Late to the party: taking shots at Franzen on Wharton

I’ve been on a bit of an Edith Wharton kick lately, reading her and reading about her. This is how I came late to Jonathan Franzen’s essay about Wharton in the New Yorker which evoked a storm of counterblasts from the likes of Roxana Robinson  (who yields to the intense anger that Franzen’s condescending tone seems to beg for), Victoria Patterson in the LA review of books , and Autumn Whitefield-Madrono in the New Inquiry. All made good solid points, but I have some other points to make about how truly abysmal Franzen’s essay is. Though it is two years old, I figure that there is something to be gotten out of unloading on it some more, since I think the essay signals the sad level of the state of reading in America, at least among a group, like Franzen, who were in college in the theory period in the humanities and now think they are beyond all that.

Franzen begins with a truly barflyish gesture. You know that New Critical idea of the impersonality of the author? All horseshit. In addition to the author being mirrored in the work, the reader, too, wants to crowd into that mirror. What happens when we read is that we root for. We are reader fans, in other words:
“But sympathy in novels need not be simply a matter of the reader’s direct identification with a fictional character. It can also be driven by, say, my admiration of a character who is long on virtues I am short on (the moral courage of Atticus Finch, the limpid goodness of Alyosha Karamazov), or, most interestingly, by my wish to be a character who is unlike me in ways I don’t admire or even like. One of the great perplexities of fiction—and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form—is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them.” 

What it means to “root” for these people is puzzling. Certainly rooting and sympathizing are not synonyms.  How do I root for Raskolnikov, for instance? Do I hope he goes on to bigger and less messier heists?

The “root for” phrase comes from sports – we root for a team. We might even root for a player, in games like tennis. But is a character in a novel really like a tennis player or a team? No. Nor is the author like a team. Its an odd trick to identify  rooting with sympathizing. Sympathizing might seem to, well, feminine for Franzen, but rooting just won’t do. The closest it comes is the situation in which  I watch a game in which two teams that I have no interest in – no sympathy for -  are contending. Then, in my own case, I root for the game to be a good one - an elegant game. I have always been a little shocked, actually, when people who root for a particular team are happy when the opposite team makes an error, fumbles the execution of a play, or in general subverts itself. To my mind, one wants the highest level of play.
I bring some such desire to novels, this is true. And there are novels in which I can say I root for a character – thrillers for instance. But the one-time-onlyness  of such novels – the fact that I don’t re-read them – is precisely connected to the root-for incentive.  I know, even before I start a thriller or watch one, that the hero is going to survive – that is so tied into the conventions of the thriller that we read it into the very physical mass of the thriller – I knew, for instance, in Gone Girl that the wife couldn’t have been killed by the husband by the fact that, at the point at which there was some doubt, the movie still had an hour more to run. Thus, I am rooting for the game to be tough and the agent I am pushed to identify with to win.  But this experience doesn’t strike me as very pertinent to reading Crime and Punishment, or The House of Mirth, where the stakes are not so conventionally laid out, and where the trajectories of the characters may comment about the environment in which they are etched - which is much different from, say, a football game. There is no such thing as a meta football game. Football, however much it has been used as a metaphor to say something about America, is never played in such a way that it intentionally makes a statement about America. The goals, here, are set, the score is summed up in one dimension. 

Raskolnikov, or Lily Bart, are difficult to root for because they pursue their purposes with a divided consciousness.  That is, uh, the point.  Rooting, here, is a rather silly extrapolation of a fan’s – and I am very tempted to say fanboy’s – perspective.
Proceeding from these shaky premises, Franzen considers Wharton. She was rich, which somehow is a strike against her. Her marriage was unsuccessful, which was somehow her fault.  How can we like this author, then, whose mirror image we are seeking in her works.
Well, there is the fact that she was a dog.
This is crucial to Franzen’s argument. The breathless stupidity of this approach was righteously attacked by anyone with any knowledge of Wharton’s biography. And the fact that Franzen was playing “hot or not” with Edith Wharton, as Victoria Patterson points out, was a slap in the face to all female writers. These are all things I think are true.
And yet, here is where I feel something is missing. If we were talking about Toulouse Latrec, the fact that he was so short might have some relevance to his work. And we would look for contemporary accounts and photos to see that he was, indeed, short.
But Edith Wharton? Apparently, she is not Franzen’s type. But there is no, none, zippo evidence that her contemporaries thought she was a dog. To the contrary: when Wharton’s first engagement was broken off, the gossip sheet Town Topics, wrote that, “‘an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride’ caused the engagement to be broken off.”
Bingo. I mean, it isn’t enough that Franzen takes the barfly bullshitter’s approach to literature, but he also seems to have done zero research and have zero instinct for historical contextualization. The mirror here is dominated by Franzen – Edith doesn’t enter into it.
This is of importance, since Franzen’s bizarre thesis is that Wharton’s novels are the revenge of an ugly girl on beautiful girls – for instance, Lily Barton. If Wharton didn’t consider herself ugly, and if nobody else around her considered her ugly, than the thesis is basically, I, Jonathan Franzen, think she is a dog, so everybody else musta. This is like reviewing King Lear by saying I, Jonathan Franzen, am totally opposed to rule by royalty, yucko, so Shakespeare musta been too – which is why Lear’s life is such a bitch!
I think that Town Topics item is important as an indicator of the expectations of the society that is shown in The House of Mirth – it can be contrasted with Lily Bart’s flaw, which is her intelligence. All the irony, all the hinderances to “rooting” for her, come out of that intelligence and its consequences. Intelligence, here, in the sense that she actually conceives, to an extent, the social conditions that make her own striving for a wealthy husband seem both necessary and valuable even as she sees the sterility of the lives of her “set” of wealthy heirs. She’s a divided soul in the classic American sense: she wants to compromise her freedom to attain success, the enjoyment of which rests in the freedom it theoretically offers. But the pattern of sacrifices necessary to attain success offer no compromise, so that when success is attained, it is enjoyed with exactly the sterile triviality that Bart sees around her. Seeing the sterility of her set too clearly stands athwart the simple minded pursuit of her simple minded target, and not seeing that her imagined transformation of the goal, once she attains it, would demand an ability to buck the norm that she has never displayed, is exactly what makes Lily interesting and, in a sense, tortured. In the crucial chapter 6, in which Lily takes a walk with the inappropriate man, Selden. Instead of pursuing the rich heir, Gryce, Wharton makes both the duality and deficit in Bart’s vision of life clear:
“Lily dropped down on the rock, glowing with her long climb. She sat quiet, her lips parted by the stress of the ascent, her eyes wandering peacefully over the broken ranges of the landscape. Selden stretched himself on the grass at her feet, tilting his hat against the level sun-rays, and clasping his hands behind his head, which rested against the side of the rock. He had no wish to make her talk; her quick-breathing silence seemed a part of the general hush and harmony of things. In his own mind there was only a lazy sense of pleasure, veiling the sharp edges of sensation as the September haze veiled the scene at their feet. But Lily, though her attitude was as calm as his, was throbbing inwardly with a rush of thoughts. There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. But gradually the captive's gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight.

As to why Lily Bart, or any protagonist, is handsome or beautiful, well, let me refer you to Hollywood, from 1900-2014, or to the Odyssey or the Iliad. If the writer of the gospel had attributed ugliness to Jesus, given him a hump like Richard III, history would be different today. Franzen’s idea here is not only not rooted in any sense of the author, but any sense of archetypes in literature period. This is dumbness piled on top of dumbassedness, and it makes me cringe and question again whether The Corrections was that good. I'm not, however, inclined to go back and check.