The high praise for Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom has, predicably, created a corresponding backlash. The controversy is so intense it’s been given a name: Franzenfreude. The latest salvo comes from Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke, who wonders how much praise Freedom would have gotten if it were written by a woman. O’Rourke admits she’s conducting a thought experiment about the reception of the novel. (As for the novel itself, she writes, “I’m halfway through and find it artful and engaging.”)
She argues there’s an unconscious gender bias at work in contemorary literature. She argues that women have a more difficult time demanding the time and freedom to write because they face subtle discouragement. Also, gender bias effects public reception of books written by women. She cites a New York Times review of Heather McGowan’s Schooling, which uses stream-of-consciousness and other Joycean techniques to tell the story of a precocious girl who has an affair with a teacher. The reviewer felt that the subject matter wasn’t of sufficient importance to warrant the experimental technique. “By comparison [to Joyce’s Ulysses], the small, private story of Catrine Evans and Mr. Gilbert at the Monstead School has no greater reach. Where is the experiment in this experimental fiction?”
These kinds of speculative arguments are hard to refute or support. Yes, Zadie Smith covers much of the ground as Franzen, and Toni Morrison has a Nobel Prize, yet neither has been credited with writing the “Book of the Century” (The Guardian on Freedom). Still, Franzen’s novel arrives at a time when the novel is under assault from all directions, and it’s reassuring to talk about a novel that has captured every reader’s attention and, more importantly, offers evidence that the genre still has a significaant place in our culture, if only as an object under discussion in the public sphere.
Plus, if one wants to talk about gender issues in Freedom, there’s plenty to talk about beyond reviewers’ gender bias. I just finished the first section of the novel, “Mistakes Were Made.” Laura Miller was “especially charmed by the decision to make Patty a jock. Such characters are pretty rare in literary fiction, and Franzen gets so much out of this aspect of her life.” She also praises Franzen for his depiction of the “bizarre, overwrought female friendship that often blossoms during the college years.” As Miller and many others have pointed out, Freedom has an old-fashioned marriage plot, which, since the genre’s birth in the 1750s, has cut both ways gender-wise.
Whether you agree with her or not, O’Rourke raises legitimate questions about gender bias in the production and reception of literature. But what’s remarkable about Franzen’s novel is that it’s the first novel I’ve read in a very long time that actually lives up to the hype. I opened the book with some skepticism, but so far it’s pretty great. Book of the century? Of course not. But worth talking about for certain.