The literary scrap over Jonathan Franzen’s diatribe “What’s wrong with the modern world” continues, with the world ahead on points so far, and most respondents turning pretty fast to what’s wrong with Jonathan Franzen. And one theme that’s growing stronger and harder to avoid is that Franzen looks all too much like a privileged white male who appropriated his soapbox through more than pure merit. And for other writers, self-published or otherwise, this can of course affect the reception they can expect – though God forbid they should all want to become Jonathan Franzen.

Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz, who obviously enjoys something like Franzenish levels of award cred, took special issue in Salon with Franzen’s race and class: “In a country that has become so extraordinarily diverse, we still imagine a white writer as the universal writer – and that absurdity is becoming almost unsustainable. I visit high schools all the time. When I look at the kids that are coming up, they look nothing like the writers that we’re all running around calling the voice of this country.”

Bear in mind that Díaz is no po-mo PC leftish bigot – he even finds good things to say about Orson Scott Card in the same interview. But here and elsewhere, he takes Franzen to task as the  Time Magazine front cover face of: “racialized privilege. The invisible hand of inequality which turns the pages, which cranks the movies, which mixes the ink. A writer like Franzen, with each coming generation looks more and more absurd, and more and more like exactly what he is. The mask slips off the wizard.”

Jennifer Weiner, meanwhile, in her article in the New Republic, notes that: “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 … I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, … 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.”

Admittedly, Franzen acknowledges his own privileged origins in his essay, alluding to his background and education at: “an excellent college, where I learned to love literature and language. I was a white, male, heterosexual American with good friends and perfect health.” But for all his self-depreciation, you can’t help escape the feeling that Franzen’s style and subject matter have dovetailed all too neatly with his race and class in securing him those early awards, accolades, Time Magazine covers, etc. And I can’t help but feel that Franzen is pumping out books about the likes of Karl Kraus because he feels he has something to prove, that maybe his true literary and intellectual credentials didn’t quite match up to all that adulation.

For aspirant writers, you can draw two lessons from this. You can embrace the stereotype if you conform to it, safe in the knowledge that there is an audience and appetite waiting for you. Or if you don’t fit the mould, you can draw the sad conclusion that you’re still going to be just that little bit disadvantaged and handicapped in your efforts to win recognition and readers. That’s something that is still very wrong with the modern world, and Franzen exemplifies it. And there’s no sign that the digital revolution in writing and publishing has changed it much yet.


  1. It is wrong to take a writer or anyone to task for what he is. It isn’t his fault he was born a white male to a family with a decent income. It’s to his favor that he has a college degree from a major college, and he’s worked hard at the craft of writing.

    Say all you want about what he does, but what he is should have no business in this discussion.

  2. It’s something that he himself takes up and makes much of in his own article, though. And which he links directly to the subject of his essay, and his book And it’s something that others take up consistently with reference to him – and particularly in the context of this piece. I took it up on precisely those terms.

  3. It’s not being a white male that matters. Most white males have it pretty rotten. It’s having connections with the ‘right’ people. That comes through birth, education, employment and the like.

    Playing the right games also matters. Say one thing and you get praised. Say another and you get shunned. Some people are better at playing games than others.

    Finally timing matters. Years ago, I edited for publication two books on eugenics.

    * One is pro-eugenic: Margaret Sanger’s The Pivot of Civilization. Written by the founder of Planned Parenthood, it claims that to protect civilization we must use birth control to force down the birth rate of the unfit, particular then-recent immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. It was a bestseller in 1922 when it came out, but I sell very few copies now. Quite a few people still agree with her ideas, they just don’t want to hear them stated so openly.

    * The other is anti-eugenic: G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils. At a time when it was written, eugenics was so fashionable that I suspect that GKC picked the title to make sure no one confused his book with all the pro-eugenic books flooding the market. It also came out in 1922, although I suspect his readers were far less numerous and mostly Catholic. Today, my edition sells quite well and is often used as a reader in college courses. An Italian publisher even paid me to translate it with my notes into Italian.

    Like I said, timing matters. If you have integrity, you may not do that well at any particular time in history. If you tell people what they want to hear, you’re likely to do quite well–at least for a time.

    I do get the impression that this Jonathan Franzen said quite a few things that those in fashionable circles did not like, hence their attack on his race and sex. When those are attacked, it’s usually an indication that they can’t deal with his ideas.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Eugenics and Other Evils etc.

  4. I agree completely with Michael W. Perry. I would actually argue that Franzen’s work has the distinct reputation of being unfashionable, vapid and out-of-touch in the sense presented by this article (because of characteristics constituting his identity like his race and socioeconomic status). But my experience tells me that when any work of art takes on that reputation, it’s because people would rather have something lewd or exotic than something which may or may not propose ideas of quality in a more (“too?”) familiar manner–a manner which to some belies the presence of actual merit.

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