O is for the Other Things She Gave Me
As every tabloid reader knows, it’s a short step from a celebrity marriage to a publicity-filled divorce. When Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, The Corrections, was published this fall, critics waxed hyperbolic over its wedding of character-driven family drama and up-to-the-nanosecond cultural commentary. Then Oprah chose the novel for her book club, and The Corrections seemed poised to bring about what many considered an even more unlikely union—this time of the lit-crit, severe-glasses clique and the suburban Barnes & Noble crowd. But Franzen brought the honeymoon to a halt when he told Powell’s online bookstore that he “cringe[d]” to hear that The Corrections had been chosen by Oprah’s club, citing the “schmaltzy” nature of some of her previous selections. In the Portland Oregonian and on the radio show “Fresh Air,” he further explained this discomfort by referring to his own place in the “high-art literary tradition.” Oprah, meanwhile, called Franzen’s bluff in a polite but pointed statement: Since she had no wish to make him uncomfortable, she had canceled his appearance on her show. The media majority turned on the author for his elitism; in a PR tailspin, Franzen began backpedaling, and the story wound up in every major newspaper in the country.
That the coverage was so widespread illustrates that this particular divorce has cultural implications beyond one writer’s ego issues. And like so many divorces, these implications are rooted in our culture’s preference for gendered divisions of labor, even within the world of literature.
To give Franzen credit, he never mentioned gender in his complaints about the Oprah selection. But no one needs a Gallup poll to tell them that Oprah’s viewers and readers are primarily female. It’s not just that these books—among them Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Paradise, Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Forture, and Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World—tell sad, girly stories in a sad, girly way, either: The Washington Post quoted with approval a reader who called the majority of Oprah books “psychobabble”—a kind of “socio-fiction” focused on “whatever woe happens to be flavor of the month.” By this argument, Oprah’s books aren’t literature because they’re about social issues, and topics like child molestation lend themselves to nonfiction reportage or therapied self-disclosure, not to literature. Good thing no one ever mentioned this to Dorothy Allison—or Vladimir Nabokov, for that matter.
These complaints are only the latest in a long line of related charges against female writers and readers. Female novelists dominated the development of the novel in the U.S. through the 19th century, and when male authors wanted to distance themselves from what Nathaniel Hawthorne called the “horde of scribbling women,” they often did it by attacking the types of novels associated with women writers (mostly the sentimental novel, roughly the 19th-century equivalent of the chick flick). Regionalist fiction, a form popularized mainly by women at the turn of the century, was dismissed by later literary critics on grounds similar to the Oprah “socio-fiction”—namely, the joint charges of autobiographical self-indulgence and raw nonfictional description. Because regionalist fiction usually relied on the writer’s first-hand knowledge of a picturesque locale, it got written off as a kind of artless transcription of personal history—as if all a person needed to write a good story was a quaint birthplace and a quill pen. Like women themselves, women’s fictional forms were considered sentimental, unskilled, and self-obsessed.
So were women writers bad because of the forms they developed, or were the forms bad because they were developed by women? In most cases, the proper answer to this chicken-and-egg question is “Yes.” Literary standards have been used to criticize the works of women writers at the same time that the stigma of femininity has been mirrored in the standards themselves. Femininity has historically meant being overly emotional and incapable of abstracting beyond your own personal experience. Not coincidentally, highbrow fiction eventually came to be seen as unsentimental, philosophical, and focused on the sweeping saga of Humanity-With-a-Capital-H. Intentional or not, literary categories came to reflect the same set of oppositions that were used to distinguish men and women: thinking vs. feeling, public vs. private, hard vs. soft. It’s no wonder that in the past months of Franzen hoo-ha, many critics found themselves using the term “middlebrow” to describe Oprah’s book choices. By the time the “middlebrow” category was fully formed in the 1950s, it was practically a synonym for middle-class femininity: Like stay-at-home ladies of leisure, middlebrow art was full of feeling, genteel, and even polished, but not intellectual or challenging.
In fact, as Franzen himself pointed out when he admitted that Oprah had picked “some good books,” the Oprah list is neither as middlebrow as its detractors would have it, nor as unfailingly invested in bringing quality to the mainstream as its supporters often claim. Despite the widespread perception of Oprah books as spoon-fed schmaltz, many of the novels Oprah has chosen— like Edwidge Danticat’s Breath Eyes Memory and Joyce Carol Oates’s When We Were Mulvaneys—invite the same sort of thoughtful reading Franzen seemed to desire from his audience. But because it draws unapologetically on one person’s taste, the Oprah list doesn’t reflect a consistent standard of literary merit. Rather, it records exactly the sort of meandering path many habitual readers take through the landscape of the literary, dipping into the comfort of Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road one day and stretching to accommodate the difficulty of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye the next. And just because the same person reads both Binchy and Morrison doesn’t mean she reads them both for the same reason or suffers from any confusion about their relative merits. Just as the presence of male writers on Oprah’s list often gets erased, many critics ignored these quality variations as well, lumping her choices into the general category of what one commentator called “earnest, womanly fiction.” As the pejorative use of the word “womanly” suggests, these generalizations rely on assumptions about literary quality that are close at hand—namely, the longstanding association of female writers, “feminine” forms, and middlebrow status.
The favorable response to The Corrections shows that this conflation of femininity with the middlebrow has a longer shelf life than even standard sexism against women writers. In a New York Times Magazine article about The Corrections, Emily Eakin described the contemporary literary field as being split between “brainy postmodernists” like “[Don] DeLillo and [William] Gaddis [who] dazzle the reader with trenchant riffs on contemporary life,” and “writers like Anne Tyler and Annie Proulx” who do the “women’s work” of “creating memorable characters.” No one, to my knowledge, has ever called Proulx or Tyler middlebrow—in fact, Proulx’s novel The Shipping News won the National Book Award in 1993—but clearly the old thinking vs. feeling opposition has some play here. Given that The Corrections also won the National Book Award, it could be argued that the both books meet a certain standard of achievement set by the literary establishment. But as Eakin makes clear, gendered distinctions are common even among novelists of undisputed quality. Franzen and his ilk get points for the intellectual exercise of dissecting contemporary culture, while Proulx, however distinguished, is credited with the emotional sensitivity required to create complex characters; for critics like Eakin, it seems, Franzen is from Mars and Proulx is from Venus. And while the Magazine article does fault male postmodern novelists for not creating compelling characters like many women writers do, any critic who feels comfortable making intellectual work and “women’s work” mutually exclusive categories has made her value judgments pretty clear.
Not that the Eakin is wrong that much of contemporary fiction can be divided along gender lines. From Julia Alvarez to Jamaica Kincaid to Jane Smiley, many well-respected contemporary female novelists do in fact write about the emotional lives of their characters, usually as they occur within family situations. Often, these novels look backward in time toward a traumatic moment in the family’s history, creating a kind of mystery around the trauma involved; some of them present different chapters from the point of view of different family members. Many of the Oprah selections, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, Christina Schwarz’s Drowning Ruth, and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, fall roughly into this camp. On the men’s side, some of the most well-respected male novelists, including Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, and Don DeLillo, have made their names through postmodern extravaganzas that sidestep character development in favor of madcap romps through contemporary culture. Much of the gushing praise awarded The Corrections had to do with the way it managed to weave these two strands together: It’s a brainy, madcap family saga told from the perspective of various family members that circles back toward a traumatic past while commenting on contemporary culture!
There’s nothing wrong with identifying these two camps or even with pointing out that Oprah has a strong preference for one of them. The real problem is the way a hierarchy often gets made out of these camps. Some topics are more equal than others, and statements about The American Character or The Way We Live Today or even high-school English standbys like Man Against Nature are understood to take more thought, more energy, more sheer intelligence than a little story of little lives. No matter how beautiful and skillful your story about one family, it will not be seen as intellectually rigorous (read: highbrow) unless it goes beyond the particular into the universal: Size does matter, and bigger is better. Every time critics used the word “sweeping” to compliment The Corrections, they exposed their investments in this size contest. For many critics, Franzen’s incorporation of the family-saga form became simply another example of his amazing breadth—his novel was so sweeping, it could even sweep up something opposed to itself.
But an investment in size ignores the way that most novels make their arguments in miniature. Just because a novel doesn’t take on both chemical depression and Lithuanian dot-coms—as The Corrections does—doesn’t mean it lacks a larger focus. From Madame Bovary to Beloved, novels argue far-reaching philosophical issues through the particular family stories they tell. But, as Franzen himself has made clear, this is where tidy stereotypes about gender and literary standards come in handy. In a 1996 article in Harpers called “Perchance to Dream,” Franzen pondered at length the demise of the “social novel” that attempts to comment on the culture at large. For Franzen, “the rise of identity-based fiction has coincided with the American novel’s retreat from the mainstream.” But rather than imagining that the culture at large has been expanded by such “identity-based” or minority fiction, Franzen quotes with approval fellow author David Foster Wallace’s statement that “Tribal writers can feel anger and identify themselves with their subculture and write to and for their subculture about how the mainstream culture’s alienated them. White males are the mainstream culture. So why shouldn’t we [white males] write at and against the culture?” In Wallace’s view, even if “tribal” writers write about the culture at large, they only write “to and for their subculture”; that leaves the job of engaging with the “mainstream” audience to the white men to whom that culture belongs. By this circular logic, then, even the incredible popularity of “tribal” novels like The Joy Luck Club doesn’t grant those novels mainstream status, since in Wallace’s analysis only books pitched to and read by a white male audience are absolved of being special-interest.
Seen in this light, Franzen’s adoption of the family-saga novel is disturbing, to say the least. The problem isn’t Franzen’s use of some inescapably “tribal” form, or even his attempt to merge that form with the novel of sweeping social commentary—after all, borrowing, merging, and morphing forms has been the name of the game since the novel’s birth in the 1600s. But Franzen has managed to borrow a supposedly inferior form while using its inferior status to write off his competitors. Though women and minority writers have pretty much cornered the market on the family- saga novel for the last 20 years or so, Franzen seems to believe that the “tribal” character of their stories means they haven’t really commented on culture at large—large, of course, being the key word. According to Franzen’s Harper’s piece, The Joy Luck Club, for example, is simply about “fictional daughters listening to their Chinese mothers” —a family story whose “darkness is not a political darkness.” (That the novel uses these mother-daughter conversations to represent larger political issues of exile and assimilation doesn’t seem to register, but then I guess assimilation isn’t a white male issue anyway.) Having worked through this train of thought, Franzen recounts how he saved his third novel, the manuscript that would become The Corrections, by realizing that the family story he wanted to tell would necessarily make the social arguments he desired, since the characters would inevitably represent larger cultural currents. In other words, by dint of his “mainstream” status, Franzen was able to spend a 20-page article reinventing the same wheel “tribal” writers had been using, all the while arguing that theirs wasn’t really a wheel anyway.
But the media circus surrounding The Corrections shows that Franzen didn’t come up with this stuff on his own. The Woman Writer + Family Story = Popular Yet Limited equation Franzen set up in his article—and that he covertly depended on when differentiating his “high literary tradition” self from supposedly middlebrow Oprah picks—only reflected the way that many people already thought about literature. And, because his equation had a life of its own in contemporary culture, Franzen couldn’t make it serve him in quite the same tidy way it did in the Harper’s article. On the one hand, the equation of women writers, women readers, and the family-saga novel meant that Franzen got extra credit from reviewers for writing against type, for taking up a form usually used by women and making it his own. On the other hand, Franzen couldn’t totally shake the stigma of women’s lit that was also attached to the form, despite his injection of snappy cultural critique. Rather than bypassing his novel like the high-art brainteaser Franzen seemed to hope it was, Oprah and her fans recognized in it a genre they liked and read blithely on. By the time his anti-Oprah remarks were made, Franzen seemed condemned to drag all the associations of “tribal” fiction behind him like a wedding car dragging its cans: the Oprah selection, the doting suburban readers at Barnes & Noble book signings, the questions about whether his novel was autobiographical—in short, the whole middlebrow shebang.
Many of Franzen’s comments about his “high-art” status and the like seemed designed to cut the thread of these rattling nuisances—or at least redirect our attention to the other, more masculine half of his book. Of course, Franzen might have felt better had he given Oprah and her readers a little more credit. But rather than taking comfort from the “good books” he himself admitted were already on the Oprah list, Franzen acted as if the presence of “schmaltzy” books contaminated the entire venture, as if cultural products must necessarily occupy either one camp or the other. One of the most striking aspects of the anti-Oprah remarks Franzen made on “Fresh Air” was his apparent belief that there was no possible overlap between Terry Gross’s audience and Oprah’s—as if “Fresh Air” was a secret forum unknown to daytime TV viewers. Given that Franzen let himself in for a host of middlebrow, “tribal” associations by merging boy-pomo and girl-family-saga forms, it’s perhaps no surprise that he seemed to want nothing more than to pry those worlds back apart, to retreat to a zone where clear divisions between high and low were intact.
To a large extent, he seems to have succeeded. While he was roundly denounced for snobbery and sexism in the popular press, these charges haven’t prevented him from winning the National Book Award or publishing in the New Yorker, two fairly reliable indices of literary insider-dom. But, as the initial reviews of The Corrections made clear, Franzen’s novel garnered so much attention partially because of the very mergers he in the end seemed determined to reject. The battle over where Franzen’s book belonged—with highbrow intellectual romps or middlebrow chick-lit—happened largely because the current literary landscape had no place prepared for such a hybrid form. The very instability of the alliance between Franzen and Oprah suggests that, in a literary field organized by gendered oppositions, The Corrections didn’t create a middle ground but instead teetered precariously on the boundary between one camp and the other. All it took was Franzen’s own ambivalence about the merger to destroy that balance, leaving the two camps as apparently divided as they were before.
In this drama, though, we may have witnessed the rare view of a cresting wave, a moment when the stability of cultural forms peaks and begins to break down. Maybe The Corrections’ half-breed status is evidence that the literary opposition between highbrow cultural commentary and middlebrow character drama is no longer ironclad; certainly the book itself suggests that there are plenty of readers who are ready and willing to embrace that possibility. But the Franzen story also shows that, whatever form the new literary hierarchy takes, it will likely still rely on gendered assumptions to separate the good, the bad, and the ugly. This time around, Franzen couldn’t quite ditch the middlebrow baggage that came with the family-saga form. But if the tide is really changing, it may soon be possible to borrow that form but leave its baggage behind. If gendered literary standards persist, the family saga novel may be reborn as a highbrow form, while the women’s literary culture that developed it remains as stigmatized as ever. And for that reason if nothing else, we should be watching the tides.
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