I’ve written before on Jonathan Franzen. I didn’t care for The Corrections, which we read in my narrative writing class in advance of his appearance at Vassar (circa the Oprah controversy), a reading he did as a favor to his friend, a professor at the school. I was appalled by his performance, for which he was awkward, ill-prepared and clearly contemptuous. We all were, to the point where, in order to reestablish a productive learning environment, we were banned from mentioning Franzen in class. Privately, though, I stewed for years.
But, here’s the thing. I still loved Freedom.
Why? Because a writer and a writer’s work are separate. The work has its own life and should be taken on its own merits.
Of course, some writers are interesting–I’ll be happy to read a biography of Virginia Woolf or piece together literary gossip on Facebook. But unless a writer says to me, in explicit terms, that a work of fiction relates to his/her life, I’m not going to extrapolate. And, if I do, it is because I’ve succumb to temptation and is, at worst, on a blog that six people read, not in a major publication like the New Yorker, which, for some reason, published “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy” by Jonathan Franzen. The article has been quite controversial and has elicited responses from the likes of Marina Budhos, Victoria Patterson and Roxana Robinson. (There is also an interesting defense by Laura Miller). I intended this post to be a round-up of these responses, but now that I’ve gotten started, I clearly have a few of my own thoughts to share.
Unless one knows for sure, through letters or other documentation, it is hard to responsibly draw parallels between a writer’s life and fiction. How really to know what is in a writer’s head or heart beyond what is on the page? This is why it is surprising to me that Franzen thinks he can talk about why Edith Wharton made her literary choices. Through his objectionable musings on Wharton’s physical appearance, he hits on some interesting points about beauty’s role in her novels, but there are ways to puzzle them out without having to resort to conjecture. Instead of deciding that Edith Wharton’s perceived unattractiveness led to her writing pretty characters, why not wonder how The House of Mirth would have been different if Lily Bart weren’t beautiful? Keeping the conversation within the world of the book could, in many ways, allow for similar conversations to those that Franzen brings up in the article without delving into the unknowable. He throws in a few terms like “perhaps” and “as far as anyone knows,” but his article is bold in its suppositions about the connections between Wharton’s life and her work, which he imagines to be way more direct than he has any right.
He is also presumptuous in his ideas about readers other than himself. The caption to the photograph on the first page of the article, and the gist of much of the article itself, is “Wharton’s many privileges make her hard to like.” As I prominently name-checked at the start of this post, I went to Vassar, which is in many ways synonymous with privilege. Of the many privileges I enjoyed while there, an undeniable one was the people I met. A few of them came from circumstances even more elite than those of Ms. Wharton; I knew actual princesses and kids with last names you all know, too. And I didn’t find them hard to like (any more or less than anyone else) nor did I find that their privilege necessarily put them at a “moral disadvantage.” Privilege isn’t a personality trait.
Franzen also writes that “No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did.” I would think maybe he forgot for a second that Edith Wharton was a woman, except that he never would have undertaken to write this asinine article if she were a man. Sure, he knows that women faced oppression and is talking about class privilege here, but one doesn’t outrank the other; there is no way to separate gender and class.
This point also underscores, for me, the times when it is important to take some elements of a writer’s biography into account. Not to make guesses about writers punishing their characters for their own shortcomings, but because we need to be aware of, and working to improve, imbalances in who is getting published. I’ll assume that most readers of this blog understand that if these statistics, published by the fabulous organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, were the sad truth in 2011, Ms. Wharton was not enjoying more privilege than her male counterparts one hundred and fifty years ago.
That a man–even a man who, as his defenders point out, actually likes Edith Wharton’s novels and finds sympathy for her, too–wrote an article that makes so much of her physical appearance, “sexual ignorance” and perceived insecurities shocked me, and a lot of others. I hope that all of the dialogue it sparked made its publication worthwhile.