royal Van used by the Melvins to tour that was occasionally driven by Kurt Cobain himself is up for auction on eBay. Going once, going twice… [BV]

● Speaking at Tulane last night, noted technophobe Jonathan Franzen made clear that he will not be joining the 140 Club. "Twitter is unspeakably irritating," he said. "Twitter stands for everything I oppose…it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters…it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P.’" Which is, you know, something some writers like to do. [MediaBistro]

● In celebration of Super Tuesday, VH1 has rounded up 40 celebrities who vote Right. Some you might have guessed (Kirk Cameron); others may come as a surprise (Vince Vaughn?).  [TheFabLife]

● They’re really pumping them out now: hear two more new Radiohead songs — “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy” and “Skirting on the Surface” — as performed last week in Miami. [The Fader]