The Discomfort Zone: Love and the Male Novelist

Female writers are sentimental and have “a narrow view of the world.” At least that is how V.S. Naipaul sees things.

Back in June, in an interview at the Royal Geographic Society, Naipaul was asked if there were any female writers he considered his literary match. “I don’t think so,” the author replied. They are “quite different…I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think

[it is] unequal to me.”

Naipaul argued that this is because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world…And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” Naipaul added. “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.” Of Jane Austen, Naipaul said that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.”

The British writer Diana Athill, whose work Naipaul flippantly dismissed as “feminine tosh,” handled the criticism with her usual grace and good humor. “He doesn’t realise what a monkey he’s making of himself,” she told the Guardian. Naipaul deserves to be taken to task for his sexism and hubris, as well as his lack of empathy. The best fiction writers are able to inhabit the lives of others, and assuming a position of superiority can only be a detriment to the literary imagination.

The recent Naipaul controversy brought to mind last year’s big sexism uproar in the literary world, which centered around the release of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. Franzen, through no fault of his own, found himself in the line of fire when the critical acclaim of his novel became a useful vehicle to debate gender inequalities in publishing.

Franzen responded to the “Franzenfrenzy” controversy in interviews and at public appearances. “There are too few books by women that receive the attention they deserve,” I heard him say at an event last year. Franzen is not simply paying lip service to his critics. He has consistently advocated for female authors and championed talented writers like Paula FoxAlice MunroJane Smiley, and Lorrie Moore.

The specifics of the Franzen and Naipaul controversies are worth noting for their dissimilarities. In one case a male writer has said something truly contemptuous about women, and in the other a male writer has simply produced a fabulous novel that critics loved.

If we want to discuss gender inequality in the literary world, let’s look at the numbers that reveal that 62% of the books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and August 27, 2010 in the Sunday Times Book Review were by men (male authors wrote 72% of the books that received two reviews in the paper). Let’s discuss new research that shows a huge gender imbalance in children’s literature with male characters far outnumbering females. But let’s not turn Franzen into a literary whipping boy simply because he is a gifted writer, who also happens to be white and male.

The novelist Jonathan Franzen spoke about the subject of love in his recent commencement address at Kenyon College (Courtesy Photo)

No stranger to controversy, Franzen has learned the hard way about the perils of being a public figure in the digital age. David Shields has criticized the author for his “nostalgic,” “Flaubertian” novels, and Franzen is nostalgic in his way. He has devoted his life to books–an “old fashioned” medium that requires ample concentration, time, and focus. Franzen is at his best when he is given this space to explore an idea in depth. But deep attention is becoming rarer these days and as Franzen has discovered, context and true meaning are quickly obscured when an hour-long interview is reduced to a 10-second sound byte. Is it any wonder Franzen remains skeptical of technology?

Regardless of your opinions about Franzen’s work, he deserves credit for his willingness to enter the fray of public discourse. Most writers choose their profession because they have a penchant for solitude and prefer to meticulously craft their ideas in private and let the work speak for itself. For many writers I know, public speaking is about as enjoyable as a visit to the dentist.

But Franzen, regardless of his appetite for solitude and love for the novel, has decided to leave his desk–to investigate politics in Washington D.C., the poaching of songbirds in Southern Europe, amongst other subjects. He is growing, both as a public figure and as a writer. He has become a more eloquent, impassioned speaker in recent years. When I recently listened to his interviews and readings from a decade ago during The Corrections tour and compared them to the latest round of interviews for Freedom, I found Franzen to be more open and honest not only about his personal life, but also about his fears and struggles as a writer.

But nowhere has this growth been more apparent than in the evolution of his fiction. Franzen has always had a sharp eye for social and cultural criticism. He excels at the big picture. It is one of the gifts he brings to his prose–the ability to make connections between our personal consumer choices, our relationships, and the environment we live in. In Franzen’s world, there is a direct correlation between the cars we drive, the places we live, the pills we take, the people we love, and the desire to relieve loneliness and personal suffering. A single choice–to take an anti-depressant, to marry, to use sex as a salve for unhappiness, to be your own child’s best friend, to let the cat outdoors each night–has a ripple effect, not only on the character’s internal life and the other characters they interact with, but also on the neighborhood, the song birds, the soldiers fighting a war in another country. The idea that everything and everyone is connected in some way is one of Franzen’s central themes.

While Franzen has always excelled at these larger thematic ideas, until recent novels, he has kept his characters safely at arm’s length. His ability to zoom out and obtain a bird’s eye view (as he did so well in The Twenty-Seventh City) can be a handicap when it comes to creating memorable, complex characters. But with each new novel, Franzen has moved in closer. He has risked intimacy not only with his characters, but also himself.

Franzen likes to quote writer Alice Sebold when she describes “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” But this is exactly what he has done in both The Corrections and in Freedom. He has waded into the messy murk of human emotions, exploring pain, longing, loss, insecurity, jealousy, and the most difficult emotion of all–love.

Love is tricky literary territory, especially for a male novelist. Many writers, such as Naipaul, prefer to avoid the subject entirely. But regardless of the writer’s gender, the pitfalls of writing about love are the same in fiction–sentimentality, triteness, melodrama, and maybe worst of all, the risk of being unhip, of being caught wearing your heart on your vintage t-shirt sleeve. Which book jacket symbol would be most embarrassing to a male reader on the subway I wonder–the Oprah Book Club logo or a bright red heart?

Unlike Naipaul, Franzen is not afraid to tackle the subject of love in his writing. In The Corrections, Franzen focuses on the failures of love, especially in its familial form. But in Freedom, the reader gets a glimpse of love that succeeds in spite of itself. In Freedom the love between parents and children, between husbands and wives, and between illicit lovers is messy. It is complicated and painful and sometimes ugly, but it is still a worthwhile endeavor. It is within these difficult relationships that Franzen’s characters learn the most about themselves.

Love was also one of the central theme’s of Franzen’s recent commencement address at Kenyon College. Franzen’s speech is poignant for many reasons, but most especially because he is following in the footsteps of his close friend and fellow writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. Wallace’s commencement address is highly regarded in literary circles and is now available in print under the title This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life.

David Foster Wallace (Photo by Steve Rhodes)

The subjects of compassion and love clearly interested Wallace, as his commencement address, essays, and interviews attest. In his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace predicted that “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching….Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction…Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to…risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”

In his essay Wallace seems to be anticipating Franzen’s most recent novels, and I can only admire both men for broaching the delicate subject of love. It is a shame that our literary culture makes it so difficult for writers, particularly male writers, to explore subjects like love and family, but clearly we’re uncomfortable with the topic. Female writers fear being banished to the “chic lit” shelf, and male writers worry they’ll be labeled “soft” or “sentimental.” Chest-beaters like Naipaul only reinforce these narrow-minded, gender stereotypes.

But Franzen provides us with an alternative role model. In his commencement address, he has much to say about rage and despair, narcissism and selflessness, risk and rejection. He urges us to consider deeper questions about love and its relationship to nature, consumerism, and technology. As Franzen himself admits, he is a bit of a “crank” when it comes to the subject of technology. But it’s healthy to have a skeptic in our midst and to be reminded that being “liked” on Facebook is not the same as being loved in a specific way by a single person who accepts us with all of our faults and complexities.

Here are some of my favorite lines from Franzen’s speech:

On Commitment: “I had to find out the hard way what a messy business commitment is. The first thing we jettisoned was theory. My soon-to-be wife once memorably remarked after an unhappy scene in bed, ‘You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time.’”

On the Commodification of Love: “You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.”

On Apathy: “When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”

Franzen has had the courage to write about the full range of human experiences and emotions in both his fiction and essays (whether or not he succeeds in his efforts is open to debate, of course). In contrast, Naipaul suggests that the “narrow” subjects of love, sentiment, and emotion are areas best left to female writers. This attitude puts not only women writers in a box, but male writers as well. It wrongly implies that both sexes have an amputated understanding of humanity.

I hope you will take the 18 minutes and 20 seconds to listen to Franzen’s commencement addresss. An edited version of the speech was also published in the editorial section of The New York Times. David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” is available here or at your local bookstore.

Can you tell an author’s gender by reading a sample of prose? Take the Guardian’s “Naipaul Test” here.

You can read The Paris Review‘s recent interview with Jonathan Franzen free online.

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What are your thoughts on Naipaul, Franzen, and gender bias in the literary world? You can add your comments below.


By | 2016-11-11T21:55:59+00:00 07.14.11|Books Worth Reading, Greatest Hits, Words|3 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Silvia Pareschi July 14, 2011 at 1:20 am

    As Jonathan Franzen’s Italian translator, I would like to thank you for this beautiful, deep and (for once, when it comes to Franzen) truly unbiased article.

  2. Robin MacArthur July 14, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Wonderful, Michelle. Especially the issues of love and sentimentality–the notion that sentimentality and melodrama are the terrain of new rebels. Thanks for this early morning, tea-in-hand brain stimulant.

    • Michelle Aldredge July 17, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Robin. Just to clarify…I don’t think that David Foster Wallace was endorsing sentimentality or melodrama. For any writer, male or female, these are potential pitfalls when writing about love. I believe Wallace is saying that the act of writing about love without hipster irony or sarcasm is potentially a rebellious, radical act in today’s literary climate.

      I would add that this is particularly true for male writers who feel pressure to conform to literary stereotypes, and there are plenty–the hard-drinking alcoholic, the womanizer, the adventurer, the cowboy, the cold intellectual, the bohemian, the great outdoorsman (Hemingway being the perfect example for several of these categories). I would love to know what male novelists think about this issue. Is love a terrifying topic to tackle? Do you fear being exposed as a softy if you reveal too much empathy or sincerity in your fiction?

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