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Last month, a group of women between the ages of 25 and 35 got together in Los Angeles to talk about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. I was one of these women. I loved the idea of getting together to discuss a big book, one that people across the nation were also buying, and reading, and meeting to talk about. It felt like we were participating in a cultural moment–it was like getting a Cabbage Patch Kid in the 1980s. Plus, there would be snacks.
However, I did bring one quote, from Garth Risk Hallberg’s review on this very site. To start the meeting off, I read the quote aloud to the others:
It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.
“Who wrote that?” someone asked.
“What? You don’t think a man can write from a woman’s perspective?”
“Was the reviewer a man or a woman?”
“How does he know?”
“The question isn’t whether a man can write a woman’s perspective, but if Franzen can. Was he successful?”
The responses were mixed to this question. All of us felt Patty Berglund, midway through the novel at least, was a complicated and believable character, but a few of us–myself included–did not buy the conceit of her autobiography. It did not feel as if she had written it; arbitrarily capitalizing words does not render a perspective true! To me it felt half-assed, almost offensive. Why present these words as Patty’s, when they are really the author’s, barely concealing himself? It didn’t seem like a true investigation of a character’s world or her use of language to describe that world.
In both meetings, we came back to this question of whether or not Freedom is a masterpiece. Why was Jonathan Franzen, out of the many talented and important authors, the anointed one? We all agreed it was pretty great to see a writer on the cover of TIME, but was he truly “the great American novelist”? He is both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, and few can claim that mysterious combination these days. We were saddened, or sobered, by the fact that a woman, at least in the present day, would not be given that title. Everyone agreed with that.