Last week I dropped a flippant one-liner on Facebook about wanting to write a piece of novelist fan fic wherein Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial spectacle. People seemed to enjoy that comment, and someone told me I should write the story, and I did. Reveling in the silliness of the premise, I also tried to honor the sentiment behind my original comment. The actual beheading was more of a punchline than an event.
Immediately after posting it and sharing it on Facebook, I felt overwhelmed by a mix of pride and terror. My first action was to hurriedly comment that it was written in the style of The Hunger Games. This was not true at all, though the books had undoubtedly been on my mind. It was my way of simultaneously disavowing the violence of the story and beating to the punch all the imaginary readers in my head who would think it was derivative. Like lots of women, I have a habit of prefacing my words with the phrase “I’m sure this isn’t very original, but . . .” and punctuating them with an apology for excessive feeling.
So I’ve been thinking about why I wrote the story, and the uncomfortable amount of rage I’ve been feeling lately—as in, my whole life—about women. Or specifically, being a woman in a patriarchy, with all the constant threat of violence and ridicule and just being ignored that it entails.
It’s wonderful of the Grand Old Party to wage a war on women right now, in a way. It seems to have kicked a lot of Americans in the gut, not to mention the womb. Now no one can pretend that misogyny is dead, that women are truly treated as equals to men, that the goals of the women’s movement were achieved long ago in the fuzzy past. It’s a mystery to me how anyone who’s been alive through the last four presidential administrations, which is about how long I’ve been noticing presidential administrations, could think that in the first place. But now that no one can deny that men in high places are trying to reassert control over women’s bodies and silence their voices, I feel a strange relief at the thought that now the battle is actually on.
The skills I bring to this fight are reading and writing and critical thinking. I’m not an activist, to my shame, or a lawyer, thankfully for everyone, or a policy maker, except in my nightmares, or a documentarian, which sounds hard. As a reader, writer, and former grad student, I’m fixated on the softer misogynies that create the climate in which the overt misogyny can thrive. To my mind, the relationship between creative production and structural inequality—between stories and legislation—is no less troubling for being indirect. It’s just harder to quantify, because it happens in our off-hours, when we read and watch movies for pleasure, during our playtime, as it were.
Here’s a story about playtime. My niece and her twin brother just turned eight years old. At the age of three my niece started refusing to wear pink. At six, she demanded a boy’s haircut. Without knowing the complicated thoughts that take place inside her intelligent little brain, I can only imagine what would compel a girl who has a twin brother to make these choices. Could it be that she noticed, as soon as she was old enough to notice things, that boy stuff was just valued more than girl stuff? That she was encouraged to play with trains, maps, and other stereotypically boyish toys, which we progressively think of as “unisex”; but that boys were not encouraged to play with dolls, kitchen sets, and other stereotypically girly toys? Can she really have noticed at the age of three that things associated with girls were not considered worthy of little boys’ attention? In case you don’t think that’s likely, here’s another story: when she was four or five years old, she announced during play time that she didn’t want to be a princess, because princesses just sat around waiting to be rescued. She wanted to be a knight instead.
A recent trip to Disneyworld acquainted her with the consequences of this attitude. In a land of princesses, my niece was mistaken for a boy more than once. She can only have felt deeply ambivalent, or whatever the 7-year-old version of that looks like, when the waitress dressed as Cinderella came back around with an embarrassed smile on her face to offer her a fairy wand instead of the sword she had been “mistakenly” given at the door. It’s not always easy being a knight.
The stories we tell affect our cultural beliefs about women. And, to get to the point, so do the stories we tell about those stories.
Because even after they’re all grown up, boys still don’t want to play with girls’ toys, which is what Jonathan Franzen fatally expressed in that decade-old gaffe on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. (Well, fatally for the Jonathan Franzen in my story, anyway). Franzen starts off by acknowledging the well-supported fact that women are the primary readers of novels in America:
So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator . . . I continue to believe that . . .
It’s easy to misread this quote as Franzen denigrating a certain class of Americans. Elitist Author Knocks Beloved Talk Show, Calls Oprah Watchers Dumb. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the next sentence to be something about how great it is that someone is buying American novels at all, thereby keeping Franzen in tweed blazers. But in the next sentence, Franzen not only fails to acknowledge the value of his low-brow, Oprah-watching female audience, but actively reveals his craving for their low-brow, football-watching husbands:
. . . and now, I’m actually at the point with this book that I worry . . . I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores that said, “If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it.” Those are male readers speaking. So, I’m a little confused about the whole thing now.
Boys won’t play with girl’s toys, and this is “confusing” to Franzen. (It’s not confusing to me, but whatever.) He cites direct, anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon. He is careful to point out that this is male readers speaking, not him. He cites the evidence.
He doesn’t mention whether women approached him at these book signings, or what they said if they did. He expresses no interest in his potentially vast pool of female readers, in their potential reactions, in whether they will identify with his well-written female characters. He only expresses concern over the fact that their having bought the book will drive those men in line away. Not concern over the noxious sexism their comments revealed, but over the possibility of losing them altogether. The fact that women were reading Jonathan Franzen’s book wasn’t ever going to make them look more intelligent or perceptive. It made the book look like it was “for women,” and therefore unreadable by men. The role of female readers in this narrative can be summed up in one word: cockblockers.
In a really great 2001 interview in BOMB Magazine, Franzen told writer Donald Antrim that The Corrections was part of a general turn away from masculinist modes of fiction currently in fashion and toward the domestic fiction associated with—you guessed it—Edith Wharton. He said this to Donald Antrim, a highbrow postmodernist author who exemplified the style Franzen was rejecting. Franzen is a sensitive intellect despite that ludicrous Wharton article, and I believe he meant what he said. But that is what makes his other words, spoken in conversation with the most recognizable and respected female voice in National Public Radio, so disheartening. Somehow it’s always worse when a smart man says it. It’s more of a betrayal. It makes you feel so hopeless.
There are plenty of worse types of oppression for a woman than being told you’re not valuable as a reader of Jonathan Franzen. Like all women, I know women who’ve been raped by strangers and acquaintances, women who’ve been bullied and harassed at work and on the street, women who’ve been physically threatened on first dates and by live-in boyfriends, women who’ve been passed over for promotions or discovered their pay was not commensurate with their male peers. This is not any one man’s fault, and it certainly isn’t the fault of poor old Jonathan Franzen, who does not have an Oprah-like sphere of influence, no matter how many NPR interviews and New Yorker articles he botches.
But the crimes of misogyny are propped up by the culture of misogyny. And the culture of misogyny is perpetuated by literary fiction as much as by sitcoms and television ads, by The New Yorker as much as by Maxim. The culture of misogyny is perpetuated by smart, creative, well-intentioned, and fundamentally good people, as well as by Rush Limbaugh. I don’t really want to chop off Jonathan Franzen’s head, obviously. But as a woman watching the contemporary literary scene I was for a long time afraid even to be invested in (hence my retreat to dead authors in grad school), I confess I do want to see women get their comeuppance. When Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize last year for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I had very complicated feelings about it, including delight, of course, but also sadness that her earlier, more female-centric novels had never pulled the critical attention that her novels that explored men’s experience did.
Franzen’s Freedom was published in 2010, and Goon Squad won in 2011, so that particular gladiatorial spectacle was not to be. But a girl can dream.