Franzenfreude: Commercial v. Literary Fiction
First, back story: Jonathan Franzen wrote Freedom. Critics fawned. They called it a masterpiece, genius and an epic.
Jennifer Wiener, an author of commercial women’s fiction (sometimes called “chick lit”) became sick of the fawning. She and Jodi Picoult claimed that critics unfairly favored certain authors and those authors are usually male.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Wiener said, “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book - in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”
The writers wanted to clarify that they were not grousing at Franzen. Instead, they were concerned about gender favoritism and the perceived schism between commercial and literary fiction.
Picoult said, “There’s that unwritten schism that literary writers get all the awards and commericals writers get all the success. I don’t begrudge the label of ‘commercial writer’, because I wanted to reach as many readers as I could. I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what i see lauded in literary fiction.”
Weiner went so far as to create the hashtag #franzenfreude, which she defined as, “Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.” (I thought franzenfreude was when you wanted to kill Jonathan Franzen and marry your mother. Also, what’s the difference between “multiple” and “copious?”)
As in most good debates, both sides have worthwhile perspectives.
Yes, the reviews for Freedom have verged on obsequious. However, without reading the book, I can’t tell you if it’s the emperor’s new clothes or justified praise. (Bear in mind, I didn’t like The Corrections; so Franzen’s charm is, at least, partly lost on me.)
Next, each artistic circle has its superstars. Music critics love Vampire Weekend and don’t understand why they don’t sell Katy Perry numbers. Millions of fans love Katy Perry and don’t understand why she doesn’t get Vampire Weekend respect.
Readers are no different. The majority of critics love Franzen and find most women’s commercial fiction interchangeable. Those who enjoy “chick lit” (my co-blogger, Tricia, for example) think it is unfairly maligned because of its subject matter and target audience.
These superstars can come from any gender, race or even sexual preference, though it might be easier for certain demographics to climb the mountain. Yes, Franzen gets a lot of love, but so do Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker and David Sedaris.
(It might be worthwhile to look through the New York Times’ book reviews to see what representation different genders and genres receive.)
Now, as per the differences between commercial and literary fiction, I’ve never read any Weiner. I can’t tell you if she’s a hack who sells a lot of books or an auteur whose merits are unfairly ignored.
I have, however, read some Picoult. While I can’t vouch for all 17 of her books, I enjoyed My Sister’s Keeper more than The Corrections.
This reminds me of when Amy Tan told Stephen King that nobody asked her about the language in her stories. (King relates this anecdote in the prologue of On Writing.) It’s great to be successful, she mused, but it would be better if people appreciated the handiwork, also.
Then again, how bad should we feel for these commercially successful writers? Bestselling authors are already a blessed and lucky few. It’s not enough that they have the job and royalty checks that everyone wants. Now, they want your respect.
Well, some deserve it. Dickens and Shakespeare were two of the most commercially successful authors from their respective eras, after all. But let’s make this clear, there is a difference between Katy Perry and Vampire Weekend. Moreover, there’s a difference between Katy Perry and Prince.
One wrote music that was designed to be popular. The other wrote music that became popular because it was so good.
-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com