And you know, he brings it upon himself. He publicly hates lots of things that people love: Twitter, e-books, the late capitalist civilization that has fatally encroached upon innocent nature. He wrote a less-than-hagiographic essay about the suicide of his best friend, a writer who is nearly sainted by the smart, passionate people he wants to read his books. He protested his inclusion in Oprah’s book club and then whined about how he was so misunderstood for it.
In writing that essay about mourning his best friend and rival, Franzen has deliberately created a discourse comparing him to David Foster Wallace. Which was a dumb idea. He’ll lose on nearly every measure of literary quality. But I’m not interested in comparing them. I like them both, and find both problematic.
Instead, I want to ask what Franzen gets out of being such a dickhead.
There’s a long tradition of literary cranks. Norman Mailer’s a good one. He created an outsized ego: boozy, angry, misogynist. He made this persona central to his work and used it to critique Vietnam War-era society. Now, this persona wasn’t all acting. He was actually a mean alcoholic and actually violent to women, having stabbed one of his wives.
Franzen would have to work pretty hard to be as much of a dick as Mailer. And obviously, I don’t want him to. But the literary jerkface has a dual trajectory that I think is really fascinating.
1. The truth-telling buffoon. Think back to your King Lear, a paradigm of the jester whose marginal status in court–plus his skillz at humorjokes–allow him to be the king’s most fearless and truthful adviser.
2. The modernist crisis in masculinity. This one takes a little longer to explain. I think of it as starting with Ulysses after WW1, though certainly Oscar Wilde had some influence before then. The short version is that the transformations in knowledge during the late 19th century, plus then a devastating world-wide war in which many young men died, led to great, terrible reckoning with all our previously precious truths. Including the idea of what an ideal man should be.
So Joyce made his epic protagonist Jewish, timid, unusually sensual (he keeps soap in his pocket and sniffs his fingers throughout the day for comfort), and cuckolded.
Fast forward to now. Hear that slippery, squeaky sound of skimming through a video on your VCR, past the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam, the Internet era. Boom! There’s Franzen! And what happened to that crisis in masculinity?
Well, a lot. For one, the multicultural revolution in the canon made the Great White Male Voice one of many voices that we read in college. Even if that voice still dominates most media and publishing worlds. Also, the US middle class has done pretty poorly lately. Very poorly. (Refer to my old professor’s blog about this if you’re interested.) Which is a problem for masculinity for obvious reasons: a steady devaluing of the markers of masculine success, and a steady erosion of opportunity to access those things: a good job, home ownership, 2.11 children.
(While I’m on the topic, I want to say that our demographic changes in marriage, in what constitutes a proper family, are ultimately awesome for masculinity because they offer more choices for men, women, and every dang body. Just to say, emphatically, that many of these changes are not a problem.)
What all this means is that when a man creates a public persona nowadays, he has to reckon with all these changes. Mailer did the biggest baddest masculinity he could. Possibly out of psychological dysfunction, and possibly out of a desire to point out the changing status of masculinity in the context of draft-dodging and protesting. But lots of the contemporary guys that we talk about in the bookosphere respond with a simple knee-jerk opposite: self-deprecation as a theme. Early Eggers, Much of Wallace. And yes, Franzen.
Sometimes this is complex, exciting, and innovative. I found these parts of A Heartbreaking Work… stunning. And Wallace’s work wrought “self-deprecating” and “self-conscious” into vast, uncharted worlds of psychological and cultural depth.
But the main critique of this route–and it’s a valid critique–is that it’s solipsistic. And it’s a particularly damning critique in the context of all that privilege these voices are accorded.
Hence the Franzenfreude. It’s OK that I was a self-absorbed jerk, because I know I’m a self-absorbed jerk, and while I’m doing my best to use my jerkfaceness for good (advocating for preservation of songbird habitats, and writing major works about their struggles, for example), if I’m a big ol’ jerkface once in a while you can let me off the hook because I know I’m a jerkface.
In real life, this attitude is insufferable.
In fiction and public discourse, I find it fascinating. Franzen says oh, you hate me for calling David Foster Wallace an asshole when his writing kicked my writing’s ass? I’ll hate you more than ever. You and your twitter and your ebooks and your cars destroying what I love.
And in light of the difficulty in forging a public (straight white) masculinity that accounts for all the challenges to its own authority, I’m not sure what else he could do.
Wallace’s path–a deeply convoluted introversion that culminated in suicide–is perhaps more tolerable to us. Especially since his death, we can see him as a victim of a horrible disease, a booming voice that was quieted too soon by devastating psychological forces. He did self-aware and self-deprecating so well that no one else can do it again. He closed out the genre.
Franzen’s path is more complicated. I think he could be performing it better than he is. I mean, acting out his anger and jealousy in public isn’t winning him many friends. He wants smartypantses to buy his books, but he keeps pissing them off.
But maybe that self-aware, self-deprecating mode is the best way to adapt to the changing cultural status of (straight white) masculinity. And maybe it has its cultural uses.
I’m glad that these things are changing. Ultimately, everyone benefits when “man” and “woman” can mean many, many different things to people. Even if everyone’s still unemployed.
But I’m very interested in watching Franzen deal with these changes in his public persona and in his writing. And I think that there is some value in his being a jerkface.
What do you think? Hate Franzen? Love him? Does thinking about him in terms of changing norms of masculinity change your view at all?