The obvious attraction was in addressing Weiner’s comments about literary reputation. Franzen was their object, but I think that’s because he was around; to paraphrase Elliot Smith, there’s always a helpless little boy with a dirty mouth who’s always got something to say, and if it weren’t Franzen there’d be someone else in the NYC literary pole for Weiner to go after.
I’ll put the tl;dr up front: Franzen isn’t as good as his reputation suggests; Weiner is exactly as good as her reputation suggests; and I don’t care what the Times chooses to review or not review, because I’m not gonna read it anyway.
Also, I’ve been sitting on this one for a few months, literally. I intended to do a spot re-read of both books, pull out some passages for close analysis, and buckle down to the Times review despite my qualms. I haven’t gotten to it, so I’m clearly not going to, and it’s time to move on.
Loser 1: Franzen
If Freedom had no critical reputation – if it were merely an entertaining satire of thirty American years – I’d have read it on an airplane, enjoyed it, and recycled it. It’s basically Parenthood (the movie) with social commentary. But Freedom comes preloaded with Great American Novel baggage, which makes it a lot harder to figure out what I think.
Franzen set out, apparently, to write the definitive chronicle of bourgeois neoliberalism in the New Aughts. He gets off numerous cutting lines at the expense of his key characters. Patty, who takes Walter as her husband but doesn’t let go of Richard, is nominally the center, or at least she seems to get the most pages devoted to her perspective. Walter is a feckless, curdled crank (much like Franzen himself) who approaches the world as if it were an assembly of political causes, because he can’t deal with what it’s like to love something you don’t idealize. Richard is just a jerk/plot engine with a guitar.
In the coveted New York Times review, Sam Tanenhaus referred to Freedom as “a masterpiece of American fiction.” That’s not quite right. Franzen aims high and he does come close to the stars. I found myself wanting to give him more credit than he really deserved. As an example, there’s this sentence, in the formative-years section of Patty’s mock-autobiography:
As far as actual sex goes, Patty’s first experience of it was being raped at a party when she was seventeen by a boarding-school senior named Ethan Post.
That line, with its offhand, fanfiction-esque casualization of rape, is close to unforgivable. It comes off, in the moment, as a cheap aside by Franzen, an attempt to give Patty some faux-depth without having to spend any precious time and energy on it. I was so irritated that I almost couldn’t finish the paragraph, let alone the book.
And then, paragraph by paragraph, over the next fifteen-odd pages, Franzen pulls me back in. Patty tells her parents; they’re sort of supportive, but only if they don’t have to talk about it. Patty’s parents know Ethan’s, and think an acceptable way to settle things is if Ethan “formally apologized” to Patty “for being rough.” They say a trial would be destructive to Patty’s reputation. So it’s no wonder that Patty agrees, agreeably, to drop it. And I end up thinking that the casual, self-deprecation, midsentence dismissal of rape is the way Patty learned to describe it rather than the way she actually felt about it.
Franzen is aiming for the high canon. He has the interests, the network, and the talent; he takes time to get his books right. So why does Freedom fall short?
Because Franzen is too busy playing the pre-fabricated role of the big-boy author. He has done his research, he has established his point of view – and he wants a pat on the head for doing it. Freedom‘s middle section, where Walter and his nubile assistant Lalitha (more on her in a second) seek Richard’s help in upping the cool factor of Mountain-Top Removal (MTR) mining, is an insufferable infodump. For a good twenty-odd pages, the novel ends and a New Yorker article begins (that’s not a compliment). An editor should really have sat on Franzen’s face until Franzen rewrote it into something more naturalistic.
Because he’s addicted to tiresome narrative cop-outs. Lalitha is a young plot device of Indian descent who exists (spoilers impending!) to 1) sexually validate Walter through her attraction to him, 2) sexually validate Walter by helping him avenge Patty’s affair with Richard, and 3) die, leaving Walter heartbroken. Her death is quite possibly the hackiest moment in a book filled with similarly hacky moments. It’s impossible to give a shit because we were never given any reason to care about her in the first place. Removing Manic and Pixie still leaves a Dream Girl, which is the actual problem with that character type.
Because he is a brilliant expositor of things that don’t need brilliant exposition, in ways they’ve already been brilliant exposed. Patty and Walter’s respective midlife crises, the cheesiness of the national independent music scene, MTR, subcontractors for the Iraq War – everything Franzen has to talk about has already been thoroughly hashed to death in the NPRish blogosphere, and in exactly the same way that Franzen wants to talk about it.
Because – this is Franzen’s central fault – he so carefully, correctly, and excellently knits together the ways people manage their lives to maintain a surface calm that he elides their animal cores. Like Mr. Bennet with his wife and his neighbors, Franzen doesn’t love his characters. He doesn’t know them. He doesn’t want to know them. He just laughs at them. And in doing so, he flattens them out so much that he misses the chance to figure out what they’re actually like.
Loser 2: Weiner
The Next Best Thing is impossible not to read as a chronicle of Weiner’s own failed sitcom. Ruth Saunders heads to Hollywood with the grandmother who raised her. Her sitcom pilot (about her life with her grandmother) goes to series, but then the casting is wrecked, the jokes are spackled over with horny-senior-itis, and Ruth burns out over her battles with the network. The one bright spot in her life is her requited crush on her boss, Dave.
The writing in Weiner’s book isn’t as good as the writing in Franzen’s.
I spent some time on that sentence, to make sure it meant exactly what I wanted it to. Let me put it another way – here’s a list of all the novels Weiner has published in the last ten years:
- Goodnight Nobody (2005)
- The Guy Not Taken (2006)
- Certain Girls (2008)
- Best Friends Forever (2009)
- Fly Away Home (2010)
- Then Came You (2011)
- The Next Best Thing (2012)
- All Fall Down (2014)
Here’s the same list for Franzen:
To be fair, Franzen also published a memoir, an essay collection, and translations in that period. But Weiner also worked on a TV series. She’s crazy busy. And it shows in her books.
Weiner and Franzen appear to have similar gifts (and flaws: neither should write about sex again, ever). Weiner is a good writer; she’s not a hack. She, like Franzen, has things to say about the world. She weaves in an apt Dorothy Parker quotation. Unlike Franzen, she’s not full of herself. She gets off some brilliantly precise lines that remind me of Michael Azerrad:
Cady would be our star, even if she showed up for the first day’s filming having sustained a major head trauma and forgotten every word of English she’d ever known
But the pace of her publications must mean there’s not a lot of time for rewriting, restructuring, or second-guessing. With Franzen dicking around on a single novel for ten years, he had time to get everything structurally right. His plotting and prosing are solid; it’s his ideas that suck. If Weiner had spent even another year on her manuscript – taking out the placeholder sentences (“I tugged on my hair, thinking”); pulling back the sentimentality of Ruth’s relationship with her grandmother; yanking the triumph-over-adversity ending (it’s enough that she uploaded her show’s original pilot to YouTube; that it’s a hit is the step too far); and for god’s sake, not asking us to laugh at Ruth’s sitcom script, because it comes off as horrible – The Next Best Thing could have been a B+/A- instead of a C. Weiner could be Jonathan Franzen. It would just take time, and editors.
I wonder whose idea it is for Weiner to put out a book a year or so. Ruth tells us:
I knew myself well enough to know that I was not a girl made for lying around on beaches. I liked being busy, I loved to write, and I’d panic about the money running out, no matter how much of it there was.
It’s hard, basically impossible, for me not to read Ruth Saunders as Jennifer Weiner. So maybe Weiner is choosing her own pace. On the other hand, she’s a bestselling author and a gravy train for a lot of people. Ruth gets pressure from the studio, from the actors, from the managers to adulterate her vision in the interest of production values. Maybe Weiner has the same voices in her ear: It’s good enough. It’s a hit. The next one can be Great. In Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, the tiresome author avatar asks his agent for a hiatus: a break from publishing a book a year. The agent says it’s not a good career move. Stephen King has published about a book a year for forty years now, but in the decades since all that 1980s cocaine left his system, most of those books have been bad. Weiner has enough power to set her own pace. If this is the pace she chooses, this book is as good as she’ll get.
Postscript: It’s maybe not fair to stack a Weiner also-ran – one that a lot of her fans disliked – against one of Franzen’s towering achievements. I probably should have read one of the favorites: Good in Bed or In Her Shoes. Not coincidentally, those were Weiner’s first two novels. They might predate her publication treadmill. But they’re always checked out from the library – probably speaks for itself – and I didn’t like The Next Best Thing enough to put money on Weiner.
Loser 3: The New York Times Book Review
A lot of people dumped on Weiner for her comments about Franzen, including Franzen himself (which, tacky, dude). Sample Weiner quote, about Freedom:
I got about halfway through the Patty’s diary section, and then I realized that a female author would get crucified for attempting to write in a male voice that sounded so utterly inauthentic…That, plus my typical Franzen issue—the endless contempt he seems to have for all his characters—made me put it down.
She’s right about that. But more important, in terms of the industry, are her comments about the Times. This HuffPo interview (with Jodi Picoult) lays them out pretty well. My takeaway of their perspective: the Times should start paying attention to the kinds of fiction that people read, and should realize in particular that there are a lot of women (readers) who read a lot of women (writers). Christopher Beha made a decent counterpoint that the Times should review books that make people say “Holy crap, what was that about?” – i.e., books that surprise, shock, or disorient the reader (my words) – which rules out Weiner and most commercial fiction, but also Franzen and most literary fiction.
I had intended to do a semi-detailed review of the Times Book Review here, to look at whether Weiner and Picoult’s criticisms were accurate and weigh whether a change was needed. I sat on that part of the essay for, literally, months. “Gotta get to that paragraph. Oughta go check out some book reviews.” Finally I realized that, via procrastination, I had come to my conclusion, and it’s this: I don’t find the Times Book Review valuable or interesting, so I don’t really care what it does. The Times proves that it’s hilariously out of touch with culture every time it writes a music review, as when it compares Sharon Van Etten to PJ Harvey (don’t). If you’re looking to them for validation of your literary choices, you’re in trouble.
Thanks to Kate Mulcrone, who provided feedback on this essay.