Blog Archive for February, 2012

21 Feb 2012

Smart Women and Literary Judgment

3 Comments Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

“The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.” This is a curious remark coming from Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections and Freedom) who himself has been the subject of much discussion. (Bear in mind that Franzen called Michiko Kakutani, the esteemed book critic, “the stupidest person in New York City.”) Nonetheless, Franzen’s point is worth exploring, which he does brilliantly in his New Yorker essay “A Rooting Interest.”

For smart women, it is a compelling question: Do we have to like a character to appreciate a work of fiction? And, do our feelings about an author have anything to do with forming a literary judgment? In honor of Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday, this is a good question to consider since both the writer and her characters have stimulated great conversations.

At the heart of Franzen’s exploration  is whether or not a reader can be sympathetic to characters created by an author for whom they may have a negative predisposition. (Again, remember the brouhaha when Franzen rejected Oprah’s invitation to her show? Then again, did anyone have sympathy for the characters in The Corrections?) In the essay, Franzen focuses primarily on Edith Wharton who was well known for her arrogance. Franzen provides two examples: “She was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk refused to lend her an umbrella,” and an image recounted by her biographer (RWB Lewis) where Wharton is “writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.”

But where the essay gets interesting is when Franzen delves into the question of whether a reader has to like or sympathize with a character to like the novel itself. He compares the sympathetic Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) to the highly unsympathetic Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country). Lily Bart is “an angel of grace and sensitivity and lovability. Undine Spragg is the spoiled, ignorant, shallow, amoral and staggeringly selfish product of the economically booming American hinterland.”

If you’ve read both novels (which if  you haven’t you  must!), you might agree that The Custom of the Country is the more powerful, more memorable, and definitely the juicier of the two.  This is where we think Franzen answers his own question—a reader does not have to like either the author or the character to absolutely love a book. And based on the enduring power of Edith Wharton, ‘liking’ doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. What smart women need is an authentic experience that speaks to her in a distinct literary voice. Do you agree? Let us hear from you.

08 Feb 2012

Rethinking The Marriage Plot: A 21st Century Choice or Still a Cultural Imperative

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

In The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides third novel following The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002), the author both deconstructs and reconstructs a theme of great interest to smart women—the ongoing value and prevalence of marriage in our culture.

As a literary device (seen in novels and film), the marriage plot centers on ‘the courtship rituals between a man and woman and the obstacles that the potential couple faces on the way to the nuptial payoff.’ In the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, as well as Edith Wharton and Henry James, the marriage plot is used not only as a device for advancing the plot, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for providing social commentary on marriage itself.

Following the traditions of the marriage plot, Eugenides provides an interesting reconsideration of the importance of marriage in the 20th century (more precisely at Brown in the early 80s). He does this quite cleverly by creating three characters, Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, who inevitably form a love triangle. Early on, Mitchell declares, “‘I’m going to marry this girl!’ The knowledge went through him like electricity, a feeling of destiny.” But you have to stay tuned to see what actually happens.

What is interesting, however, is that Madeleine is a burgeoning Austen scholar (a Janeist) who is writing her honors thesis on the marriage plot. So, while finding her own academic voice, she is also exploring her own ideas of love and marriage. What becomes evident to her as the novel unfolds is that she faces many of the same historical and social struggles in determining what path to take on her personal and professional journey.

In the end, what makes The Marriage Plot a worthwhile read for smart women is its lively, fresh take on an established story line. And, although the author provides us with an authentic marriage plot for our times, the bottom line is that the desire to build intimacy and form a lifelong partnership is as powerful now as it was in Jane Austen’s day. Surely there are differences, yet marriage is alive and well in 2012.  And if Eugenides is right, it will be around for a long time to come.