What The Dickens? Franzen and Wharton


Would you?

Others have already had at Jonathan Franzen’s recent swivel-eyed New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton so that I don’t have to. Here’s Sarah Todd, who says what needs to be said very well:

Ostensibly he’s talking about Wharton’s appearance because it’s her “one potentially redeeming disadvantage.” But he doesn’t sound sympathetic when he talks about her looks; he sounds like he’s just observing the patriarchal dictate that before we can talk about any woman artist or intellectual or politician or activist, we must first rank her on Hot or Not. He indicates that Wharton had a tough time finding a husband because of her looks, and tips his hat at the possibility that her marriage to Teddy Wharton was largely sexless because she wasn’t pretty enough (!) before concluding no, it was probably because of her sexual ignorance (I’m thinking Teddy probably had a hand in or out of their sex life too).

Franzen’s weird emphasis on Wharton’s appearance is particularly unwelcome in a month during which we are being treated to discussions of Dickens’s genius which have rarely considered his personal qualities, least of all his poor treatment of the women in his life. Franzen refers to Henry James without opining that he most regularly resembled a disgruntled amphibian; he mutters some modish but meaningless guff about a modern reader’s inability to get on with a wealthy author (because, of course, today’s novelists all come from the slums), but doesn’t get to grips with the thornier problems of historical distance; and in this partial, superficial context, his diverting thoughts on how the reader of a novel can “become helpless not to make [a character’s desire] my own” are rather muddied – are we talking about Lily’s socialite desires in The House of Mirth or the desire that Franzen does or does not feel for Wharton? And why does one serve to introduce thoughts on the other? The essay feels insufficiently unfurled.

On the other hand, Franzen helps place Wharton into that context I was upset to be missing in all the Dickens hoop-la:

The Custom of the Country is the earliest novel to portray an America I recognise as fully modern, the first fictional rendering of a culture to which the Kardashians, Twitter, and Fox News would come as no surprise. […] Ignorant though Undine [Spragg, the novel’s protagonist] is, she’s smart enough to know that she has exactly what reporters need, and she proves remarkably adept at manipulating the press. Along the way, she anticipates two other hallmarks of modern American society, the obliteration of all social distinctions by money and the hedonic treadmill of materialism. […]

The novel’s most strikingly modern element, however, is divorce. The Custom of the Country is by no means the earliest novel in which marriages are dissolved, but it’s the first novel to put serial divorce at its center, and in so doing it sounds the death knell of the ‘marriage plot’ that had invigorated countless narratives in centuries past.

Dickens, not much of a look either in case you were wondering, was not the only visionary. It’s a shame a writer as important as Wharton gets one as neurotic as Franzen to write her eulogy.

6 thoughts on “What The Dickens? Franzen and Wharton

  1. The New Yorker site blocks out everything but the abstract of Franzen’s article, but that bit does indeed imply that Franzen should be taking a long, hard look at just who that “we” of his is supposed to include. I can’t recall ever even thinking about Wharton’s appearance, much less allowing it to influence my impression of her novels.

    I also wonder how much Franzen bothered to learn about Wharton before writing this piece. How does his conception of her as a sexless, unlovable hag sit with her affair with Morton Fullerton, embarked upon when she was in her mid-forties?

  2. The full article is a real piece of work, and you’re spot on with your assumption that it is both partial and uncritical of the self writing it. The abstract is a lift of sentences from various points in his piece, so gets the tone fairly well. It opens thusly:

    “The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character. It may well be a defect of my own character that my literary tastes are so deeply intertwined with my responses, as a person, to the person of the author – 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 […]”

    And there follows a good chunk of the abstract. The whole thing reads very oddly.

  3. This d*ckhead’s take on Wharton is a perfect example of this, and the comments to it:


    Franzen is a most unattractive looking person but that has nothing to do with my complete non-interest in reading anything he writes. That he writes balderdash — and ignorant balderdash at that, like this, about a writer like Wharton, whose works and biography I know well, is the reason for my non-reading of him. There’s no there there for me to gain by reading.

    Love, C,

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