On Being a Jerkface (Jonathan Franzen)

If you can get past the annoying new Salon design, this is a pretty level-headed review of Jonathan Franzen’s new book of essays.

Level-headed? Is that my greatest compliment? Well, Franzen seems to inspire levels of vitriol usually reserved for actual family members. Or exes. (Ex-lovers, ex-presidents, extreme makeover shows.)

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.

The New Yorker’s illustration of his infamous essay “Farther Away”

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?

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12 thoughts on “On Being a Jerkface (Jonathan Franzen)

  1. lorenzo says:

    “But the main critique of this route–and it’s a valid critique–is that it’s solipsistic”
    It’s interesting to see how self-absorption is solipsistic, while Wallace once proposed it as a response against Mailer/Roth/Updike narcissistic solipsism itself. I guess that every possible istance of masculinity eventually turns out to be solipsistic…

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hah!
      Dudes don’t corner the market on self-absorption. But you make an interesting point. There is a big difference between the Mailer/Roth/Updike version and Wallace’s, and I don’t know if I have a definitive description of it. Something about a difference in self-awareness, right?

      I think that self-awareness as a technique and theme has been very important to literature, and ultimately beneficial. And fun. But we are certainly seeing its limits.

      • lorenzo says:

        before I didn’t have the time to write down all things I wanted to say…i was thinking about the fact that to end up with solipsism is quite easy once you take a certain path of analysis: if you take a male author (be him Franzen or Wallace, or the previous generation of male writers such as Roth etc) and consider him as a model for a certain instance of masculinity, then you can’t avoid (or at least it is very difficult to do so) to reduce that instance into one “modelized” person(a). Once you have this persona, it becomes an easy target to mark as solipsistic

        (i’m sorry, my explanation is very confused! 🙂

  2. lorenzo says:

    (I hope I didn’t sound like a jerk in my first comment!)

    • Elizabeth says:

      Oh no, not at all!

      I’m not sure if your path to solipsism is as easy in every case–but I think there’s a clear historical trend for it. I mean, it’s much easier to say that about post-WWII authors than about, say, early modern writers. And I do think it’s fascinating that it’s associated with masculinity. We don’t hear that charge against, say, Toni Morrison, whose work is extremely self-conscious. Or bell hooks. Or other postmodern women writers. No one’s saying “I hate Maxine Hong Kingston! She’s such a jerk!” or “Her meta-fiction is so self-involved!”

      The thing is, Franzen seems to actively work for it. He’s not a victim of our perceptions of privileged writers. At least, not all the way.

  3. Us guys are afraid to say that about bell hooks 🙂 that’s why no one says stuff like that… no, actually, what I wanted to say (and now I fear I’ve started up a turbine) is the Franzen position reminds me of Updike in “Self-Consciousness.” “Yeah, I’m a real jerk, a coward, I have bad skin, and I sleep with other men’s beautiful wives while they’re out at work… but I write like an angel, so go screw.” (slightly paraphrased). I also remember clearly this moment in Mailer’s Armies of the Knight, where he’s stewing cuz Robert Lowell called him “our best journalist.” JOURNALIST! damning with faint praise for Mr. Mailer. I hear some of the same in Franzen’s one-time remark (someone will know where exactly) “David is the best rhetorical writer of our time,” leaving room for… someone… as the best overall champ. I think JF is brilliant, a little isolated, and calls em like he sees him.. and it’s surpassingly weird that he can write so well in the way that he does, which seems to call for empathy, and himself as others see him… and have such a tin ear when it comes to gauging his own public remarks… maybe there’s more to the self-aggrandizing Charles Schulz comparison he made to himself in NYer than meets the eye — maybe he loves mankind, it’s people he can’t stand.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I agree, Bill. Franzen doesn’t even like his characters very much. At least Charlie Brown is likeable. Though I must say, the scene of Patty’s rape and her parents’ reaction is one of the most memorable I’ve read in a long while.

  4. Melissa says:

    Elizabeth, thanks for posting this. I admit I haven’t gotten around to Franzen yet, but I read this twice and then read the essay about DFW’s death. I found it moving, though the parts about his little camping trip made me roll my eyes. You’ve given me a lot to think about and added to my reading shortlist. Thanks again for the mental stimulation.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Melissa, happy to oblige! I’d be curious to know what you think of *the Corrections*. Or *Freedom*. Not sure if I’d rec one over the other for you! But I think maybe in Freedom the characters are less flat. (Others may disagree.)

  5. Inder says:

    Well, the artist/asshole persona is nothing new. (Of course, the suicidal and depressed artist persona is sadly a cliche as well.) It does fit with Franzen’s writing in some ways (at least, what I’ve actually read, which is The Corrections), which seems full of pent up rage and irritation. That said, in my opinion, being a dickwad can really detract from someone’s (otherwise awesome) work, especially when it takes the form of aggrandizing ego-mania and dissing your friends. So, in conclusion, JF, it’s not new, it’s not novel, you’re not the first artist to try it, it may result in your being removed from a highly coveted spot on my “artists I’d love to have a beer with” list, and … it may just make you a asshole.

  6. […] PS. For the Wallace-Franzen throwdowns that have won me big clicks in the past: […]

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