Purity: The Trouble with Gender

Here I am, just hanging out on the internet, about to be the four-billionth person here to talk about how Franzen is white and male. But I hope to avoid polemics-as-usual and be sensitive while remaining true to feminist roots.

The Criticism

Franzen’s biggest critics are women, and one of his biggest criticisms is his need to check that male privilege/mansplaining at the door:

Article 1: “Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen!”

Article 2:  “The charge of misogyny, like the charge of racism, is a serious one, and I shy away from making it. But …Franzen continues to indict himself with gender theorizing that panders to the worst instincts of the male intellectual.” “Franzen can do better.”

Article 3 (and this is both legit AND hilarious): “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.”

Article 4 (by Roxane Gay, one of my favorite people. Follow her on Twitter; she’s a blast.): “He is offering up an earnest, albeit rather narrow and privileged assessment of the world we live in,” noting that, in Franzen’s world, feminism equals “angry womenfolk.”

Criticism Justified?

Oh, totally. Something you’ll see over and over in these articles is a reference to the part in Purity where the radically feminist (and radically unhinged) Anabel miserably guilts Tom into only peeing sitting down because the expression of inequality–standing up to pee–hurts her. You’ll also see that the extremist, separatist feminists that grab ahold of Annagret are not unlike the German Stasi in the book. They’re a totalitarian, police-like force of harpies. Franzen puts feminist in his books, and they are all life-crushing shrews.

Also to be noted is the phallocentrism of Purity, which is probably my biggest complaint about the book. You can look forward to hearing alllllll about the state of every male character’s penis, allllll the time. Is it disappointingly at half mast? Is it a throbbing beast ready to bust a hole in space time? Is it tentatively pushing on something, asking permission? Don’t worry. You’ll get to hear all about it. ALL. ABOUT. IT. And I don’t mean to be prude, but it takes away from my experience of the book. I can’t imagine why Franzen’s brain is just a nonstop flow of “penispenispenispenis.” Why are all these characters so obsessed with the state of their genitalia? Why is Franzen so obsessed?

But then, here’s where my sympathy may set me apart from the rest of the angry readers. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in Franzen’s head, and I accept that this phallocentrism is his thing and it’s not mine. My experience has made me who I am, and he’s been shaped the same way.

For instance, if I wrote fiction, my real-life experiences with men would no doubt show up via my male characters, and considering that feelings I’ve taken away from many of those experiences, that might draw accusations of misandry from critics. (You know, the myriad of critics who would read my best-selling book.) I personally wouldn’t feel that assessment justified, but there would likely be evidence for that argument from my writing.

Going back to Franzen…yes, there is evidence of male-centric, anti-feminist, super-privileged writing here. Some of the articles I linked objectively point out these problems, which are worth noting. But others are outrage-seekers, trying to tear apart the overdog just because no one likes the overdog.

Take Article 1’s (above) comment. Let me put it in context. This is the paragraph before, quoting a fascinating Guardian interview with Franzen.

“In his Guardian interview, Franzen says that ‘I’m not a sexist. I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section [of ‘Purity.’] is that he’s really trying to not be male…. There’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again.’

Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen! Why are feminists so meaaaaaan?

I understand where the sarcasm and lack of sympathy comes from here. But I don’t lack that sympathy.

Franzen’s a human being. He’s trying to write stories about how human beings hurt each other and make each other’s lives worth living. I don’t think he’s on a woman-hating mission. I think he’s expressing a lot of himself through Tom, who really wants to be a good feminist and just can’t do it without decoupling himself from crippling guilt, so he’s just given up. And wouldn’t you, if the idea of male privilege had seeped into your bones? If it seemed like the only thing you can do to be rid of this original sin is to never say anything again, lest your inherently poisoned point of view seeps through and victimizes all these people you’re unknowingly oppressing?

“There is No Way to Make Myself Not Male”

The subtitle of this Guardian interview is “there is no way to make myself not male,” and I think there’s an evolution of thinking behind it. I imagine that, once upon a time, he felt ashamed in realizing it, as if there was some essential thing wrong with him.

But now, I think Franzen is saying “there is no way to make myself not male” in a different way. He has been attacked for being male by critics for a long time, and sometimes with good reason. He’s made a couple of boneheaded PR moves (see comments on Edith Wharton). But I think he’s given up carrying that cross of guilt the way anyone with good intentions faced with constant attacks might.

I say he has good intentions because I think he portrays all characters, both male and female, with incredible empathy and nuance. I think Franzen isn’t lying in that Guardian interview when he says he loves people. And if you love people and are constantly attacked as a hate-filled bigot, well, I think there’s good reason to be bitter about it.

As for me, I see the male-centrism, but I like his books too much to think he should be silent. Though I do hope he’ll keep the state-of-the-phallus alerts to a minimum next time.

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