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.

written by

Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.

3 Comments for“Smart Women and Literary Judgment”

  1. Reply Joan Leader says:

    This topic hit a real nerve with me. Many years ago, I read “Jephte’s Daughter,” by Naomi Ragen and intensely disliked the main character’s father. He was a mean, miserable dictatorial man (in my opinion). Some time later, a friend told me that Ragen
    had a new novel and I should be sure to read it. I answered, “I don’t think I ever want to
    read anything else she has written. I so intensely disliked the character.” The words were no sooner out of my mouth when I realized I had an “Aha Moment.” I started to laugh and I said, “Wow, if an author can develop a character who evokes such emotion in me, she has to be pretty good!” Eye opening experience for me, one I’ve never forgotten.

  2. Reply Lisa says:

    Great response Joan. I am having some ‘issues’ right now with the main character Maria in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. She is unable to move in any direction whatsoever and copes with this paralysis by taking pills and driving. I’m not really sure what Didion’s point is, but I can say that I don’t ‘like’ Maria at all. What’s worse, I can’t find any character in this novel with a redeeming quality. Maybe I will have an AHA moment, yet I’m not encouraged. Thanks for writing!

  3. Reply Exploding Mary says:

    I’m thinking now of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” which I adore for its language– the rolling sensual feel of it, the lush word pictures created. The heroine, I have only a little sympathy for, and not much respect towards her mode of self conduct.

    I detest the slack, unsatisfying ending as a failure of the author’s imagination, and even the way Chopin seems to stand back, aloof, from her character’s feelings, never engaging enough to let her become truly engaged in any action.

    Great story, though.

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