Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Franzenfreude

Ages and ages ago, in my endorsement of Secondhand World, I promised I'd eventually try and talk about the whole "Franzenfreude" subject, especially now that enough time has passed since the accusations were going around on Freedom's publication that there's been some other really good journalism on the subject... that I can steal. Then, the author of Secondhand World mentioned personally that she'd love to see that article,so I really should. But then the chair of my department bought me a beer and the head of the Honors department bought me another beer (which is a good bit classier than that time we were hanging out and I was drinking absinthe out of a Pepsi bottle), so I have an excuse for my perpetual forgetting-to-write-this-post.
Your move, Bukowski.
Fanzenfreude is the (technically incorrect, if you care about German) term that got created when everyone was heaping laurels on Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as the new Great American Novel. It mainly refers to the way that women writers are treated in publishing and the literary world, and is your basic de Beauvoir-style second sex treatment: male writers are Writers, women are Women Writers. Not only is there an assumption that the Great American Novel will be written by a man, but, specifically, there's the fact that Franzen's novel is one of domestic drama, aesthetics, nature, and marriage. When a woman writes about these subjects, her books are about domestic life, love, and the human condition. When Franzen does, his books are about America.
Gonna kick some butt, gonna drive a big truck.
One of the best articles on the subject comes from (of course) The Guardian's book page( well, originally from The Millions, but The Guardian's edited version gets to the gender point more cleanly), in their article "How to turn a great American novel into a Great one". One of the points that the author makes (in part unintentionally) is that the things we look for in "great" novels are the things that we also expect from and encourage in male writers: daring, braggadocio, ironic detachment, brutal honesty. And when a man writes a book those things are what we look for: publishers and readers expect "masculine" writing and so they expect these traits.

Let's look, for example, at the collection of poetry on my bedside table, Jean Valentine's Break the Glass. The publisher copy and blurbs describe it as "quiet" (Publisher's Weekly) "graceful" (Library Journal), and The New Yorker praises Valentine for moving away from "the confessional poets who influenced her earliest verses" and writing more "skeletal...terse fragments."

Meanwhile, the other poetry collection I've been reading and adoring lately is the 2000 edition of Edwin Morgan's New Selected Poems. I love Morgan (more than Valentine, but let's put that aside for the time being), but reading Alex Salmond's eulogy for him from last year it's hard not to notice that he is praised for the scope and passion of his work, his long narrative explorations of death and violence, and his blunt honesty.

And yet Morgan wrote in "Strawberries" (to a male lover, no less):
"abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you"
And Valentine gave us the brutal, chilling opening of "Diana":
"The tab on the tea bag said
'Love what is ahead
by loving what came before.'
But what came before was no dream
you wake from, it was human sacrifice..."
We ignore the tenderness in Morgan and we ignore the shocking in Valentine and we do them both a disservice.

Edwin Morgan was important: he was the National poet of Scotland. New Selected Poems is implied by its back copy to be a sort of anthem, a symbol of Scottish independence and national pride, whereas Break The Glass is pitched by its copy as a warm, comforting book. Valentine has a National Book Award and a Pulitzer nomination but the "femininity" of her work guarantees that she's not going to make the cover of Time as a nationally important writer in the way that Franzen did.
Does anyone else get serious Dexter vibes from Franzen, or is that just me?
Men's books are books, women's books are women's books. To bring this back to where it started, I know for a fact from talking to the author that two of the biggest influences on Secondhand World are Yukio Mishima and James Baldwin, but the review selected for the back of the book compares it to three different minority women writers because it is a minority woman's story of the alienation and loneliness of adolescence-- never mind that, as a white man, there were moments in it that resonated with an incredible shock of familiarity with my own painful adolescence. Publishers-- and writers, and readers --make the mistake of assuming that men write more universal stories than women, that a writer's gender informs the tone of their voice, and that male readers can't really connect to a woman's writing.

Or, at its core, Franzenfreude is the fact that I can't think of a single woman who's been marketed as a Great Writer to a level that transcends the fact that she is a woman. I can't name a woman poet or novelist who is held up by "the establishment" as an artist before she is held up as a woman artist. We-- readers, writers, and publishers --are keeping women writers, ironically enough, in a room of their own instead of letting them enter a discourse with the literary world as a whole.

And to do that to Rodereda, Adrienne Rich, McCullers, Valentine, Sexton, Woolf, Octavia Butler, and Anna Akhmatova is a goddamn crime against art.

I was going to let Virgina Woolf tell you this, but... it just seemed more serious when I said it for some reason.
"You're a little shit, you know that Jasper?"

No comments:

Post a Comment