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The Daily Need

Clearing the air: The fury over Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’

Franzen at The Progressive Reading Series in 2008. Photo: Flickr/Jennifer Yin.

Note: This post contains details about the plot of “Freedom.”

For about two weeks now, I’ve had “Freedom” on my mind. That’s “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed new novel, and also the notion of “freedom,” with its many attendant qualities — autonomy, individualism, responsibility. “Freedom” will do that to you. Franzen’s work penetrates deeply: in the characters, in their struggles, in their fits of impetuousness and deliberate malice, lies an epic clash between different views of what it is to be human, to be American, to be free.

There’s also something like that going on in the endless dissection of Franzen’s new masterpiece, and the hype surrounding the book’s debut. In that brouhaha, as well, there are two views of what it is to be human, to be American, to be free — and to be a journalist. I hadn’t considered it until I asked Jodi Picoult, the novelist and leader of the anti-Franzen campaign, if she’d had a chance to actually read “Freedom” yet. When she responded that she was “done talking about Franzen” — fair enough, given the firestorm she ignited — I thanked her and told her I would probably write something about the book regardless. To that, she responded, “Where’s the pressure to do a Franzen piece coming from?”

There is, of course, no pressure. I requested a copy of “Freedom” for two reasons: as a bibliophile, I wanted to read it; as a journalist, I wanted to write about it. I took it almost as a matter of course that I should write about it. The New York Times wrote about it — twice. President Obama used his charm, his wit — perhaps his commander-in-chief authority — to secure a pre-sale copy of the book. And most importantly, it has been nine years since the publication of Franzen’s previous novel, “The Corrections,” which stirred the literary world from its postmodern malaise. For that alone, Franzen’s work should be required reading.

Still, there’s a kernel of truth in Picoult’s question: Why is there so much pressure, perceived or otherwise, to write about Franzen, when virtually no other recent author has received similar treatment? Picoult says she has “heard from several reporters” who have been ordered by their editors to cover Franzen. She adds: “As a writer, it’s amazing — I can’t think of another ‘must review’ book!”

It’s not a question of the quality or authenticity of Franzen’s work: “Freedom” is, undeniably, an illuminative effort, an artful and enthralling look at the modern American family, at the rage and hopelessness that now infect the American psyche. It’s also an unsparing examination of American liberalism, with its failings and imperfections, its compromises that have since spawned an angry and dominant strain of American conservatism (literally: in “Freedom,” the liberal main characters’ son is an acolyte of Republican war profiteers, and considerably more well-adjusted than his parents).

On Tuesday, more than two weeks since the release of “Freedom,” the furor continued. Slate inventoried its own literary coverage, and found its book reviews to be dominated by men. Meghan O’Rourke writes that the row over “Freedom” is symptomatic of an unseen gender bias in fiction and literary criticism: “We don’t ascribe literary authority as freely to women as men, and our models of literary greatness remain primarily male (and white).” O’Rourke offers Zadie Smith as an example of a female writer whose work “occupies a similar literary space to Franzen’s” but receives considerably less attention.

It’s hard to argue with that. Literary coverage skews toward male authors; laurels like those bestowed upon Franzen are generally reserved for men. But the notion of unconscious bias erodes a central component of freedom: rational agency. That’s probably why so many critics have reacted so harshly to the allegations of gender bias in literary coverage: They don’t like the idea of an unconscious motivation influencing their work. The characters in “Freedom” grapple with a similar dilemma: They too are motivated by unseen forces, but they endeavor to understand and take responsibility for their actions, often with  painful consequences.

All of this has me thinking that Franzengate — or “Franzenfreude,” as it has been dubbed on Twitter — is a healthy moment of self-investigation for the literary world, rather than the manufactured controversy that some have made it out to be. Is there an element of sour grapes in Picoult’s and others’ complaints? Perhaps. But it might be unwise to cut the conversation short, as some have suggested. David Ulin of The Los Angeles Times, for one, acknowledged the gender disparity in mainstream literary coverage, only to dismiss the criticism of Franzen as motivated by “gossip, envy, a mean-spirited approach to literary life.”

That may be true, but it distracts from the underlying issue: whether the coverage of Franzen is symptomatic of gender bias in literary criticism, and whether journalists are taking sufficient responsibility for that bias. Ulin’s attempt to dismiss Franzen’s critics is not unlike an attempt by one of Franzen’s characters, Patty Berglund, to evade responsibility for her own behavior: In her case, cheating on her husband with his best friend, Richard. In the book, Patty maintains that she was sleepwalking during the act of betrayal. Only later does she accept that what she did was wrong — and that it was entirely her fault.

Richard harbors considerable guilt about the affair, until meeting up with Patty’s husband, Walter, for a brief reunion. Walter harangues him for his coldness, for neglecting their friendship. “I’m not going to dwell on this, but I want to clear the air and let you know what I’ve been feeling, so I don’t have to feel it anymore,” Walter says. As in the case of Franzen’s detractors, there is likely something else motivating Walter here — his lifelong competition with Richard, his feeling of inferiority. But as Richard acknowledges, there is value in Walter’s confession, in the anger it stirs in Richard, and in the life-changing events that ensue. What happens next is, in Richard’s eyes, an act of mercy. Or, as he puts it: “It’s good to clear the air.”

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