Jonathan Franzen & Whiteness

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Hey, B!

What a treat from S! You deserve it. You’ve been working hard.

I’ve seen the Jonathan Franzen article on another author’s Facebook page I follow! I didn’t get a chance to read it, but I skimmed through his interview. Franzen is a fascinating author to me. He would say something as such about him not writing about race, but he does. His race is Whiteness and tends to be Western whiteness.

I stand corrected: it’s mid-Western Whiteness.

Could he really write about Black people or other people of color? I don’t think if he could and do it in an accurate portrayal. I mean in some ways, I can’t help that he is honest but in his ignorance as well. It is White male privilege to say that I don’t have Black friends which means that I don’t go out of my way to make or have Black friends or Black people in my life. Since I don’t go out of my way to make those connections or friends, I cannot possibly write about them. Lena Dunham, the creator of GIRLS, said something similarly, but she actually did make an attempt to write a Black male character…although though she created a Black male character, you can see that if she wants to, she can write Black characters from her perspective as a White woman.

I find it all fascinating as Black writer.

I mean I enjoy watching Sex and the City and GIRLS because I recognize what those shows mean…maybe a part of it is that they are women…

And I can relate to certain situations because I’ve been in similar situations because those characters are female characters.

But I can also relate to Franzen in a way, too, because we are both writers even though he may not be able to completely relate to me. He and I would have to have a conversation about that though.

Hey, B! I hope that your week went well, and you have gotten some time to breathe!!!

I went ahead and read the Jonathan Franzen interview before I wanted to respond to some of the points you’ve made more in depth.

My impressions of Jonathan Franzen is that he does understand his White privilege a lot more than folks think, but I get a hint that maybe he knows that he is egotistical as well. There are some moments in his responses in the interview that I am like…he knows that he is afforded a platform because he is a White male. I am sort of impressed that he actually can admit that he is privileged, and he doesn’t want to do much about it. Maybe some folks would put up a huge argument with me particularly Black folk and people of color about my opinions on this, but I think from his stance as a White male that this is as good as you are going to get it with someone who is not interested in being a social justice activist.

Basically, he knows that he lives in a White male privileged world, and I think in a lot of ways, he doesn’t t want to touch race because he knows that he would do a shitty job of writing about it and mangle it. Basically, in a nevertheless about way, he is saying that he doesn’t seek out Black friends because of the spaces he occupies which means that he is interested in other matters, and they happen to fit into his spaces that he occupies, and this is because of his Whitness.

Does this anger me or make me like…what a prick? No, not really. I think it is because he does admit it from the get go of what he is and what he is interested in. Some folks aren’t going to fight battles that they don’t want to be a part of, and I think that he is more honest than other White males that I have encountered or known. Throughout the interview, he even talks about what he isn’t interested in.

Another thing that interested me greatly is how he sees writing and his writing process which he and I have opposite philosophies on. I like a more involved story in my head which means researching a lot of information to make sure that I have it at more disposal when I write. For me and from my perspective, my fiction is only good when I know a lot of about what I want to know about at my disposal. But his philosophy is write what you know. That’s what William Faulkner did and Ernest Hemingway did. One could argue that this maybe a fundamental trend of principles of White male writers. It is to write what you know because the precedent is already set for you by writes like Hemingway and Faulkner to do that.

So, the two questions are…can Franzen write about other races? More specifically, can Franzen write about other races in a realistic portrayal from his perspective? My answer is that he can only write about them from what he knows from his (limited) perspective of what he knows about Black people. Because maybe he doesn’t like reading criticism and taking it well, and he doesn’t want to get slammed for writing something he may not know very well or can’t represent well.

The other question is…does Franzen write about race? Yes, he writes about his race, the White race. I believe I am interested in his writing and his characters because, like I am with Hemingway, there is truth to his fiction about how humans behave from his perspective. In Freedom, certainly, the characters in that novel are pathetic. There are White folks who are wounded, and they go about hurting one another because they have wound each other in their circle continuously. What I do admire about that novel and how Franzen creates and structures it is that many of us get involved in soap opera dramas in real life, and they play out because we are seeking something that we didn’t have when  we were growing up. We construct our identities, and we really find out that a lot of what we’ve constructed is really shitty about ourselves. I am thinking about myself while we were in our ECHD 8000 course…I thought about how I’ve been complicit in a system where I am getting gains. It is the same thing concerning the characters in Freedom…they are complicit in their Whiteness that results them in getting gains (financial gains, artistic gains, narcissistic gains, etc.). These gains actually drive them to become despicable people.

Anyway, I am going to post the contents of what I’ve written you (my part) on my blog. This is a noteworthy discussion to have for me because I don’t think about Franzen in these ways as Black female writer, myself.

What are your thoughts?

S

I am a Jonathan Franzen reader. You are thinking…Sophia, oh hell no, not you, Friend.

The conversation that my friend, B, and I have up above are my thoughts about Jonathan Franzen. Today, I sat in the Barnes and Noble café after I bought a huge lot of James Baldwin books, and I saw a new one published, The Fire Next Time that is edited by Jemayn Ward. As I sat down and read the entire conversation while eating a tiramisu cup and drinking dark roasted coffee, another layer of Jonathan Franzen was peeled in front of my eyes as to who he is. A huge part of that is explained in my comments above. Franzen admitted in an interview done by Issac Chotiner “A Conversation with Jonathan Franzen” (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/interrogation/2016/07/a_conversation_with_novelist_jonathan_franzen.html)  that he is a White male who has benefited from White privilege. He also admits that he doesn’t write about Black people because he doesn’t know Black people or hasn’t been in love with a Black woman. He expresses that in order to write his characters he has to love his characters. I’ve seen responses from some folks from social media that this a cop out from Franzen. That he is writing about race—his race—the White race.

He admits this in the interview to Chotiner that he writes about Whiteness when Chotiner asks him about it, and he doesn’t deny it:

You must know that a lot of the response to you is surely that you are this white guy writing about white guy things.

And yet some people like it, so you can’t please everybody. You should worry if you are pleasing everybody. I write for the people who like the kind of books I like.”

Again, Franzen admits that he writes books about Whiteness even though he doesn’t explicitly admit it in his response. I believe what I am most impressed by with Franzen is his ability as a White male to admit that he does have White privilege. That he does write for a White audience, and that he has been afforded opportunities that others haven’t been afforded such as him.

I guess I am confused about what people are asking for now since I’ve read his interview, and I’ve seen responses about what he said in his interview. What are folks asking for? Are folks asking him to be a revolutionist? Because he ain’t going to do it. He says in the interview that he is lazy and doesn’t believe in much, and he isn’t going to be prompt to action unless it affects him. Hand in hand, this interview demonstrates Franzen’s White privilege—the very same White privilege that he admits to.

I don’t know many fifty something year old White men who will admit that they have White privilege. There is an acquaintance/friend who I no longer have a relationship with who could not handle her White fragility. I didn’t even bring anything up with her, and she unfriended me from Facebook because she could not handle an article that I posted about White fragility that was written by a White female writer. We had a discussion, and she made up so many excuses and was so condescending to me that I blocked her. At least with Franzen, he admits on some levels that he is afforded the opportunities and experiences that he has because of his Whiteness.

I am not trying to make Jonathan Franzen some kind of hero. What I am saying is that folks should not expect him to be an anti-racist social justice activist. Again, he at least admitted that he is White privilege. Even for him, that says a lot to me about him.
S

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Respectful Spaces and Conversations

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Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind after finish reading or viewing the four assigned pieces for my “Whiteness and White Privilege in America” class. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own discusses how English women do not have access to spaces for many, many years. Woolf specifically speaks of English female writers in the past and in her present and how past English women writers did not have the opportunity to have space to write or create novels, short stories, or poems because of how women are viewed in society.

I am sure that Woolf has her fist raised up today and looking down on all of us…seeing how past injustices continue for women in the publishing industry. This morning, I read a piece by Dana Schwartz called “Why Hasn’t the Late Show Invited Any Female Novelist?” (http://observer.com/2016/05/why-hasnt-the-late-show-invited-any-female-novelists/#.VzIuvu2iWWw.twitter). In this piece, Schwartz adds to the discourse about how women writers who are novelists or fiction writers are not invited to the Stephen Colbert show. Instead, Colbert has had several male novelists or fiction writers one after the other on his show. The female writers that have appeared on Colbert’s show are memoirists. Schwartz mentions in her piece how Jennifer Weiner discusses how female writers get treated in the publishing industry when they write about families and female characters compared to our male counterparts. Weiner and Jodi Picoult have spoken out about how sexist the publishing industry is. During an Huffington Post interview, Weiner answers, “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-pinter/jodi-picoult-jennifer-weiner-franzen_b_693143.html).Weiner and Picoult addressed how Franzen’s Freedom received all these accolades for writing a great American novel about how a family in peril handled temptations of contemporary American society. Weiner’s and Picoult’s arguments stem from that they and other female fiction writers are deemed as chick literature writers whereas Franzen and other male counterparts are viewed as “Great American” writers. I followed this story in 2010 very closely, and I read Franzen’s Freedom which I happened to like. I believe it is a very good novel, and it shows how individuals can get caught up in a commercialized society where they bury their deep desires, and those deep desires come back and haunt them. Now, reflecting on it, I would like to go back and read everything on this happening because it is starting to seem like the story was sensationalized by the media. There has been other news on Weiner and Franzen discussing his latest novel, Purity.

I do agree with Weiner on how sexist the publishing world is. Male writers are still looked upon as “Great American” writers and/or “The Men of Letters.” Female writers don’t get that title, and people don’t look upon us as such. When female writers are successful, the media, advertising, and some critics will craft us as the darlings by the fans who support our work. Yet, we don’t get the same title as our male counterparts. We don’t get the same respectable publicity that our male counterparts do. Male writers not only get that recognition, but they are privileged to be granted the space that they are in. More so, white males writers have greater accessibilities of these privileges than white female writers, men of color writers, and women of color writers. We exist in a white patriarchal society still. Yes, still after all of this time. Those who aren’t white males have a more difficult time being “granted” recognition for their crafts. Most of all, white males writers are able to occupy many spaces in their careers which grants them many opportunities to become successful writers. As a black female fiction writer, I am going to have to fight, just like my predecessors, harder to explain in ways why I write what I write because I will be going against the status quota.

Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Tayari Jones, Gayle Jones, and other black women writers have paved a path for me. Black women writers continue to pave a path for each other, so the next generation of black female writers will continue to contribute and aspire like the ones who have paved the way for us. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are living legend established writers who write about the black experience from their own eyes and how they have seen American society and American culture in their world—and how they continue to see it. However, Morrison and Walker do not get talked about as much as white male writers—and they don’t get taught as much as male white writers overall. The four pieces I read for my “Whiteness and White Privilege in America” will help enrich my discussion about writing spaces. In general, Gay, Janai, Smooth, and Martínez discuss how important it is that we practice conversations when it concerns minorities in America when they are in certain spaces. This is quite important in how we facilitate conversations that empower individuals that are viewed as “Others” and are in the “Minority” and how it is important that the ones who have been oppressed find ways to liberate from oppression and have the opportunity to create, use, and utilize spaces.

The four pieces I read and viewed:

Roxane Gay’s “The Seduction of Safety, On Campus and Beyond” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/opinion/sunday/the-seduction-of-safety-on-campus-and-beyond.html?_r=4)
Janai’s “Introverts and Extroverts and Power (Oh My!) (http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/09/introverts-and-extraverts-and-power-oh-my/)
Jay Smooth’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussion Race” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU)
D.E. Solís y Martínez’s “How the Trigger Warning Debate Misses the Point (http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2016/01/how-the-trigger-warning-debate-misses-the-point/)

These four pieces reiterate for me in how you and I need to continue to find ways to discuss discourse in a way that makes us feel compel to without feeling like we are going to get potentially attacked for what we say or how we express it with all matters( including how writers are treated in public spheres in the publishing industry). Jay Smooth discusses this in his New Hampshire Ted Talk how it is difficult to have constructive conversations about race and racism because when an individual confronts a person or persons about a racist comment or opinion that he/she/they said, it turns into…are you saying that I am racist? I know as a person of color it is hard for me to engage in conversations with some people about race, and this is from all types of people—even people in my own race. When I’ve had discussions with some of my white friends about race, it pretty much goes over their heads. Even if I try to break it down or explain it to them, it gets pretty frustrating because no matter what you say, they do not want to get it at all. Questions like “how can I be privileged?” when I have explained to them a scenario in how they are privileged in a certain situation when I am not, gets frustrating. There have been times where I’ve had close friends who have made racist statements and/or racially prejudiced statements about black folks or black women in particularly. I know of one instance where I heard several comments about black women from a close friend being ghetto, and I was even confronted by…”Well, you know it is true, though. You know that black women are loud and vindictive” I am paraphrasing this because it was a long time ago, but I had thought days and days about not being this person’s friend anymore. My logic is…how can you want to be friends with me when you really don’t want to talk about or know anything about my culture? I do struggle with white friends who don’t get that. Yet, there are white friends that I do have who get it. They get that they are privileged and recognize it and want to change it. I am able to have thoughtful, engaging conversations with them, and with those friends, I am able to create those spaces with. Roxane Gay talks about that in her piece. When we use free speech, we don’t use it as a threat. I would like to add we need to all know what freedom of speech means before we throw that phrase around because many people hide behind “freedom of speech” when they are throwing hate speech around. Gay mentions that just because we have freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t exempted from its consequences. She’s right. What I know about verbal words and written words is this: they hold tremendous power. People say that they don’t, but they really do. Verbal abuse? There have been abuse victims that say the verbal abuse they received was worse than the physical abuse that they received. Words do hurt, and when you say them in certain spaces, you are either uplifting people’s self-esteem, or you chipping away or destroying folks’ self-esteem.

The individuals’ consequences of what they say either violate, disrupt, or destroy any type of safe space for any individuals who need to seek them when needed. Safe spaces are supposed to be temporary spaces for emotional refuge when the majority makes others “The Other.” When the majority collectively abides by existing, binding rules/standards, individuals who don’t fit in or abide these rules are the “Others.” They are unable to be themselves or express themselves because their uniqueness does not fit in with the “standard norms.” Safe spaces are there for those who feel traumatized or triggered by events that have resulted from “constructive norms” that have hurt them. As Martínez discusses in his piece about trigger warnings, we have to create spaces and communications to talk about what triggers are trauma—and discuss why we have that trauma and what we can do about healing from that trauma so we can have more fulfilling lives.

Yet, it is quite hard to have those spaces due to how people see those spaces and not understanding how they are causing those spaces not to be created. Janai’s piece offers interesting insight to how introverts and extroverts are privileged individuals in different spaces and how we all should recognize that being introverted or extroverted has privilege along with it. If you are an extrovert in spaces while having conversations, Janai writes that your loudness can silence other individuals in the group who want to share their experiences. If you are introverted, you have the privilege to observe and listen to people without having to share anything about yourself in certain spaces. What she says is interesting, and I can see how extroverts and introverts have some privileges depending on what spaces that they occupy…it is an interesting take. I suppose I am privileged in a way concerning not sharing my fiction writing with certain people. I tell them about I am writing a novel, but I don’t share parts of it, and they don’t but in. I suppose that I drew the line in the sand earlier about my writing, and in the past, I was quite selective about telling people that I had an online blog. So, I am introverted about certain aspects of my life while I am extroverted by certain aspects of my life. In some ways, I can see one seeing that as a privilege that I practice.

However, if we examine other minorities in the past compared to what I just shared, we’ve come a little ways. Woolf gives examples in A Room of One’s Own about how Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters had to hide their passion for writing. The Bronte sisters had to come up with male pseudonyms, so they could publish their books in a white male dominated publishing industry. A female author did an experiment where she used a male pseudonym and saw in a startling way in how agents/publishers treated her. Catherine Nichols used a male pen name (http://jezebel.com/homme-de-plume-what-i-learned-sending-my-novel-out-und-1720637627) and saw the results she got. In 2015, Catherine received very positive feedback and even pleasant rejections as her male pen name than when she actually submitted her work under her real name. Can we say sexism much? The Brontes published in the 19th century, and Catherine had her experience in the 21st century. That is two centuries—that is two hundred years, and in two hundred years time, individuals are still practicing sexism within publishing—and in many aspects of our culture.

In order to create spaces where individuals can freely express themselves without harm or persecution, we must have these conversations about racism, sexism, classism, elitism, ageism, and all other –isms that prevents many of us for being ourselves or talking about our experiences, so we can make changes to a system that benefits some. However, a system that eventually harms all. Yes, safe havens should still exist because those spaces need to be utilize by individuals who are looked upon and treated as the “Other.” However, you and I need to continue to create respectful spaces and have respectful conversations. The way we create spaces is tolerating and empathizing with one another and trying to learn how to have healthy, balance respectful conversations. I agree with Jay Smooth. Once we start becoming better in how to communicate with each other, then, we can start tackling the major issues that systematically oppress people from having access to certain opportunities or knowledge. We can also dismantle how ism tropes destroys spirit of self-innovation which is a part of freedom because individuals who are oppressed are worried more about obtaining freedoms and having the chance at opportunties that they limit own time in pursuing their talents that help our culture and society move along to being greater and greater.

Cheers,
Sophia