Franzen, Political Correctness, and the Novel, Part 1

A writer from my local writing group posted a link to an article in the UK’s Independent titled, “Don’t tell authors how to write about gender – creativity isn’t social work.” It featured a defense of Jonathan Franzen and other male writers who have been criticized for writing poorly about women. The author, Terence Blacker, is an English novelist and broadcaster, which makes this stunner all the more surprising:

There is something odd and faintly sinister about the relatively new idea that artists and writers should be engaged in moral improvement.

Um, hello, Mr. Blacker. Samuel Richardson? Jane Austen? Charles Dickens? All were engaged in social or moral improvement and in sexual politics. Richardson’s Pamela, often credited as the first modern English novel, began as a “conduct book.” Emma is all about Emma’s moral improvement (the eventual brief romance and marriage to Mr. Knightley being a mere cherry on the top). And much of Charles Dickens’ work can be boiled down to “care more for the poor among us.” Of course, not all novels deal explicitly in moral or social improvement, but all do contain moral, social, and political viewpoints, whether overtly expressed or not.

Just as novels have always had moral and political concerns, there has always been push-back. Richardson was quickly told “how to write about gender,” and went so far as to “create a ‘reading group’ of women to advise him.”  Well before the age of Twitter and its #franzenairquotes hashtag, the novel was the subject of numerous satires, including Henry Fielding’s An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. The literary world has always been a rough-and-tumble place, and if you can’t stand the heat, you know what you need to do.

Of course Blacker is aware of all this. But his need to defend Franzen and other male writers from feminist critics seems to have blinded him to one of the main features of the novel since its very beginning. It also leads him into the absurd notion that writers should not be criticized for the ideas and attitudes expressed in their novels. Too much criticism stifles their creative muse!  Apparently, the novelist’s exalted position (and the fact that he has written well-rounded female characters in the past) should shield him from critics: “It is absurd to criticise Franzen for laughing at the wilder excesses of feminism.” No, what’s absurd is reducing a political movement to the question of whether men should pee sitting down or standing up (as one feminist character in Purity demands of her husband) and then expecting no criticism from that movement.

(That said, I haven’t read Purity or followed much of the kerfuffle around it. For all I know, Pip may actually be a well-rounded character, and feminism may receive a more honest treatment than the one example suggests. [UPDATE: here are two points of view on that, one from Slate reviewer Laura Miller, and the other from feminist blogger Anne Thériault (whose criticism Miller calls “obtuse”).] I did enjoy Freedom because I thought it dealt well with complex environmental issues I had some familiarity with, although I thought both the praise for the book and the Time cover were excessive. Franzen writes great sentences? I can think of many writers who write better, many or most of them women. That’s all completely subjective, of course.)

Blacker frames his argument in terms of the valiant individual author standing up to establishment pressure from institutions like the BBC. A framing which would make more sense if he didn’t start by pooh-poohing the importance of the Man Booker Prize and its bias toward novels of the male experience. (Only two Man Booker winners out of the last fifteen have featured female protagonists. This is a problem across literary awards, as Nicola Griffith has pointed out with actual data, rather than the couple of anecdotal, non-applicable examples Blacker uses to refute the importance of the trend in the Man Booker.)

Which institution are writers more likely to listen to, BBC’s Edinburgh Nights, or the Man Booker? Perhaps Blacker believes that writers also should pay no attention to the Man Booker, though he reserves his criticism for TV, newspapers, the BBC, the Arts Council, and “the great army of liberal opinionators.” Nowhere does he say, “don’t pay attention to the Man Booker Prize.” Message to writers: pay no attention to the cultural institutions telling you to write about gender in a certain way, but do pay attention to the (much more important) one telling you not to waste your time writing about women’s experience.

The danger Blacker sees here is that, “when our great institutions begin to place a higher priority on whether a work is socially appropriate than on its quality, they risk stifling individual voices.” Cuz, you know, when the Man Booker chooses its winners, it’s all about quality and has nothing to do with social or gender issues. This is such a tiresome argument, going back at least to the ’70s and ’80s, when writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker were criticized for being too particular, too political, not universal enough. Meanwhile, white male writers writing about living in New York City — totally universal.

All writers have social, political, and gender views, and all of that makes its way into their work. Likewise, readers, critics, and award judges will respond with their own views, either positively or negatively. Then those views will be debated. Whinging about how this works, especially when the subject of criticism is a writer as lionized as Jonathan Franzen, just seems disingenuous. I’ll have some sympathy for Franzen if he ever experiences the death threats, bomb scares closing down his speaking engagements, and other attempts at silencing and intimidation that women writers and cultural critics have faced.

So much for Blacker and his article. Tomorrow, I’ll dive into the comments on that Facebook post. (And damnit, why can’t I write a quick, short blog post?)

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