Caring About Jonathan Franzen

Stacey McCain is nothing if not fair-minded. He will lambaste someone six ways to Sunday, but then he will offer, dispassionately, praise. And not even backhanded praise.

Damn his atheist soul, but Barrett Brown is an excellent writer.

This links to Brown’s recent prison-penned review of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, posted on The Intercept_ (the underline space is not a typo). McCain advises everyone to read it, and I admit it has a nice full does of snark, but I found it irritating for a couple of reasons.

  1. It is expressed (with a certain degree of irony, but still expressed) that Franzen is the representative of White Male Hegemony, that he is “the Great King of the Honkies”. While I don’t doubt that the SJW’s sneer most sneeringly every time he jumps to the top of the bestseller list, I don’t see why we have to nod to it when reviewing the work. Jonathan Franzen does not speak for me (or Barret Brown, or McCain) just because we’re both caucasoids with Y chromosomes. No one thinks that he does. So why do we have to credit this reduction of Franzen to his DNA? I keep hearing that that’s a bad thing, so why do we keep doing it?
  2. No doubt related to this is the recurrent meme of Franzen’s misogyny. Now, I’ve not read Purity, so I don’t know if there is a current of misogyny running through it, but what I do know is that Brown doesn’t bother to provide evidence for the assertion. It is simply assumed as true. There’s a reference to psychotic mothers, and one or two other asides, indicating that female characters are shown with flaws and dark sides (the male characters must lack these), but I can’t find anything indicating a thoroughgoing hatred of women qua women. I know that Brown is of the left, and I guess that means he just accepts the construction that a male cannot criticise a female absent a deep-seated hostility to people-with-ovaries as such. But that doesn’t mean I have to be impressed with it.

I do share some of Brown’s antipathy for lit-fic. Franzen writes the kind of books that one admires rather than enjoys, serious books for serious people to have serious thoughts about. I read Freedom in a rare decision to accept what the chattering classes considered significant literature. I liked it fine as I was reading it, but have felt no need to revisit it. There’s too much agonistes and not much action.

So I doubt very much that I’ll be reading Purity, as I find little edification and less entertainment in novels about upper-middle-class anxiety. There’s a place where Brown and I agree with that, at least.


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