Jonathan Franzen is driving me nuts. He seems to be clinging to celebrity more and more tenuously every day. First it was David Foster Wallace bashing. Then it was e-book bashing. And now it’s a grudgingly sort of positive review of Edith Wharton.
As someone who has been the cause of feminist opprobrium in the past, maybe he thought his article on Wharton would get him into the good books. Or maybe the New Yorker just wanted someone to write something about her and he wasn’t busy. Who knows.
The review is meant, I think, to be a positive endorsement of Wharton’s novels. Instead, what comes across is Franzen’s inability to sympathize with Wharton because 1) she’s rich (but not in a ‘good’ way, like Tolstoy) 2) she was conservative (because she didn’t like populist politicking) 3) she left America 4) she acted like a spoiled writer (‘writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary’…..like no other writers ever did that…..).
He claims, in fact, that her only ‘sympathetic’ characteristic (his words: ‘potentially redeeming disadvantage’) was that ‘she wasn’t pretty,’ and that this made her a social outsider, which made her a good writer. After speculating about her love life (or lack of one), her relationship with her mother (who apparently drove her father to an early death), her lack of friendships with women (of whom she was apparently jealous), we finally come to the crux of Franzen’s problem: ‘Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly’ etc.
Now, I get that the rhetorical purpose of all this is probably to then set up the peculiarly sympathetic characters that Wharton created and who are the reason that Wharton’s fiction ‘matters’ in contrast to her, whom we apparently don’t like. But the standards for not liking her? They could be applied to hundreds of writers! These same qualities, in fact [feminist outrage alert], applied to male writers are usually seen as the eccentricities, graces, and charms befitting a Great Novelist. Wealth and privilege? There are literally too many wealthy, privileged writers to know where to begin, but F. Scott Fitzgerald being mentioned in the article (in a different context) comes immediately to mind. Expatriatism? Again Fitzgerald, but also Henry James who is, yes, also mentioned in the article in a different context. And acting like a spoiled writer? Well, even Franzen doesn’t let that one stand, recanting near the end of the article. And really, attributing her writing genius to the fact that ‘she wasn’t pretty’?