Writer’s Brock – “…the hazing of Franzen.”
I am a Midwestern WASP who has spent time on the East Coast. In 1997 my grandfather died of Parkinson’s Disease. These two facts made me feel right at home with the 2001 novel The Corrections. So when I learned Jonathan Franzen would be guest lecturing during a class at my MFA program, I smiled as if being ticked – I couldn’t help but be happy. Imagine my bewilderment, then, when I watched the hazing of Franzen. The man is not gifted with a powerful personality. When he sat in my classroom atop Hunter College, the sun setting over the Upper East Side, he was shifty and awkward. The attacks he endured only made him more so. WASPs in general were in ways persecuted in that writing program, particularly ones from relatively affluent backgrounds. Going into Franzen’s class, I knew this because of reactions to my own work. Altogether there were fourteen fiction MFA students, and he faced scorn from thirteen of them. The prime sin he was held up for committing was his insensitivity toward his characters. Peer after peer of mine affirmed that writing a close third-person narrative, and then turning around and using that intimate perspective to mock each depiction in it, was cruel and unfair. Never mind that satire was involved. Franzen, already a strange man, seemed more and more detached as the hours went on. Clearly the man was not meant to be an educator. By the time it was done I felt sorry for the guy. The last thing a novelist needs is doubt. So much of the crafting of a long work comes from faith in oneself. Not that any of what we did seemed to shake him up. Franzen was well enough established then, in 2006, to shrug off the muted but petulant caterwauls of a dozen or so frustrated writers. The man didn’t need an MFA to get where he wanted to go with his work, and he seemed to be invincible in the face of the onslaught. What really bothered me about the whole night was a nagging suspicion that, should I ever write anything worthwhile, I would face similar feedback from anti-elitist students. That night it became clear to me for the first time that as a white Midwestern male of means from the Midwest, I faced the same sort of reverse prejudice he did, and likely always would. I have always despised arguments of reverse racism as veiled white supremacy, but here I was having those exact thoughts, and feeling them so strongly that I now know I bear there burden and will for the rest of my days. I frequently wish I were born in India. Perhaps then I would be taken as seriously as whites used to be. I hate to say it, but it feels too true – if you’re not from a colony or in a minority you have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. This is the mindset I face to this day. The very means that have given me time to become a skilled writer are the same ones that may yet keep me from ever standing out from the parade. If I changed my last name to Singh, would I be more likely to be heard? All that may be a bit much. Franzen is having no problem selling. Regardless, the entrenchment of those opponents to guys like us mean we face what we once gave, leaving me to yet again wish the justice of the world weren’t so fucking poetic.