Jonathan Franzen has spoken out again on his reputation. The “Freedom” novelist, promoting new translation “The Kraus Project,” told Scratch that he strives (despite a critical rap in certain circles for a problem with women that stops short of the serious charge of misogyny) to be balanced in his writing, reading, and creation of characters. “I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history.”
Given that Franzen had previously criticized “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” it seemed reasonable that this remark, too, might be a subtweet of the novelist Weiner, one of his persistent critics. We reached out to Weiner, an outspoken defender of the set of books commonly known as “commercial fiction,” via email and she responded.
Of course, I have no way of knowing if this is directed at me — and if you look at what I’ve said over the years, it’s been more about the Times as an institution and Sam Tanenhaus as a gatekeeper than JF. He’s more the beneficiary of a sexist system than its architect. However, in terms of what he’s done with his power, I think you can draw a very explicit causal relationship between his ’01 diss of Oprah and her choice to shutter the book club. Post-CORRECTIONS, Oprah never picked another debut female novelist…and the only female writers she talked about were Toni Morrison and Pearl S. Buck. He owns some of that.
I appreciate that he’s acknowledged that too many books get dismissed as chick lit, and that he’s championed Paula Fox, among others. But he can’t rail about Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotion without acknowledging that, thanks in some part to his dealings with Oprah, social media is one of the things women writers have been forced to use to get the kind of attention he takes for granted. He has benefited tremendously from a system built on double standards, where a woman has to work twice as hard to be acknowledged as his peer, and he single-handedly eliminated one of the few routes women writers had to getting the kind of press he gets just by opening his mouth. His hands aren’t as clean as he’d like to believe.