03.01.12

Why Jonathan Franzen Can’t Appreciate Edith Wharton

For a certain group of successful male authors, dismissing women writers is so much more pleasant than taking them seriously.

There were many travesties committed in Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton, which has caused so much outcry and sizzle in recent days for its disdainful tone, its relentless focus on the author’s looks, and its odd assertion that sympathy is hard to come by for this grand dame of letters.

Among his assertions: that she was ugly, which didn’t cause her marriage to be sexless, but probably didn’t help; that Lily Bart is the opposite—beautiful—but a “party girl” whom Wharton punishes for her looks; that the central problem in reading Wharton is how to grudgingly “get over” her cosseted, wealthy existence as she swans around European hotels. But his worst sin is one of omission—what Franzen did not write about.

Specifically, how Wharton was just like Franzen—an ambitious American author who strove to balance literary reach with public taste.

This was pointed out the other night by novelist Pamela Redmond, at a book group of fellow women authors, all of us incensed by the essay. “It would have been far more interesting to find out what he identified with in Wharton,” she remarked. “That’s an essay I would have liked to read.”

I agree. It’s as if, in his peevish read on Wharton it just never occurred to Franzen: Why, she’s not that different from me! She struggled to find that perfect, elusive alloy, fusing literary sensibility with profitable prose.

Instead he chose to stand on the sidelines, like a sour undergraduate at a party, swilling wine in his plastic cup and pronouncing judgments on a popular, rich—and, yes, admittedly, smart—girl. Given that our group was at that moment talking about Jeffrey Eugenides’s marvelous new novel, The Marriage Plot, about a love triangle among Brown undergraduates in the ’80s, it reminded me of the pining Mitchell’s judgment of Madeleine’s bedroom, how he approves of her Man Ray print but is embarrassed by the family photo of everyone in Lily Pulitzer clothes and her fuzzy stuffed animal. Oh, what would we do without these ever-discerning intellectual males, who remind us girls how ordinary we are (even if, like Madeleine, we’re headed to a Columbia Ph.D. program in literature)?

Franzen chose to stand on the sidelines, like a sour undergraduate at a party, swilling wine in his plastic cup and pronouncing judgments on a popular, rich—and, yes, smart—girl.

In fact, Wharton was a fiercely competitive writer, with a sharp eye on her sales figures—a trait I’m sure every striving writer (male or female) could appreciate. If, in perusing her biographies—including the disputed one by R.W.B. Lewis, from which he so highly draws—Franzen had been willing to identify with Wharton, he might have recounted this crucial turning point, which is uncannily similar to a story Franzen tells about himself:

In 1904 Wharton had been publishing short stories in Scribner’s magazine, which were eventually gathered into a collection. When she wrote her editor, William Crary Brownell, to see how the book was selling, he admitted not very well. She then launched into an ever-familiar writer’s tirade, grousing about how it was all the publishing house’s fault. At which point, Brownell told Wharton she had two choices: She could publish popular Westerns and give the public what they wanted. Or she could publish something so great, the public would be compelled to come to her. She turned around and wrote House of Mirth, a finely wrought book in which she reveled in the world of excess and material aesthetics while keenly understanding its tragic dimensions.

Similarly, Franzen has spoken of his early poor sales, his fears of being shrouded in literary obscurity, and his conscious decision to step up his game as a popular, entertaining writer. He too chose to step out of the shadows of in-between literary smallness and marry high intellectual purpose with popular storytelling.

Contrary to this, Franzen’s notion that Wharton went on to write in spite of her wealth, she knew exactly what she was doing: she was writing because of her privilege. She wrote for the growing reading public, a clamorous middle class whose faces were pressed against a glass, and who, yes, did want the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing what life is like for their era’s 1 percenters. (Brownell originally wanted a subtitle on her collection—along the lines of “The Inside Story of the Rich”—which Wharton embarrassedly nixed.) Instead Wharton decided to reach for literary heights and provide not just voyeuristic pleasure but a great and tragic heroine. What she wrote was a masterpiece, not a party-girl manifesto.

So why take the tortuous and offensive back-door route to appreciating Wharton? Why dwell on her spending habits—surely the indulgent badge of many a male author? Why harp on her supposed lack of beauty and presume this drives her vision as an author? Why not admit her success and ask questions Franzen, a usually measured and insightful essayist, could shed light on: How did she pull it off? How did she balance her gift of accessibility with serious intention? Why make this an essay on the difficulty of finding sympathy for Edith Wharton instead of exploring empathy for a fellow author?

Franzen’s approach raises larger questions about the male literary establishment’s familiar, deep-seated ambivalence about women and ambition. How many male writers cite or talk about women authors who have influenced them? How many do they include among their jostling, competitive peers? I am reminded, again, of a scene in The Marriage Plot, in which Mitchell cooks up a fierce (and disingenuous) putdown of Madeline: “I wasn’t attracted to your mind.”

It is, clearly, much easier to sustain the fraternal order, huddling together in a corner snarking about the plain girl in the expensive dress, than acknowledge that maybe she is smart, capable, and worthy of their competition.

That’s why this essay struck such a raw nerve among women writers—it felt like an all-too-familiar scene. How many literary events have I been at where, afterward, women writers mutter, “He wouldn’t even acknowledge what I said!  He looked right through me!” That’s the code: you ignore and thus efface them. Or, if you must acknowledge their presence, you put them down, whether they’re ugly or not. For that’s what this essay ultimately was: a facile putdown rather than a full-on engagement with a writer of great seriousness.

And maybe that’s how we arrive at this peculiarly stingy, backhanded appraisal of Wharton. Because to face what is most obvious—that the ever-popular, ever-brilliant Wharton might have something to say to you as a male author —would be to face one’s own obtuse, obstinate prejudices. To do otherwise would have been the real and breathtaking journey: to explore the professional choices and limitations of this exemplar of female ambition, who was as muscular, as canny, as interested in sales and cultural impact as any writer working today.  Male or female.

Sounds like Edith Wharton to me.