If you haven’t heard, or haven’t been on Twitter this week, you may have missed the latest controversy brewing between Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner, two very different writers who somehow continue to engage in the same argument because one of the (ahem, Mr. Franzen) continues to make inflammatory statements about the other (Ms. Weiner). This dispute has been stewing for years now, but once again made headlines (or, at least, headlines for people in the writing world who care about this sort of thing) for an interview Franzen gave to Booth journal of Butler University.
So, here’s what we know: In 2010, fresh off a Time Magazine cover, Jennifer Weiner and fellow novelist Jodi Picoult started a movement or so it seemed, with a combination of tweets that shed light not on the frustration of Franzen himself, but on the ongoing problem of women writers not being reviewed or written about by major publications (“Franzenfreude,” if you will). Of note, at the time Franzen had been not only on the cover of Times, presented as The Great American Novelist, but also highlighted in Newsweek and reviewed by the New York Times twice in one week. And this was before Freedom even hit booksellers. What Weiner and Picoult were touching at is something most women writers have known for years – though there are more women writing, and more women reading, there are seriously fewer women being reviewed in major publications.
For whatever reason, this critique by Weiner and Picoult set off a firestorm that has erupted and settled and erupted again over the last five years. Franzen accused Weiner of being a part of the Twitterverse whose sole aim is for self-promotion. Weiner continued to argue for women’s voices in literature. She wrote this, then this, then this.
The latest interview is the last, and perhaps most frustrating, twist in the ongoing saga. Here’s the exchange in question:
SL: Let’s talk about women in literature. VIDA [a group of women writers who tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews] confirms that literary journals publish many more pieces by men than women. In The Kraus Project, as part of your lament about Amazon’s power, you wrote that “literary novelists might be conscripted into Jennifer Weinerish self-promotion.” Given that women writers are generally swimming against the established current, what are your thoughts about the use of social media by women to promote their work? And what are your thoughts on Weiner, in particular, who tweets to promote not only her work, but also to advocate for equal representation of women writers?
SL: What is it?
JF: What is it? She is asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits. To me it seems she’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically. And that seems like a dubious project that is ideally suited to social media, where you don’t actually have to argue, you just tweet. Where is her long essay about this, where she really makes a case? She has no case. So she tweets.
SL: No case for herself, you’re saying?
JF: Yes. No case for why formulaic fiction ought to be reviewed in the New York Times.
SL: But I think she also advocates for other female authors whose work might be termed more “literary” rather than “commercial.”
JF: Good for her.
SL: She’s written that because she perhaps has less at stake in the literary community than women who write more “literary” fiction, she’s become the de facto spokeswoman.
JF: That’s unfortunate, because it’s an important issue and she’s an unfortunate person to have as a spokesperson.
SL: Have you read any of her books?
JF: I have yet to hear one person say, “Oh, she’s really good, you should read her.” And basically if two people say that about a book I’ll read it. I know no one, male or female, who says, “You’ve got to read Jennifer Weiner.”
Let me say this. I really love Franzen’s work. If you have ever read anything on my blog or, nay, met me in person, you already know this. I read Freedom in a type of punch-drunk haze, infatuated with the story, his characters becoming living, breathing people with whom I found myself thinking “I wonder whatever happened to…” before catching myself and realizing they were just characters I read in a book. That’s how good he is.
Jennifer Weiner has sold countless books. She has a huge readership. She churns novels out like it’s nobody’s business. She’s a great writer as well, though I admittedly (for my own personal tastes, not to admonish genre fiction in its entirety) stopped reading genre fiction, and particularly, the type we now know as “chick lit” (groan) sometime after high school.
What upsets me about Franzen’s argument is that he’s playing into the sort of “I get it” *nudge and wink* phenomena that we’ve seen before. Of course he “gets” that there’s a legitimate problem in gender biases in publishing, but by disregarding Weiner as a writer, and by blatantly ignoring the fact that she has written about this and not just on Twitter, he’s playing directly into the problem, and disregarding the historical complexity of women writer’s struggle to be heard over the (as Picoult puts it) “white male literary darlings,” even now, in modern times. Even when we (yes, switching to the plural pronoun here) write so-called “serious” work we end up with a pink book cover. We’re marketed to be under appreciated, to be taken less seriously. And that is what sucks. Jennifer Weiner did not set out to wage a war on Jonathan Franzen. She set out to wage a war on conventions, to raise a voice to the problem that no one would answer. Franzen’s dismissive (and slightly paranoid) charge is exactly why Weiner and every other woman who calls herself a writer must continue to argue against the cynical convention that our voices are not as valuable as a male’s.
Which makes the dispute not about Weiner versus Franzen, and not about genre fiction versus literary fiction (another pseudo argument at play here). It’s about the despicable treatment of women in the book industry. It is about power and privilege. It is about frustration with a system that won’t bend to allow more voices into the conversation. It’s about creating a culture where writers (particularly women) do not have to constantly self promote on social media, because their books are already reviewed in NY Times and The Atlantic and The Paris Review. More women being reviewed makes a richer, thriving publishing culture. This is what Franzen misses. It’s truly not about him.