Jonathan Franzen has a way of making people mad. When his last novel, The Corrections, was picked by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, Franzen made it known that he was not comfortable with the populist honor — so Oprah withdrew the offer.
This time around a couple of best-selling female writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, have tweeted their disdain for what they see as critical fawning over Franzen's new novel, Freedom.
Weiner has even come up with a phrase to describe her feelings: Franzenfreude.
"Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain of others," Weiner says. "Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."
But her angst is not just about the book — or even about Franzen himself.
"It's about the establishment choosing one writer and writing about him again and again and again," Weiner says, "while they are ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books."
Weiner is known for writing "chick lit" — which she says is just a snappier way of saying "commercial women's fiction" — and though she's done very well with the genre, she knows it's not a critical favorite. But even "literary" novels written by women, Weiner says, do not get the same attention as a small group of men whose writing is taken very seriously by publications like the Times.
Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus acknowledges that the critical establishment takes certain kinds of books more seriously than others, but he insists there are no criteria used to decide what the Times will or will not review — the goal is to find books that will engage their readers and interest their reviewers.
"For us as editors, reviewers and critics, what we are really try[ing] to do is ... identify that fiction that really will endure," Tanenhaus says.
In his review of Freedom, Tanenhaus declared the novel "a masterpiece" and compared Franzen to such literary greats as Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. He says he believes Franzen deserves both the attention and the praise he is getting because he is that rare kind of writer who tells us something about "the secret life of the culture."
"The extraordinary interest in Franzen derives from this," Tanenhaus says. "He somehow seems to give you a panorama of the culture but also tap[s] into the deeper anxieties, tensions and questions that animate us today. There are very few writers at any time who ever do this."
Tanenhaus says his interest in Franzen does not reflect any gender bias at the Times. He can list many well-known female writers the Times has reviewed recently.
But Weiner has her own list — a list of male writers who she says are given a different kind of treatment in reviews.
"It's just interesting to sort of stack them up against a Lorrie Moore or against a Mona Simpson — who write books about families that are seen as excellent books about families," Weiner says. "And then to look at a Jonathan Franzen who writes a book about a family but we are told this is a book about America."
Jane Smiley, who is regularly reviewed in the Times, has been cited by Franzen as a source of inspiration; she admits to having a favorable opinion of the writer. Still, Smiley says she can understand why some female writers whose work is commercially successful but critically ignored would be frustrated.
"Chick lit is no longer chick lit," she says. "There's an aspect of fiction that is being written by women that is really smart, really daring, in terms of the subject matter that it takes on — and really popular. And I think it's being overlooked because it's so, so straightforward and because the payoff is emotional rather than intellectual."
In the end, Smiley says, critics don't choose the writers who will endure — readers do.
"And whether the media elite in New York know who's really anointed or not ... we'll never know," she says.
But if the readers are the ones who will decide, then it should be noted that most readers of fiction are — in fact — women.