Posted by amybou on:
I am probably too mad to be writing this post, but sending my writer friends a flurry of expletive-heavy text messages and posting on Facebook that I AM SO MAD ABOUT JONATHAN FRANZEN'S STUPID NEW YORKER ARTICLE just isn't taking the edge off. I suppose I can understand Franzen's point in his article in The New Yorker, "A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy," that Wharton's privileges make her hard to like; I myself find Franzen hard to like given the privileges bestowed upon him by the publishing world. (Makes the cover of Time magazine; an excerpt of Freedom featured in Vogue--when do they ever publish excerpts of fiction?--and, to add insult to injury, a photo of Franzen was chosen by the LA Times to illustrate an article about Jennifer Egan winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011--but then perhaps Egan is too pretty.)
What makes me so mad about Franzen's article is his focus on Wharton's looks: "Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty." First of all, what does Wharton's physical beauty have to do with her body of work? And what proof does Franzen offer that Wharton spent much energy thinking about her looks? I am tempted to post a photo of Wharton to prove that she was in fact attractive, but that isn't the point of this post. The point is that a writer should not be measured by her beauty, but by her body of work. The point is that Franzen offers no insight that Wharton herself felt upset about her looks--doesn't cite her biography, doesn't cite letters. The point is that Franzen also contradicts himself by positing that "Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now, if alongside her other advantages, she'd looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy."
So does he dislike Wharton less because she isn't pretty--or would he like her more if she looked like a midcentury movie star or the first lady of Camelot? Absurd comparisons, both of them, by the way--given the completely different standards of beauty of the time. But again: physical beauty should not be the point when discussing the work of a major American author, an author whose 150th birthday, incidentally, was celebrated with much fanfare by literary communities, libraries, and universities over two weeks ago.
The New Yorker was a bit late to celebrate Wharton's birthday, and the decision to have Franzen write an article, as opposed to, well, just about anyone else, was unfortunate. I would've loved to have read an essay about Wharton by Claudia Pierpont Roth, whose brilliant, psychologically nuanced portraits of female writers were originally published in The New Yorker in the 1990s and early 2000s and can be found in her remarkably astute collection of essays, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, which features profiles of Gertrude Stein, Zora Neal Hurston, Mae West, Marina Tsveteva, and other female writers whose complexities are given their proper due.
Just as Franzen says, at the beginning of his article, that the older he gets, the more he is "convinced that a fiction writer's ouevre is a mirror of the writer's character"--after reading his piece, I am convinced that his choice to focus on Edith Wharton's looks is a reflection of his character, and a crystal-clear indication that Jonathan Franzen is an ass. I'm glad that I walked out of his reading at the KGB Bar in New York after The Corrections came out a decade ago--I can't remember the exact reason at the moment--the bar got stuffy, his plaid shirt just didn't do it for me. To be honest, I believe the reason I left was that there was another more attractive male writer who I wanted to go see...But see, I was romantically involved with this other writer--which is really the ONLY reason it should matter if a writer is attractive or not.
If you are interested in learning more about Edith Wharton, check out Hermione Lee's definitive 2007 biography. Perhaps Franzen has canon envy, come to think of it--maybe he senses that his work may not be around in 150 years, as Wharton's most definitely is...