Day Sixty-Seven: In Defense of Franzen (sort of) and On Critics Generally

This afternoon I plan to finally start that book I’ve been talking about, as I’ve planned to do many times, and almost did last night, but instead watched what might be the worst movie I’ve ever seen with HW.  We watched Aloha, which only had 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, but how could it be bad? Or at least, how could it be that bad? Alec Baldwin, Bradley Cooper, Bill Murray, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone.  There is no way a movie with those names could be terrible, right?  Wrong.

I am not a movie critic.  Far from it.  I will basically watch anything, and once I start a movie, even if the first few minutes are bad, even if I know it will give me nightmares, I have to finish it.  And as I’ve said, I don’t watch many movies, and while many of my friends and acquaintances are movie experts, I don’t pretend to know anything about that particular art form.  I don’t even know who most of the actors and actresses are, and despite my love of certain kinds of reality television, I know nothing about the personal lives of real celebrities.

With all of that said, this movie was not well made, in any sense.  Even I know that much.  The story didn’t really make sense, the acting was weird (not necessarily bad, just sort of off), it was sentimental in an unflattering way, and even the filming, which was done in Hawaii, managed to make the backdrop unappealing.  It was all very strange, and not in a good way.  I’m sure there are better, more descriptive words than weird, odd, and strange, but none seem more suitable in this case.

Other than that it was a good night.  HW and I relaxed and watched the Weather Channel to make sure they didn’t change their mind about what to expect over the next few days (they haven’t, Erika is no longer a threat), and I had a nice glass of lemon water before bed.

Since there will be no hurricane this time around (for which I am thankful), we decided to let the kids break out their new flashlights and run around with the lights off and the blinds closed and build forts.  We thought this way the next time we talk about the possibility of a hurricane, while it still might sounds scary, and will be something we take seriously, they will also have something to look forward to.  It made for a nice little Sunday.

I also took the time to read an article in New York Magazine about Jonathan Franzen.  I read Freedom a few years ago, and owned a copy of The Corrections, but I have not read his other books.  I did not know anything about his personal life or background, though I would have guessed he was raised in the midwest.  The article was relatively informative.  I didn’t know about his apparently famous refusal to work with Oprah or anything surrounding that, and I didn’t who Jennifer Weiner was.

I have not read his new book, Purity, and the truth is, even if I thought it was going to be the most amazing book published in the last twenty years, it would probably take me a full year to get around to it.  Since I do not think that is likely to be the case, I imagine I will finally order a copy in late 2016 and actually read it sometime in 2018.  Just a guess.

Even so, I will, at some point, read it.  I may even go back and read The Corrections one day.

I’ve heard it said that those who can’t do, criticize (or teach), and I think there is probably something to that.  I am not a great fiction writer.  My biggest problem, if that hasn’t been made clear these past 67 days, is knowing when to end something,* but there are other challenges.  My writing, especially in fiction, tends to wander in a way that makes it difficult to hold attention (probably also why I was never a great legal writer, despite having literally taught the class).  I do enjoy writing fiction, although I haven’t done so in many years, and I enjoy reading it even more.  I realize that doesn’t exactly make me an expert, but I have some thoughts.

The New York Magazine article makes some good points about Franzen’s writing.  I especially appreciated the point about Franzen’s odd choice of personal causes, and of his apparent desire to please his audience.  As the author put it, he perfected a method of “absorbing a decade’s reading of the New York Times and listening to NPR and then dramatizing it in the story of a family that all too perfectly embodied imagined readers of the New York Times and NPR. The love between Franzen and his readers is also the love of the mirror image filtered through the prism of the nation’s upmarket media.”  Yes.

I thought the author’s criticism of Freedom, at least, which is the only criticism I can fairly evaluate, was very good, but missed one important thing.  Maybe discussing Franzen’s issues with Weiner was close enough for this author, but it seems worth mentioning separately.

Franzen can’t write women. Or rather, if Freedom was Franzen’s best attempt at writing women, it was not well done.

His female characters, in my opinion, were mostly flat, and it felt like, to me, he knew that on some level, and attempted to fight it by making the characters do things that were un-flat.  Unfortunately, a flat female character who does unexpected or even outrageous things is still a flat character, and in fact a flat character is not really capable of doing unexpected things, because it is difficult to have real expectations of a person who is not relatable or realistic.  I’m sure people more qualified than I have already written about this, but that is my impression, as a normal person who enjoys books when she can find time to read them.

Whether or not that’s a fair criticism is open for debate.  He is, after all, a man.  How should he know how to write women?  Well, women are certainly expected to be able to write men, and most of them, even women who are not considered great writers, do so as well as most men.  Granted, women arguably have more opportunities to learn how to write men, and women are, I think, forced to understand men in a way men are not forced to understand women.  For women, understanding men is necessary for success in any sense, on many levels, both in and out of the world of fiction.**

The New York Magazine article did cover my other big criticism, which is the weird insertion of political causes in the middle of what is supposed to be a novel about real people.  I’m not saying political causes have no place in a novel, but some of the insertions felt natural, and flowed, and that was fine, while others felt forced, like he had to include just one more piece of evidence that he is part of the refined elite who agree on a certain set of principles, which makes a lot more sense now that I know he grew up in the midwest and went to a fancy college on the east coast.***

Still, setting those two things aside, I enjoyed Freedom very much.  I think it successfully gives one at least the excuse to pause and look around, if one is open to doing so, and it invites a certain amount of introspection, probably for men and women both.  I am not a real critic, so I am not embarrassed to simply say, there is just something about his writing that is very good.  He has a gift, and although not perfect, it is worthy of appreciating.  I hope he got out of his own way in Purity, and maybe spent some time with people outside of his inner circle of elite liberals, ideally with some real women.

*Yes, I think that is true of my life in general.

**Discussing this further would only end with my name on some crazy mens’ rights list, so I’ll leave it there for now.

***One of the first comments on the Facebook posting of this same article accused him of being a narcissist, which is an unfair accusation to make without some real knowledge, of course, but it would seem to make sense.  Another referred to him as a p***.  That also somehow seemed unsurprising.


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