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.