I read Jonathan Franzen's now notorious piece on Edith Wharton a few weeks ago, and I admit to not being immediately enraged. Mostly I was focused on his ideas about how authors create sympathy for characters, since this is a preoccupation of mine (and I taught a class on this topic a few years ago). Franzen suggests that characters who evoke our sympathy have some kind of strike against them, some recognizable handicap that they must overcome. He then pivots to the meta-suggestion that Edith Wharton's own handicap was her looks, I believe in order to engender our sympathy for her--a successful, talented, and privileged person of the sort we (Americans? women? who?) might otherwise tend to resent. The handicap notion is not new, but certainly worth considering as a way of understanding why readers root for certain characters. Maybe in reading fiction (and nonfiction, for that matter), we seek reassurance that we can overcome our own flaws as we make our way through our real lives. But that would be a "therapeutic" reading, of which more in a moment.
All that said, Victoria Patterson and others who've seized on this piece as yet another example of Franzen's sexism aren't wrong. I mentioned this very issue when describing my ambivalent but generally positive response to the treatment of Patty in Freedom. In Patty's autobiography particularly, I sensed Franzen struggling with his own handicap as a writer, which is his contempt for women. I think he realizes that this holds him back, and in a strategy that works on an interesting level, he represents his own contempt as Patty's self-loathing--thus creating sympathy for her, if only as the author's helpless tool. This is not to say Franzen only feels contempt for women; I think he wants not to feel it, and Freedom and the Wharton piece are both efforts to struggle with an aspect of himself that he doesn't like.
My, I am making assumptions about the author's personal life based on his writing, though. How about that? As it happens, this gets at the main point I wanted to make about this latest Franzen face-plant. For Franzen--and a very large number of other critics--fiction written by women is always read as "really" autobiographical. Not just women, but all non-straight-white-male authors, are subject to this treatment: critics read their novels sociologically, to find out what it is, or was, like to be them. This is fair and right in the case of memoir, but not in fiction. Why is it that Edith Wharton's novels are really about her own resentment of pretty women, whereas Franzen's novels--also about women and their families--are about The Human Condition? Why don't we read Freedom to understand Franzen's feelings about, I dunno, his divorce, his mom, his own looks? To be fair, in interviews he has alluded to events in his own life, suggesting they shape his fiction. The point is, that's true for every writer. To pretend that our biographies play no role in creating our art is ludicrous. However, I don't write fiction to tell people my personal problems. I think it's safe to say that we choose to write fiction in part to convert our experiences into something different, something that's no longer ours as such, but might pertain to a wide range of people, all of whom will interpret the story differently and make it their own. And if Franzen's fiction is about The Human Condition, then mine is, too.
I suspect (continuing my psychological analysis of Franzen, which, I should point out, I have no real business doing) that Franzen's real concern is that his own novels will be read as "personal" and not "universal." That they'll be seen as therapeutic documents and not as Art. Really, the more I think about Patty's autobiography--written explicitly as part of her psychotherapy--the more it seems like Franzen's own struggle with the whole concept of women as writers. Are they capable of creating Art that transcends their own neuroses, Art for Art's sake? Or will their writing always be tied to--and tied down by--their own unmanageable bodies and emotions? By encasing Patty's autobiography in his own larger Work of Art, Freedom, Franzen seems to suggest the latter.
This idea resonates with Franzen's famous spat with Oprah Winfrey years ago, which seemed to center on his not wanting female readers. Oprah does use books for therapy, and her audience is overwhelmingly female. But by choosing Franzen's The Corrections for her book club, she made the horrifying suggestion that his book could be used that way as well. Of course, they've since made up, and Oprah's book club read Freedom.
So let's just lay out the diagnosis. Franzen's condescension toward women writers represents his own fear of being a second-class artist. I have that same fear, although I would settle for second-class status at this point in my career...