A New York literary friend of mine warned me about the new New Yorker – warned me that it contained an essay on Edith Wharton by one of my living literary nemeses, Jonathan Franzen. We chuckled it off, that New York literary friend and I (in fact – naturally bouncy hair, permanent fussiness, gorgeous literary chops, penchant for crinoline – that New York literary friend might have been Edith Wharton), but I knew I might be in for some irritation in a few weeks when my copy of the issue in question – already out on newsstands everywhere in the world, but alas, I’m a subscriber – arrived.
And yet, even with preparation, I was appalled.
It wasn’t just Franzen’s pseudo-professorial leather-elbow-patch “let us now consider” air of arrogance, either, although you know you’re going to get plenty of that in a piece that begins, “The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.” It’s pretty bad, although it’s typical of Franzen to open right off with a carefully-coded lie, since what he’s really saying here is, “The wiser I get, the more enjoyment I get, however sour, in equating my knowledge of an author’s biography with my understanding of that author’s work – ooops, I mean oeuvre.” He tells us, “that I persist in disliking the posturing young Steinbeck who wrote Tortilla Flat while loving the later Steinbeck who fought back personal and career entropy and produced East of Eden,” implying, I guess, that he could divine any of those personal bits from the books themselves, instead of from reading Jackson Benson’s great biography like plain folks.
That would all be bad enough, perhaps strung out for 1000 words and given a sufficiently pretentious title (“Our Writers, Our Selves,” etc.), but it gets much worse, because Wise Old Franzen then turns his attention to Edith Wharton on the occasion of her 150th birthday. He’s concerned, you see, that she’s so poorly known, so little revered – he wants to ‘recelebrate’ The House of Mirth, ‘re-evaluate’ The Age of Innocence, and call some ‘much merited attention’ to The Custom of the Country, and he wants to do all this despite the fact that Edith Wharton herself is so unsympathetic (no idea which enormous biography brought him to that conclusion). It’s like the point in all those horror movies when the vacationing college students in their jeep decide to take a detour on a back country road; the instant Franzen invokes “the problem of sympathy,” the reader is wearily certain the entire piece is going to end up someplace dark and misbegotten.
And it’s not that Franzen opens by intoning, “No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did,” although that, too, would be bad enough. No, the real horror of this piece is the fact that Franzen only needs four paragraphs to get to what’s really on his mind: Edith Wharton wasn’t hot. See, Franzen’s idea is that we like to root for our authors, and that process is facilitated by every flaw the author has. Edith Wharton “wasn’t pretty,” and so, according to Franzen, she spent the rest of her writing life exorcising her shame and anger over that fact in her fiction. Franzen can actually look at a book like The House of Mirth and then write something like this: “The novel can be read as a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be.”
I know we don’t hire Jonathan Franzen to be a great literary critic. We hire him to be a bloatedly overrated literary sexist (the death of Norman Mailer left the position open). But even so, it would never have occurred to Franzen in a million years to get four paragraphs into a piece about F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway and then start talking about how physically attractive they were – and even if he tried it, no New Yorker editor would have allowed it to see print. I don’t expect miracles of discretion from today’s crop of literary critics, and I myself have been known to comment caustically on the strident fight-picking of today’s next-wave feminism (one such feminist once castigated me for not including any female writers on a list of bad writers I’d made – a sure sign that with many – perhaps most? – feminists, such fight-picking has become a completely autonomous reflex, like hiccuping). But good Gawd – that a blowhard like Franzen can use a national pulpit like the New Yorker to say some female writer would have been happier if she’d just been better-looking is insulting enough, but for that writer to be Edith Wharton? Whose three great novels (works which were in no need whatsoever of being re-anything’d by Jonathan Franzen) put her in a rank of literature’s pantheon Franzen himself will never even glimpse much less enter?
I’d make some quip about how Shakespeare might be in danger next, about how Franzen might re-visit the Bard’s work to show us how it’s all about premature balding, except that would never happen – because Shakespeare was (we think!) a man. No, the next likely victim might be Virginia Woolf, at 130 this year: Franzen no doubt has pearls of wisdom generating on how much of her oeuvre is decoded by the fact that she was a little on the stringy side. Yeesh.
Fortunately, no New Yorker is ever completely without its compensations, and when the mail-cart, its horses thickly splattered with mud, finally delivered my copy, there it was: Anthony Lane on the ghost stories of M. R. James, a perfect match of silken sensibility and reverence for well-turned English. Lane is predictably excellent on the surreptitious quality in James’ horror stories:
The beast [in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book"] is the incarnation of a figure in one of the scrapbook’s illustrations – a sepia drawing from the close of the seventeenth century. In other words, what James does here, as elsewhere, is to summon unholy terror from the very texts and objects that concern him. Not for James the mad gothic landscape, dwarfed by high cliffs and primed with pre-emptive weirdness; for where would the shock be if a monster were skulking there?
Ah, the sweetness of it. And not a mention of James’ double chin, or his lisp.