Mark Athitakis Newsletter #19

Franzen. Sorry.

Front Matter

Remember Franzenfreude? In 2010 Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom came out, and it received the sort of outsize coverage enjoyed by major American authors back when we had those. Time magazine put him on the cover, proclaiming him a (the?) Great American Novelist, and the New York Times prepped profiles and reviews in the daily paper and Book Review. Novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult detected rank sexism in this kind of coverage, which elevated family sagas written by men as important dispatches from the republic of letters and family sagas written by women as “women’s fiction.”

The debate—-which, in Weiner’s own words, was about “whose books were getting reviewed, and where, and by whom, and with what language; about who were the ‘right’ writers to drive the conversation, about whether the change was necessary, about whether change was possible”—-got fraught and ugly and not a little sexist for a while. I pretty much sat it out because a) I’m a guy and was concerned that made me potentially Part of the Problem, b) I generally like Franzen, don’t @ me, and c) who has the damn time? But the question I often thought about as the squabbling persisted that summer was: What about the publishers? Newspaper and magazine coverage of Franzen and white-male writers may leave a lot to be desired, but the publishers are the ones putting out the books and framing their introduction to the marketplace in ways that news outlets often happily seize upon. Franzenfreude targeted a problem in “the media.” But book publishers are media too.

Well.

Earlier this month Stanford professor Laura B. McGrath wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books about how this Franzenfreude-y dynamic plays out among the people who actually produce the books. McGrath’s own research revealed the way that much of the publishing industry is ruled by identifying comparable titles---that is, books are sold by agents and sales reps by likening them them to previous books that have already sold well. Comps are why a while back there were so many I’ve-been-to-heaven-and-here’s-what-I-saw-no-really memoirs with yellow covers, why seemingly every novel about a failing marriage has an exploding flower on the cover, and why when I go book shopping for my son every chapter book seems to be aping either Jeff Kinney or Rick Riordan.

It’s also why, McGrath argues, publishing is set in very conservative, whitebread ways. Comp titles are overwhelmingly white, even for nonwhite writers: Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere, for instance, “was comped to novels by Lauren Groff, Liane Moriarty, and Emmas Straub and Cline. Ng was not going to be the Next Amy Tan; she was going to be the Next Reese Witherspoon Adaptation.”

Ann Kjellberg, a former New York Review of Books editor who now runs an ambitious literary newsletter/review called Book Post, wrote thoughtfully on McGrath’s research, pointing out that it’s an “under-reported aspect of how we get to read what we read.” She pushes back a little bit at its consequences for literary fiction, though. The books from high-end literary houses aren’t as beholden to comps, she argues. I’m not entirely persuaded: Publishers at New Directions and FSG responded to her queries about comps with a well-I-never high dudgeon that’s a little hard to trust. “These editors cook up comps, at the insistence of distributors and sales reps, with greatest reluctance,” Kjellberg writes. Even assuming that their stated reluctance is indeed genuine, and that a house like FSG only cares about high art and suchlike and people who concern themselves with comps are NOKD, FSG’s leading lights are novelists like Franzen and Marilynne Robinson, and Tom Wolfe. You don’t need comps to make an echo chamber.

Franzenfreude felt like it was fought to a draw at the time, but nine years on it’s had a modest impact: Franzenfreude was a motivating force behind the VIDA count, according to Weiner, and the Times now strenuously avoids doubling up coverage of titles while noticeably diversifying its profile subjects. (In terms of race and gender, anyway; its focus is still on titles that presume to ahhht.) As for Time, the days of a Great American Novelist cover are done, and besides, when was the last time you cared what it put on its cover? What any magazine put on its cover? Well-known writers from big houses could take on this battle because they were arguing for journalistic integrity, not biting the hand that feeds. What writer dares to take the fight directly to the land of comps?

What I’m Reading

Related: Victor LaValle writes about Marlon James’ new fantasy epic in the context of what critics have elevated (pain) and disregarded (gay sex) in his work. And not dissimilarly, B.D. McClay considers Kristen “Cat Person” Roupenian’s story collection and its coverage as exemplifying a narrow view of what we want out of fiction by and about women. Gene Seymour writes about the peculiar balm provided by Westerns in our current moment. Kashmir Hill tried to completely remove Amazon’s tentacles from her daily life for a week; no dice.

What I’m Writing

For USA Today, I wrote about Claire Adam’s debut novel, Golden Child, a Sophie’s Choice-ish tale set in Trinidad that gives a contemporary sheen to postcolonial themes. The point obvious point of comparison, which I make, is V.S. Naipaul, but tonally the book it reminded me the most of is Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, which also addresses family tragedy at a low boil, but with a knockout ending.

End Notes

When Freedom came out, various people with time on their hands wrote songs employing the lyrics Franzen imagined for its musician protagonist. Franzen’s lyrics were awful on the page, but this take on them isn’t too bad; if you’d told me it was a Richard Hell B-side or something, I wouldn’t be shocked.

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com; I promise not to share your confessed love of Franzen with anybody. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.