Maybe it was his initial dismissal of Oprah's Book Club. Or perhaps it was his claims that "Twitter is the ultimate irresponsible medium." The Time magazine cover with the slogan "Great American Novelist" probably did not help neither. And then there was Jennifer Weiner, who coined the phrase "Franzenfreude" to lament her disdain for the amount of coverage his novel Freedom was receiving, when, according to her, female writers covering similar topics were not receiving the same critical praise. When asked about Weiner's comments in interviews, Franzen cemented his apparent claim to the throne as the most polarizing American writer, and for some, the one who carries the torch for all privileged, middle-aged, white male writers.
And five years later, the "feud" between Weiner and Franzen is ongoing. The problem with this literary feud is that it is terribly one-sided. Over the years, Franzen has stated that he pays no attention to Jennifer Weiner even though Weiner herself seems to worry about Franzen to an almost obsessive degree, even referring to him as the "worst internet boyfriend ever." Here is the problem with Weiner's argument that has flamed up again in reaction to Franzen's recent interview in Guardian to promote his new novel, Purity.
In response to Weiner, Franzen has stated that "The categories by which we value fiction are skewed male, and this creates a very destructive disconnect between the critical establishment and the predominantly female readership of novels. That's inarguable." He makes a good point here, and it is something that the publishing industry needs to improve on, but he has an opinion on who should lend their voices to this problem.
Jennifer Weiner has frequently expressed her concerns of this gender bias in the literary community. She has advocated that female literary writers deserve the level of attention that writers like Franzen receive to which Franzen agrees. Weiner proceeded to give herself the role of "spokeswoman" for change because she is not a writer of literary fiction and has "less stake in the literary community." Franzen's response, "That's unfortunate, because it's an important issue and she's an unfortunate person to have as a spokesperson." He does not use social media and does not actively seek attention. These sorts of statements are always in response to interview questions. He also frequently praises female writers in venues such as The New Yorker.
The "unfortunate spokesperson" Jennifer Weiner is a writer of genre fiction who falls into the unofficial category of "Chick Lit." Her debut novel was titled Good in Bed. Her subsequent books include the likes of The Guy Not Taken, Certain Girls and Best Friends Forever. A writer of beach reads filled with superficial plots, her characters are paper thin with rehashed attributes that make them indistinguishable from many other protagonists in novels of the same genre.
Weiner has stated that there is gender bias in The New York Times when it comes to choosing books for review. Franzen would agree but also states that there is "no case where formulaic fiction ought to be reviewed in The New York Times." Weiner mentions that they review books by Dan Brown and John Grisham to prove her claim about gender bias. Franzen would tell you that Brown and Grisham do not belong there either. However, there is a difference between books like Best Friends Forever and The Da Vinci Code. Weiner's books are written for a subset of women readers. Grisham and Brown are read by male and female readers because they are not "male" books, they are unisex. I have worked in both a bookstore and a library and can attest that there are almost as many females reading Brown and Grisham as there are males. Books by these popular writers do not get the same space on their pages as others as they are more so there for readers to pick their next "light" read in-between their consumption of serious literature. The goal of The New York Times is to review books that are appealing to their whole audience and men are not likely to read Weiner, and women who read Dan Brown are more than likely not interested in reading Weiner's books either. They mostly cover "literary fiction" which appeals to both male and female readers. In recent years they have reviewed books by Zadie Smith, Marisha Pessl, Jennifer Egan, Nicole Krauss, Kate Atkinson, and many more fantastic female writers. Chances are if you ask any of these writers if they are a fan of Jennifer Weiner, they will read a synopsis of one of her books and shake their heads.
Men read all of the aforementioned female writers just as female readers read Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon and Joshua Ferris. Admittedly, more female writers should be covered in The New York Times, but just as Franzen has stated, Jennifer Weiner is not a suitable spokesperson. Here's why: In order to persuade men to pay attention to more female writers, they need to be swayed by fiction that is of interest to them. If Jennifer Weiner is the one who brings this to attention, the first thing that openminded man will do is look at her work. Upon finding Good in Bed, they will become close-minded again, because if all female fiction is solely targeted at certain women then why would a man want to spend his precious time reading that? Of course there are an abundance of great female writers that would appeal to men if they were given proper coverage, but bringing Jennifer Weiner to the forefront of their minds is quite "unfortunate" indeed.
Franzen is not a difficult writer of fiction. In fact, like genre fiction, his books are plot driven narratives. The difference is that Franzen's prose is arguably flawless and the themes that he writes about are of interest to both men and women. His characters, both male and female, are layered, realistic, well drawn out individuals that fly off the page. Jennifer Weiner is not a difficult writer of fiction either. Her prose is competent, but categorically repetitive. Unlike Franzen, her female characters are written to appeal only to a female audience, and her male characters possess the qualities of the unrealistic expectation of the "ideal man." Her plots are part of the nauseating brand of fictional tropes that is frequently used by Nicholas Sparks. And just like Weiner, Sparks should not have a place in The New York Times. Popcorn romance fiction appeals to a specific audience of female readers, whereas books by males like Jonathan Franzen and females like Emma Donoghue have broad appeal.
Over the past five years of best of the year lists from The New York Times, fourteen of the twenty-five novels honored were written by female authors. There is still a gender bias in the overall number of reviews, but when choosing the best, the de facto publication of reviews has favored books written by women. Each of those fourteen novels are excellent in their own right and, worth noting, are not solely written for a specific portion of female readers.
There are many female readers who despise the type of fiction that Weiner writes for its romanticized, unrealistic depiction of women and glorified notions about me, and then there are a large amount of women who enjoy her fiction. At the same time, readers of Weiner are unlikely to read serious books by the female writers listed above, or have even heard of them. The same goes for men who only read James Patterson and their likely knowledge of Richard Powers, Martin Amis, and yes, Jonathan Franzen.
We give Franzen a tremendous amount of attention, and before we discussed him for being polarizing, he earned his presence in the literary canon by writing two of the best novels of the 21st century. No Jennifer Weiner, you do not deserve to be reviewed by The New York Times. As Franzen has said, she is "freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias" to shamelessly promote her own banal fiction. While her and other lesser writers such as Jodi Picoult bemoan his success and the female characters in his novels, Weiner's questionable depiction of both males and females in her work is seldom discussed, but paper thin characters do not lend themselves well to intelligent dialogues. Franzen's characters come to life which is why his work receives so much attention, is debated endlessly, and is considered to be some of America's finest. In a world where serious fiction continues to decline in readership, there should be no complaints about a publication like The New York Times; they should continue to keep their doors closed to the type of fiction that Jennifer Weiner writes and expand their coverage of superb female writers.