Last Friday, whilst checking my Twitter account I suddenly noticed that Jonathan Franzen was ‘trending’. Jonathan Franzen!?! ‘America’s Great Novelist’ as declared on the front cover of Time magazine, the author famously known to eschew social media, the man who didn’t want an Oprah Book Club sticker on his novel because it would turn men off, was trending? While I knew him to have great popular appeal, I could not imagine him sparking enough response as to trend on Twitter.
The reason Franzen was trending turned out to be an interview with Susan Lerner that had just been posted by Booth Literary Journal. Or rather, exerts from this interview were being re-delivered on Salon and Jezebel under the respective titles ‘Jonathan Franzen on Jennifer Weiner: ‘She’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias’’ and ‘Jonathan Franzen Accuses Jennifer Weiner of ‘Freeloading’ on Sexism’.
I had no idea who Jennifer Weiner was, but that was because I have been living in a cave for the last four years due to first and second-time motherhood. Turns out she is a commercial fiction writer with a number of #1 New York Times bestsellers, including Good In Bed, Best Friends Forever and The Guy Not Taken. Franzen used her as an example in The Kraus Project when, lamenting Amazon’s power, he wrote that ‘literary novelists might be conscripted into Jennifer Weinerish self-promotion’.
In this latest interview he, once again, discussed the issue of literature versus social media, declaring:
I certainly question the model of social media as the way that books are promoted and information about books is disseminated, because the essence of the model is self-promotion and I don’t think nonstop self-promotion is a good head for a working writer to be in. I think it’s a really badly suited model of literary culture, social media. Writers are alone. They work alone. They communicate through the finished page. It’s gruesome to force them to self-promote on a gregarious medium. It goes against everything I know and understand about really good fiction writers. It’s a terrible match.
Essentially, I agree with Franzen. Writing is a solitary act and grappling with plot, character, narrative truth and all the other elements which make up a novel requires a headspace not easily reconciled with the busyness and click responsiveness of the digital world. But what is more interesting than the Franzen-versus-social media contest is the way in which the issue has become tied up with the notion of female under-representation in the publishing world.
Weiner has claimed Franzen’s anti-social media stance comes from his privilege as a member of the male literati. Franzen, in the interview with Lerner, directly dismissed Weiner by saying she ‘just tweets’ rather than engaging with the issue in any long-form way. However, she has, in fact, written quite a few articles about the ways that Franzen’s dismissal of the internet is a gendered response. In answering this latest salvo from Franzen, Weiner countered:
I’d argue that Twitter is a lovely and appropriate medium for voices that have traditionally been shouted down, shut out or ignored by the places that court the Franzens of the world. There’s a long history – maybe Franzen doesn’t know it? – of women using the materials at hand, whatever’s available to them to make art or make a case. I’d argue that feminist Twitter, women writers advocating for their work, one hundred and forty characters at a time, is a part of that history.
But is Twitter really a feminist tool? For Weiner, who has 106,000 followers, and although she seems to spend most of her time tweeting about The Bachelor, I am sure her 140 characters feel influential. For those of us who don’t have a bestseller behind us, it feels like just another shout into the internet abyss.
While I take Weiner’s point that female genre writing is often not taken as seriously as male genre writing, and hence, there is a need to utilise social media more vigorously, I would campaign for no reviewing of genre writing in serious literary publications. We need to maintain some space for serious, long-form engagement with ambiguous, challenging, weird and experimental work by both women and men as well as those who don’t identify as either. Franzen’s argument, however imperfectly delivered, that reviews of formulaic writing do not belong in The New Yorker and The New York Times is quite valid.
There will be those who critique this line of argument as elite. But, the loss of review space in traditional media effects both male and female writers of literature. Whether its replacement by reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Booktopia and the thousands of personal blogs, opens up more opportunities for female writers than male is highly debatable.
Yes, there should be The Stella Count and its equivalent VIDA, a group of women writers in America who tally the gender disparity in major literary publications. Only by making publishing accountable can we aim for true equality. But, as one of the commentators on a previous online piece I wrote said ‘we need to compare apples with apples’.
Literary writing and writers are different from genre writers despite the fact that there are plenty of writers who crossover. Literary work is generally more ambiguous, not so easily ‘marketed’ and in danger of drowning if it cannot get access to literary journals. Jonathan Franzen might not need Twitter, but Jennifer Weiner does not really need The New York Times.
Rather than rushing to dismiss Franzen as a misogynist and holding up Weiner as a valiant defender of women’s voices, the more interesting discussion should centre on the continuing difficulty of writers, regardless of gender, caught between worlds: not able to distain social media but not suited – or, more realistically, without the time – to create and maintain an online identity.
When struggling to find a way to finance any kind of non-commercial writing endeavour, the pockets of time one grabs can easily be consumed by the apparent need to post, tweet and blog. We might not, as Franzen once claimed, have reached the point where publishers refuse your work if you don’t have a certain amount of Twitter followers, but there is no doubt that a social media ‘presence’ is taken into account, maybe not by the editors but, certainly, by the publicity department. There is room for Franzen’s concern that the internet is favouring a particular kind of personality, at the expense of those who do not want to go to what Weiner described as ‘the world’s best cocktail party’ (Twitter).