The Franzen vs. Picoult/Weiner literary ‘feud:’ Marketing 101.
I thought by now I’d be past all that Jonathan Franzen fooraw, except possibly to review his new novel, Freedom. But the hullabaloo won’t die down, between the attacks by lit pop queens Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, and the fawning shoulder massages bestowed by most reviewers. What have we learned so far, class?
For one thing, we’ve learned (yet again) that all publicity is good publicity (just spell the name right!).
The spectacle of Picoult and Weiner as feminist stalwarts against the sexism of The New York Times is about as credible as Glenn Beck naming himself the heir to Martin Luther King. If their arguments were being floated by, say, Lydia Davis, or Deborah Eisenberg, or even Anne Tyler, then a valid discussion about lingering vestiges of male privilege in literary culture might be possible.
But these are massively popular commercial novelists, peeved because riches, movie deals and hordes of adoring fans have left them feeling empty (sob!). They crave what they will never get: the attention and literary cred currently showering down on Franzen like laughter in the rain.
The orange has no standing to judge the apple. Or, more to the point: The commercially grown Red Delicious, gorgeous but mealy, is a fool to mock the brown speckles on a crisp, juicy organically grown Bushy Mountain Limbertwig.
I made this argument — Picoult and Weiner are motivated by genre resentment, not gender solidarity — last week. But now I see it’s only part of the story. The other part is the enormous PR value they’re reaping. I’m sure thousands, if not millions, of readers who’d never noticed them are now considering reading a book by Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner.
This insight came as I read about Stephen Hawking’s repudiation of God — on purely scientific grounds, don’t you know! — in advance of his new book, The Grand Design. Another smart person saying stupid stuff, I muttered to myself. I mean, there isn’t enough physics in the 11 universes to disprove the existence of God.
Within no time, the Twittersphere was…uh…a-Twitter with tweets about Hawking’s impious remarks and — voila! — The Grand Design had vaulted to the top of Amazon’s sales list, shoving Freedom down to the number two spot. Never let it be said that authors don’t know how to play the game.
Picoult and Weiner aren’t the only ones embarrassing themselves, however. Some of the nation’s best (or at least, most prominent) critics have let their enthusiasm lead them into unfortunate territory. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review no less, gave himself nearly 3,000 words to anoint Freedom “a masterpiece of American fiction,” its author the equal (at least!) of “Dickens and Tolstoy, Bellow and Mann.”
Geez, you’d think no one had ever before written realistic fiction about family, class or social issues in America. Hey, you boys there, yeah you — John Updike, J.P. Marquand, John O’Hara, Sherwood Anderson, Philip Roth, Kurt Anderson, Nelson Algren, John Cheever, Mark Winegardner, Russell Banks, Richard Yates, John Irving, Evan S. Connell– you boys can all go home. Mr. Franzen has made you redundant.
Tanenhaus’ review is itself a kind of masterpiece of overstatement. This field is so fertile I don’t know which fruit to pluck. Ah! Here’s a fat one: “The dream-power ratio is lived out most acutely – most oppressively, but also most variously and dynamically – within the family, since its members orbit one another at the closest possible range.”
And no, Tanenhaus does not, contrary to the evidence, get paid by the modifier.
Most of the reviews have been like that, if not quite so lush. So it’s refreshing to see Ron Charles’ more measured take in The Washington Post, where he calls Freedom “more staid, more mature and all around less exciting” than Franzen’s last novel, The Corrections.
Yet, Charles, too, loses his head, praising the earlier book as “a revival of social realism … so boisterous that it ripped the hinges off the doors of American literature.” I’ll bet Tom Wolfe’ll be surprised to hear about that, having labored manfully to resuscitate social realism since Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), although the boys sent home above might protest that it was in no danger of perishing in the first place.
What’s the general point here, class? Yes — it’s how much we’re talking aboug Franzen and Freedom. It’s a great deal for Franzen, who gets to burnish his cred as a high-culture mandarin (this is the dolt who turned down Oprah’s book club, remember), while reaping a veritable whirlwind of priceless publicity.
Is some of it angry? Who cares!?
You’d almost think Franzen had a secret pact with Picoult and Weiner, but even I’m not that cynical. Not quite.
What a world, what a world.