CN: Contains brief mentions of body image, sexual assault and suicidal ideation

So, what did I find, re-reading Eugenides and Franzen's novels? First up: they’re still quick reads; the prose still flows easily. But that meant the realisation came faster: the realisation that these were not the books I remembered. When I was sixteen and new to modern fiction, I took them as gospel; I assumed this was what books were like, and not knowing any better, I liked it. But now, the troughs felt bigger than the peaks. Where I remembered an empathetic vision of America and a wry humour, now I found irony, an encoded male gaze, thin characterisation of womxn; often just very bad writing.

Leafing through their books became an exercise in frustration. Suddenly, I was reading with a pencil in hand, scribbling WTAF or YOU FUCKING WEIRDO or AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH in the margins, as post-its screaming DOES JEFFREY EUGENIDES THINK BOOBS ARE TRANSFORMERS? and CHAUCER WROTE 'BELIEVABLE WOMEN' IN 1380 THIS IS NOT AN ACHIEVEMENT IT IS A BASELINE populated the walls above my desk.

Take Freedom. It’s a book about a family. The Berglunds — mother Patty, father Walter, perfect daughter Jessica, imperfect son Joey — are at war. For twenty years. Their circumstances change; the kids go to college, the parents move from St. Paul to Washington for environmentalist Walter’s new job working for Big Coal. At the start, Joey moves in with his girlfriend Connie and her Republican parents; later he marries her and almost has an affair with his friend’s sister, whose only character trait is 'hot'. Patty actually has an affair with Walter’s friend Richard Katz, which he perceives as his friend’s revenge for some unidentified fault; then, inevitably, Walter has an affair with his assistant Lalitha. 

Everyone is unremittingly competitive; the plural narration shows a neighbourhood, not a community. We spend eighty pages at a time moving round the heads of Patty, Joey, Walter and the aging punk-rocker Katz. They spend those pages wondering whether they’re outdoing one another — at relationships, at careers, at life. Before ringing his dad for help, Joey thinks that 'he’d been battling him all his life, and now the time had come to admit that he was beaten'; the great uncertainty of Walter’s life isn’t existential, it’s 'whether Richard was the little brother or the big brother, the fuckup or the hero, the beloved damaged friend or the dangerous rival'.

Jonathan Franzen hanging out with some booksTwitter/@__FishInWater

This profound lack of love extends to neighbours, too: at the start, we’re told that 'Connie posed no threat to somebody as well rounded as Jessica'. They’re twelve. The meaning of the title — a word that’s referenced often, most starkly at Jessica’s university, where we spot 'a stone graven with words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM'  — is a very American kind of 'freedom': individualism at all costs.

Perhaps this is a part of the satirical voice that weaves together the different characters, lightly undermining them all. Sometimes the voice genuinely makes you laugh, more at your own traits than anything else: 'Right, my résumé-building years. I had about seventeen extracurricular activities. I was like Mother Teresa on speed,' is brilliant, 

She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over.

merits at least a little air blown out of the nostrils. But you might also note that Tolstoy’s profound psychological profiles rely on accepting his characters’ foibles and showing them as people, complex and whole, who you want to empathise with. Pierre begins as a naive young man with a Napoleon obsession; by the end, he’s mature enough to become the husband whose marriage marks the culmination of the book’s spiritual journey. That’s the part of War and Peace that Franzen could have really done with paralleling: the characters’ growth, their multiple faces. 

And I can’t help also wishing that he’d taken to heart what Wallace argued in his mid-nineties essay 'E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction'. As novelistic techniques, 'irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis,' he said, and he could have been talking about Freedom. Its strong environmentalism is undermined by Walter’s cluelessness as an environmentalist; for all that Franzen once said about the political possibilities of mass readership, the main message you take away from this million-seller is about house cats. His character studies, too, can’t really be touching, because he can’t decide whether they’re satirical or earnest: their ideals say the latter, the irony intones the former.

'Leafing through their books became an exercise in frustration', but they do look pretty togetherAlex Haydn-Williams

Sometimes, they’re just too badly sketched to be believable. Lalitha is the ultimate example of this: she loves Walter, but why does she love Walter? Well, says Franzen, 'Lalitha really was crazy for him, almost literally dripping with desire, certainly strongly seeping with it.' Great, but why? Oh right, says Franzen, I’ll let her explain herself: '"My boss," she said softly, stroking his shoulder. "You’re the best boss in the world. You’re such a wonderful man."' It’s a pornographic fantasy. We see Lalitha, but she only appears, she doesn’t get to be.

She’s as significant a character as Joey in the plot, but we never see inside her head. What’s the difference, then, between her and the one-dimensional women at whom Updike’s male narrators gawp? What’s the difference between this narrative and all the old hackneyed ones about horny men and subservient women? Walter spends a long time agonising over the fact that he doesn’t want to become another stereotypical middle-class man who sublimates his midlife crisis by having an affair with his young assistant, and then does it anyway. It’s so frustrating to see a writer who can come up with snappy asides like 'nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special' (@TheUniversityOfCambridge) fail completely when he writes about lust.

Franzen’s free indirect discourse spends much of Freedom inhabiting the voices of misogynists, resulting in sentences like 'There were eighteen words of body language with which women signified availability and submission' and 'Oh, the clairvoyance of the dick' and 'Tamara said with a milfy smile'. Obviously he’s satirising a mentality — we aren’t supposed to like the way these men see women. But the problem is that he never offers an alternative. None of Franzen’s male protagonists see women in three dimensions, and it’s not clear if he does either; he’s more comfortable pointing and laughing at regressive attitudes than representing positive ones. Zadie Smith once said that Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men was so rich and funny that it surpassed its billing as 'an ironic book about misogyny'. Freedom, on the other hand, is literally just an ironic book about misogyny: a little self-awareness, then more of what American men have been writing about women for centuries.

When Eugenides and Franzen do attempt female interiority, it doesn’t go very well. Rather bizzarely, one of the puff quotes at the start of my paperback of The Marriage Plot lauds the fact that 'it offers a full, and fully interiorised account of a female character, something male authors often struggle or neglect to do.' First of all, it shows you how regressive literary culture is that this is considered an achievement, not a basic skill (top tip: it helps to believe women are people!). It’s also not true. Madeline is sometimes clever and witty and flawed, but sometimes she reads like Jeffrey Eugenides’ fantasy of a young female lover come to life. When she’s discussing literature, she sounds like a real person. When it comes to her personal life, errrr…

Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon in Coppola's The Virgin SuicidesTwitter/@womenfilms

Like Patty and Connie in Freedom, Madeleine has no female friends (paging Dr Bechdel) and invests all her feeling into romantic relationships with men. In fact, when she does talk to women, she judges them like a lecherous middle-aged man might: 

when Olivia, who was tall and slim, with a long, aristocratic nose like a saluki, came in one day carrying Of Grammatology, Madeleine knew that what had been marginal was now mainstream

You’ll notice that it’s not what book Olivia reads, or her grades, that show how clever she is: it’s how her body appears. Conventionally attractive = dumb. In Madeleine’s head, men’s intelligence is gauged by their words; women’s by their looks. The encoded male gaze goes deeper. When these women look at their own bodies, they only see their desirability, as if they were looking from male eyes. Good luck trying to figure out the mechanics of 'her breasts, of which she was normally proud, had withdrawn into themselves, as if depressed,' or the emotional truth in  'Am I not getting asked out because I’m fat, or am I fat because I’m not getting asked out?' It sounds like a bad Little Britain gag.

The more I thought about this, the more it tainted Eugenides’ older books. When, in The Virgin Suicides, the amorphous mass of boys who narrate the story watch Lux Lisbon having sex across the road, 'impossibly close in the circle of our binoculars because she moved her lips only inches away but without sound,' it reads like one of Laura Mulvey’s case studies. Like the Hollywood actresses she describes in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Lux has 'the quality of a cut-out or an icon rather than verisimilitude'. Perhaps you can argue it's a satirical deconstruction of the gaze. But for that argument to cut the mustard, it'd have to find counterpoints, bits in his books where the male gaze isn't the only mode of representing womxn. After three years reading them, I still can't spot any.

Ironically, Lux and her sisters are depicted in a far more sympathetic way in Sofia Coppola’s film; thankfully she replaced erotic desire for doomed teenage girls with empathy for them. How is it that a movie — the medium that the term 'male gaze' was invented to describe — objectifies them less? Perhaps it’s because Coppola cares about their story, not how their story made the boys super sad because they had a really big crush on them :( like Eugenides.

The Lisbon Sisters behind the scenes of The Virgin Suicides Twitter/@criterionchannl

Eugenides’ depiction of womxn has become even worse since he wrote The Marriage Plot. In the short story 'Fresh Complaint' (2017), we’re supposed to feel sorry for a professor accused of sexual assault who, after talking to a sixteen year old — sixteen year old — student, does things like this: 

Matthew turned back to his laptop. Stared at the screen. Only when the girl had left the coffee shop and was passing by the front window did he glance up, conscientiously, to see what she looked at from behind. 

And just what, exactly, is 'conscientious' objectification of a minor, Jeffrey? He tries to give three-dimensionality to a man who would willingly have committed statutory rape, but not to his victim. It feels like the womxn in Eugenides’ stories have always been objects to him, prized first and foremost for their desirability, even in the early books where he gave them some believability.

What about their gaze, their sexuality? Ovid wrote that women get more out of sex than men back when Augustus Caesar’s new toga was the talk of the civitas. Two millennia later, you’d hope that authors whose entire lives have been dedicated to imitating life might have heard of a clitoris. But no. It’s time to roll out the adjectives beginning with phallo-, team, because we’ve got an awful lot of penis envy coming up. On one level, it’s just a real shame that the same author who once wrote sex tenderly, something simultaneously powerful and intimate — 'They spoke of being pinned to the chimney as if by two great beating wings, and of the slight blond fuzz above her upper lip that felt like plumage' — has fallen so far that he’s responsible for atrocities against the senses like:

Mr Gumby was long gone. Leonard’s girth filled Madeleine up in a way that felt not only satisfying, but breathtaking. Every millimeter of movement, in or out, was perceptible along her inner sheath. … Leonard’s [penis] was highly particular to her, almost a third presence in the bed. She found herself sometimes judiciously weighing it in her hand.

I dare you to read this aloud without laughing. 

But it’s not just Madeleine who’s fixated on penises; when Walter first sleeps with Lalitha, we get told two things: “She stared into his eyes with love and joy, she pronounced beautiful and perfect and wonderful the manhood that Patty … had libelled and spat upon.” Like the frankly strange section in The Marriage Plot where Mitchell rants for a whole page about “women” (his unsettling quotation marks, not mine) supposedly seeing phallic symbols everywhere — 'Would a vagina-shaped Apollo 11 have made it to the moon? Evolution had created the penis' — it smacks of insecurity. It also shows a particularly patriarchal sadness: heterosexual men who have no idea that they are beautiful. 

Madeleine, Lalitha, Connie and Patty don’t once say a man has a nice face, or nice neck, or a nice anything-except-a-dick. They don’t find them funny, or clever, or cute. Because ultimately, they’re not real people: they’re avatars written by Updike-lite phallocrats who use 'female' as a noun and can’t conceive of a woman with more than one fleshed-out characteristic. They can be bookish, or green, or sporty, or devoted, but they can never have a real friendship. Characterisation that the Telegraph Books of the Year 2011 called 'full, and fully interiorised,' actually reminds me of the bit in Freedom where Patty’s one, questionable friend sketches her playing basketball for the university:

Like everything Eliza did (as Patty learned soon enough), the drawing was half super-skilled and half clumsy and bad. The way the player’s body was low to the ground and violently slanting as she made a sharp turn was excellent, but the face and head were like some generic female in a first-aid booklet.

Having wanted an escapist read, I’d found one that only made me think of the present, of how popular literary novels haven’t really changed since the sixties, of how the writers I’d loved had turned bad and were completely unaware of it.

'Maybe the more pertinent reference is Virginia Woolf, thinking about her literary forbears a century ago'Wikimedia Commons

I ended up feeling a bit like David Foster Wallace, reading a new Updike novel from late in his career:

even since ’81’s Rabbit Is Rich — as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding sign that the author understood that they were repellent — I’ve continued to read Updike’s novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.

I felt that ambiguous way you sometimes do, thinking about something you once loved but now realise is completely flawed, like finding out that Father Christmas is one of the world’s leading elf-traffickers, but still being grateful for the presents. Taking a rational adult approach to your teenage infatuations — even when they’re with books — is hard. It becomes harder when they’re by a writer who is still writing, but becoming more repellent by the day. I want to love Franzen and Eugenides for what I once thought they represented, I really do; I just wish they’d let me.

The Jeffrey who once said exciting things like 'every novelist must have a hermaphroditic imagination' and wrote sentences like 'there was so much love in Milton’s eyes that it was impossible to look for truth' is one I want to admire, but the one who objectifies a sixteen-year-old is one I can’t. Maybe the more pertinent reference is Virginia Woolf, thinking about her literary forbears a century ago, and wondering why they, too, hadn’t lived up to the legacy of their youth:

Mr Wells, Mr Bennett, and Mr Galsworthy have excited so many hopes and disappointed them so persistently that our gratitude largely takes the form of thanking them for having shown us what they might have done.

With the platform that Eugenides and Franzen had, their obvious talent, their note-perfect sentences, there’s so much they might have done. But in the end they just perpetuated the stories of an older, regrettable age.

As I began to research this article, read beyond the covers of their novels and seesawed in my feelings towards Frangenides, it became evident this wasn’t actually a failure of skill; it was what they’d always intended. Their novelistic misogyny — unlike that of Wallace, who always pretended to be a feminist in his writing, even as he stalked women in real life — was part of the plan; their lack of plurality was intentional. It wasn’t just born out of a stylistic conservatism and a narrow view of the world, either: it was part of a cultural politics that wanted to recenter the white, male, suburban voice, to make books like they used to be in the good old days before John Updike’s novels were escorted off to the Dante Alighieri Retirement Home for Horny Misogynists. 

When he was the young writer of two mostly-ignored novels, Franzen wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine with a title ostentatiously cribbed from Hamlet. At first, 'Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels' rails against the postmodernists. But then it goes on to a critique that, even back in 1996, must have stunk of the bitterness of someone who can’t accept that his identity isn’t the only one that matters any more:

[T]he therapeutic optimism now raging in English literature departments insists that novels be sorted into two boxes: Symptoms of Disease (canonical work from the Dark Ages before 1950), and Medicine for a Happier and Healthier World (the work of women and of people from non-white or non-hetero cultures). That you can easily get a B.A. in English literature without reading Shakespeare—that students are now encouraged to read the literature that is most 'meaningful' to them personally, and even if they do read Shakespeare to read him as they 'choose' (say for his (mis)representations of the Other)—reflects a notion of culture that resembles nothing so much as a menu to be pointed at and clicked.

Okey-dokey, boomerokey.

This passage raises more than a few questions: why is he othering female authors on their home territory? Hasn’t the novel always been a female medium? Novels originally being designed for aristocratic women’s leisure, anyone? Why can’t non-white cultures be canonical? What are non-hetero cultures and where can I find them? Why is 'choose' in quotation marks? Is it implying that it’s wrong for each generation to look at Shakespeare anew? Should we read Shakespeare as his contemporaries read him, then? Should we ban female actors from the stage and employ white ones in blackface to play Othello? Should we ignore the gayest-playwright-until-Oscar-Wilde’s brilliant lesbian couples

Franzen on the cover of TIMETwitter/@UNTWritingCenter

Or should we look at Franzen’s essay, and see the last, angry cries of a monochrome literature that’s finally beginning to be replaced in the columns and institutions that we call high culture? More than half of the sonnets are to a hot young twink; by all accounts, Shakespeare had enough white men fellating him during his lifetime. He certainly doesn’t need any more now he’s in the grave. 'Cursed be he that moves my bones' didn’t mean 'don't put gays or women in my work you fucking LIBERALS', Jon. You look like Madeleine in The Marriage Plot, moaning that people are reading about lives that aren’t hers.

Eugenides in Times SquareTwitter/@meganeabbott

This past that Franzen’s eulogising, if it even is the past, was responsible for possibly the worst thing about him and Eugenides: their unquestioned popularity. It’s what was always going to happen in a homogenous culture that puts white, university-educated, suburban men straight on the cover of TIME or a billboard in Times Square for their Oprah’s Book Club choices, and gives more space to their depictions of womxn than actual womxn’s depictions of themselves.

In a way, it’s not even their fault. They just wrote the books about suburbia, it’s the critics and booksellers who decided they 'define modern America' with 'an indelible portrait of our times', not contemporaries like Mary Karr or Louise Erdrich. Nor did they choose to be so venerated in the UK that articles as irrelevant as 'Jonathan Franzen Says He’s Met Cats He Likes' (that is in fact a real headline) get published, while Black British writers as talented as Bernardine Evaristo — who didn’t receive a single press interview about Girl, Woman, Other until it won the Booker — are left out of the hallowed pages completely.


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Mountain View

More on modern writing: Grace Robinson asks who we'll want to pen the pandemic

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett pointed out in a recent Guardian column that our generation’s Great Male Narcissists are bemoaning 'the death of the novel' (again) because young women like Sally Rooney are writing popular ones. But if, like Will Self, you mean the sort of novel that gets reviewed in the London Review of Books, then The Capital-N Novel, with warm-hearted innovators like Evaristo, Rooney and Ali Smith at the helm, is coming back to life, telling more stories with more empathy and more honesty after a long time stuck in the clutches of a tiny, unrepresentative and sarcastic group. And as Cosslett put it:

It’s tiring, all this, because no one wants to make the Great White Male Novelist extinct, they just want him to shift up a bit and make some space for everyone else. Readers who truly love books are hungry for a range of perspectives.

This is the precise point I end up at, thinking about the Jons and Jeffs and Daves who dominated the bestseller charts for so long: a culture is always poorer if it defines itself within thin parameters. Eugenides makes a richer contribution to our lives if his books are sold as part of a range of voices and backgrounds, rather than alongside lots of other books that all say the same thing.

If we don’t have that range, then what we call 'the novel' becomes a small group of stories that have already been told, and don’t say anything new about life. Looking back to 2010, you notice something: amidst the cultural discourse around Freedom’s release, a key point went unaddressed. So much time was spent debating whether it was Great that nobody bothered to ask if it was necessary.