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The Franzen vs. Picoult/Weiner literary ‘feud:’ Marketing 101.

September 8, 2010

I'm Jonathan Franzen and you're not.

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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2010 12:19 pm

    This is just fancified tripe:

    “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.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 8, 2010 12:50 pm

      Yes — and whatever does it mean? And there’s 3,000 words of it, too.

  2. Connie permalink
    September 8, 2010 1:55 pm

    Dearest Chauncey: Just because others have written good domestic/sweeping social dramas does not mean that “Freedom” is not great. It is. But what I really wonder is: Why am I getting such grief for liking a novel by a White Man? Sure, White Men are over-represented on college curriculums. But does that mean a White Man never wrote a great novel? Are we not allowed to celebrate great writing when we come across it? Have the political correctness priests lost their collective minds? That’s patently ridiculous.

    Besides, what’s so bad about any book getting a lot of hype? Jeez. I’m happy when ANY book gets attention, even if it’s Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon bloodsucking fantasy series. I’d rather see the media touting the joys of writers I despise than, say, the new season of “Jersey Shore.”

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 8, 2010 2:17 pm

    Connie, my love:

    I agree that it’s good for all books when one gets a lot of attention, whether deserved or not. And let me say that I have opposed the Picoult/Weiner side of this debate from the beginning. And further, in this post I have almost nothing to say about Freedom, being barely a third of the way through, but merely mock those critics who have lost all sense of proportion in their enthusiasm for it.

    That business about White Men getting privileged attention, as though a White Man could not write a great book, originates from the thoroughly discredited Picoult/Weiner camp. I mean, hell, I like to think I’ve discredited them all by my lonesome, and I’m not the only one making these arguments.

    Nonetheless, I bristle with skepticism when the Lords of Media try to cram something down my throat, whether it’s Stepenie Meyer, Justin Beiber, Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen. I was even skeptical of Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall until I read the damned thing. In the case of Freedom, no novel could be as great or significant as some, like Tanenhaus, would have us believe.

    Interestingly, what Ron Charles likes most about Freedom –that bright caricature of middle-class life that opens the book — is what annoys me most. And what he likes least – Patty’s “autobiography” — is what has most won me over, at least so far. This is curious, because I’m usually in sympathy with Charles’ critical viewpoint…

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the message of this post is that we can no longer trust anything we see, hear or read in the media. Not that much of it isn’t true, that’s not the issue. It’s that none of it is sincere. It’s ALL marketing, all the time. And this pov says nothing about the quality of Franzen’s book, which at this point is too uneven to be great. But lots of pages yet to go.

  4. Sean permalink
    September 8, 2010 5:02 pm

    It’s the “perpetual marketing event” in which we live. Even so, maybe Franzen backed out on Winfrey as a small protest against same? I know, I know, it won him gobs of bookselling PR – he is forever the guy who shunned Oprah – and I think he wrote about that experience in the New Yorker. But in the moment I guess it possible he wasn’t thinking that far ahead. He just got uncomfortable and bailed, and then it became “a definite type of situation,” as Woody Allen would say.

    American literature has a door with hinges? This vindicates Picoult and Weiner. The thing that keeps closing in their faces? It’s The Door!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 8, 2010 10:52 pm

      But how could the doors slam in Picoult/Weiner’s faces if Franzen blew them off their hinges 10 years ago?

      I kinda admired Franzen for rebuffing Oprah. But I also thought he was a self-important jerk. Still, his position was defensible and I couldn’t see why such a big deal was made of it.

      Of course, the perpetual marketing event is nothing new. I’m sure Dickens and Wilde and Hemingway and Capote and other savvy writers of bygone eras were keen for the main publicity chance.

  5. September 8, 2010 9:19 pm

    Woe and more woe, the hype machine is whirling fast as the blades of a jet engine and though Connie is probably right in her assessment, the voices raised in chorus after chorus of genuflection put me off so much that I don’t want to waste my time on what I fear will be another disappointment

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 8, 2010 10:55 pm

      Well, true, Duff, but thus has it ever been. It’s only more odious now because advanced digital technology is so overbearing.

  6. September 8, 2010 9:26 pm

    Chauncey, have you ever thought about doing a list of the Best of Independent Publishers? I’ve got some nominations (houses, authors and books) if you ever decide to give them a look. I’m thinking Dzanc, Black Lawrence, Wordcraft of Oregon, etc. Small all – but werewolves who really sink their teeth in when it comes to publishing what they REALLY BELIEVE IN, unlike the trumpeters of the cooperate publishing money machine pumping out pabulum and propaganda for the masses. Just a thought, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 8, 2010 10:58 pm

      That’s an interesting idea, Duff, especially since I’m hearing more and more about how independent bookstores will survive into the digital age, while chains will wither and die. Could something similar be in the offing for publishers? I don’t now.

      For all their faults, though, the big publishers still produce some good — some great– books.

  7. John Karwacki permalink
    September 9, 2010 10:22 am

    After reading this exceptional blog, I am less worried about the P.R. machine that is media as I am about where to find and purchase a “Bushy Mountain Limbertwig”; help a brother out, Chauncey.

  8. September 9, 2010 10:31 am

    The hype-machine has always been with us. Dan Brown would still be churning out bad humor books with his wife if it weren’t for the Catholic Church getting all huffy.

    And if the French government hadn’t gotten its panties in a wad and hauled Flaubert and his publisher into court on morals charges, “Madame Bovary” would never have become a bestseller in its day.

    To paraphrase the old PR maxim: I don’t care what you say about it, just spell the title right.

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 9, 2010 10:58 am

    That’s the most reasonable question to emerge from this whole Franzen fracas, John. I suggest Brushy Mountain, N.C., where the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival is scheduled to kick off on Oct. 2 this year. (Actually, it’s in downtown North Wilksboro, the hamlet nearest the Brushy Mountains in northwest North Carolina). The Brushy Mountain Limbertwig is only one of several limbertwig varieties originating in central and southern Appalachia during colonial times. Others include the Black, Red, Royal, Summer, Swiss, Carney Fork, Kentucky, and Victoria.

    Here’s a description from the Hocking Hills Orchard (in Ohio) website: “A fine eating apple with bright yellow skin with a dull red wash and some russet on the skin. Crisp, juicy flesh and highly aromatic. Good keeper.” How can you stay home in October after reading that?

    Now I think I’ll go call my Mom, who still lives in small town in the Blue Ridge.


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