Jonathan Franzen is the second best essayist of his generation, just behind David Foster Wallace.* Amanda Hess is the 12,067th best essayist of her generation, so you can imagine the tenor and quality of her burn on Franzen over at “XX,” Slate‘s answer to a question Jezebel never asked. Sure, Franzen should get some ribbing for his long, fist-shaking Guardian article about how just about everything sucks now (even though he’s basically right). But that ribbing shouldn’t read like a drunk-text written by a college sophomore three weeks into her first Media Studies class. Hess writes:
Literature’s preeminent dude-bro took out his frustrations at a girl he “decided” not to have sex with (isn’t that how it always happens!) by fantasizing about old women destroying their bodies as they scrounge after his discarded fortunes. Franzen writes that he learned to overcome his youthful anger when he became a novelist, and was moved to empathize with other humans in the service of great literature; “to imagine what it’s like to be somebody you are not” is the “mental work that fiction fundamentally requires,” he now understands.
But Franzen is less enthused about the prospect of other humans actually responding to his stories—or, God forbid, telling their own stories without the aid of Franzen’s refined literary filter. Since Franzen came into this world in 1959 and human communication promptly went to hell in a handbasket—by the way, does that make Jonathan Franzen one of the horsemen of his own apocalypse?—people who do not look like Jonathan Franzen have leveraged the explosion of literary outlets to publish their own writing, tell their own experiences, and gain voices in the conversation. (Jennifer Weiner has already filed her response to Franzen’s essay in The New Republic, in a piece entitled, “What Jonathan Franzen Misunderstands About Me.”) But Franzen fails to draw any connection between the segregated swimming pools of his youth and his own ability to “find my place” as a writer in the long tail of that old world. Franzen briefly acknowledges the diversity argument just to knock it down. He expresses disappointment with the literary magazine N+1, which he says “denigrates print magazines as terminally ‘male,’ celebrates the internet as ‘female,’ and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers.”
If Franzen had published his wistful German train station anecdote today, the “penny-pinching old German woman” could tweet evidence of Franzen’s insufficient tip; the hot girl could tell the world how their interaction really went down in an xoJane IHTM. That doesn’t mean that writers today have lost the ability to seriously explore the human condition. It means that a much wider and diverse group of humans now has the power to inform privileged literary voices like Franzen about what the conditions are actually like on the ground.
Honestly, I don’t even think Hess knows what she’s trying to say here. Cliched “he’s a bad tipper” Reddit posts and the just pathetic “please, somebody validate me” tripe of the reality TV/blogging/vlogging/TVlogging-sphere are not “conditions on the ground.” They are cries for help from people who can’t deal with the fact that the world hasn’t recognized how special they are, not literary criticism. Jonathan Franzen couldn’t care less about folks tweeting at him, let alone second-rate pop-feminist blogs saying that he does. But as Jennifer Wiener has made clear, there are second careers to be had griping in Franzen’s wake.
*For the record, I think Joan Didion is probably the greatest essayist of any generation.