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Books Russell Smith: Franzen-hatred exhibits the perils of ‘litchat’

By now, more rants on Jonathan Franzen being accorded "too much attention" have been published by the media than actual reviews of his latest book, Purity. The irony of this is lost on the complainers (themselves, obviously, part of the media). But hating Franzen has become such a mandatory cultural position among the young and fashionable that this loathing itself has become the subject of his reviews: Most printed discussions of Purity begin with addressing the phenomenon of Franzen's social unpopularity before they launch into any discussion of the book's merits. Indeed, now even articles like the one I am writing – about the phenomenon of Franzen-hatred – are outnumbering book reviews.

A September article in the New Yorker by Laura Miller compared Franzen's reputation – "kind of a prick" – with that of David Foster Wallace – loving saint – and noted that Wallace's hagiography developed only after his death. In fact, during his lifetime Wallace's writing was often criticized as being rather cold. Miller's piece is a stern warning against the dangers of "litchat": She points out that we are now so saturated in opinion via social media that reputations become all-powerful. "If everyone in your M.F.A. workshop or the last book party you went to mentions an established author's name with reverence," she writes, "you'll be that much more likely to lay it on thick should you ever be asked to review her new book. Or, conversely, if you decide to prove your independence of mind and go contrarian on her, you'll be aware of the inertia of all that acclaim and feel the imperative to push back with corresponding force."

In Canada, in a recent online magazine debate about whether Franzen is worth all this fuss (there's that irony again), the critic Steven Beattie deftly summarized the hipsters' anti-Franzen spleen: "He continues to get coverage in major media, his new book is garnering accolades, which makes all sorts of people furious, because they don't like what he's said about our modern culture, or because he's a white dude. So they yell about him on Twitter, which he ignores (he's not on Twitter), and that only serves to make his detractors even angrier and more vociferous."

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We used to give lip service to the idea that all this litchat, all this idea of who the man was, should be kept separate from an appreciation of his work as a novelist, but now we have to talk so much about the distinction that we actually further erase it.

Moreover, something else has changed: It used to be that the instinctively anti-famous-white-writer brigade had proudly never read his work; now they are starting to claim that they have, and they still hate it. Not a day goes by that I don't see a declaration of disdain on some social platform for Franzen's apparent lack of talent. These are invariably written by people who do not write fiction themselves, and couldn't write a story as funny and smooth as a single page of Franzen if they had their entire life to work on it.

But these are not people interested in style or structure: They are thrilled to be swept up in a fashionable ideological current, fantastically proud of their belonging to it. An essay called Jonathan Franzen Can't Write Sex, by Madeleine Davies, was published last spring in Jezebel. It isolated a dozen lines from sex scenes, and printed each one over a different photograph of the middle-aged Franzen looking embarrassed.

I enjoyed the piece not because of this low-level sneering but because I enjoyed re-reading Franzen's troubling, wry and original lines. (Here's one, from the fantasy lives of two university students communicating through distance: "One afternoon, as Connie described it, her excited clitoris grew to be eight inches long, a protruding pencil of tenderness with which she gently parted the lips of his penis and drove herself down to the base of its shaft." That's not bad, it's brilliantly deranged. This line was, of course, nominated for the British "Bad Sex Awards," a ceremony celebrating prudishness that no sensitive critic should really be proud to be associated with.)

Each one of these lines comes from the point of view of a character and so serve to illustrate a character's obsessions and interiorities rather than explain sex itself (they are written in free indirect speech, a concept unexplained by the derisive piece). And they are all kind of funny. Franzen's sex scenes are almost always funny, as is every other scene. The awkwardness in the interactions, the sense of embarrassment, is of course core to his aesthetic.

But these philippics have never been literary conversations, they are conversations about fashion and social groupings. The right-minded versus the old-fashioned.

Let's put them into Canadian context. I remember clearly when it was de rigueur to dismiss Margaret Atwood. She was about equally unpopular with young Canadian writers and critics in the 1980s after the great success and nationalist endorsement of Surfacing and Cat's Eye had made her into university-textbook material. The resentments were the same: She was too famous, too ubiquitous, being held up as an example of the perfectly Canadian novel (Franzen's opponents mock the idea of "Great American Novel," a concept I'm sure Franzen himself doesn't believe in). A woodsy cultural nationalism – not exactly her invention – was held to be all her fault. Her personality, or at least what people thought her personality might be based on her media interviews, was judged as prickly. She had a funny speaking voice.

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And under it all was a persistent chorus of complaining men: She was a rigid feminist, they said, who made all her male characters callous or idiotic or both; she hated men. (They never noticed that Atwood's female characters were never paragons of virtue or courage either. No one proposed that Zenia, the manipulative, husband-stealing liar in The Robber Bride, was an insult to all women.)

Thirty-five years later, not one of these complaints sticks. She is no longer seen to dominate the literary landscape, her work has taken on a completely different kind of didacticism, and it seems absurd now to whine about feminism in literature. Atwood's perceived personality has become irrelevant to how we judge her intricate and satirical future-scapes.

In a few years, we will see the hostility to Franzen for exactly what it is: resentment; resentment of the most personal kind, pure envious emotion, expressing nothing but a fierce desire to be on the right political side of something, and in the right social group. It's the worst kind of fashion.

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