On Writing vs. Bird by Bird: Franzenfreude? Gender bias?
You may recall that late in 2010, Jonathan Franzen released his latest novel, Freedom, to widespread critical acclaim. Such acclaim, in fact, that two female authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, criticized the book review establishment for their adulation – or rather, the lack of such when female writers tackle the same topics. In the way typical of any sort of internet dust-up, their complaints spawned a new term: Franzenfreude.
Dismissive name aside, they have a point. Vida, an organization that promotes and analyzes the impact of women in the literary arts, does an annual survey of the prominence of female authors in the literary establishment, and the numbers don’t lie. In 2010 and 2011, men wrote the majority of both the books reviewed and the book reviews themselves in established publications like the New York Review of Books and The Atlantic.
In light of this, once I finished both On Writing and Bird by Bird and analyzed my opinions of them, I had misgivings. Was I placing more value on On Writing simply because it was written by a man? Did I dislike Bird by Bird – which I felt was plagued by new-age speak, unvarnished neuroses, and runaway metaphors – because it was written by a woman? I majored in Women’s Studies in university, and I’d like to think that I’d be a bit more self-aware of my critical responses than that.
I’m still not sure what to think. Stephen King and Anne Lamott started writing under different circumstances for different reasons. All I can say is that the difference is illuminating. Let’s take a look at some quotes:
Here’s Stephen King describing his creation of a high school newspaper satirizing his school’s staff:
As all sophomoric humorists must be, I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H.L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit [his satirical paper] to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!
As a matter of fact, they did bust a collective gut; I had some good ideas about what tickled the funnybones of high school kids, and most of them were showcased in The Village Vomit. Cow Man’s prize Jersey won a livestock farting contest at Topsham Fair; in another, Old Raw Diehl was fired for sticking the eyeballs of specimen fetal pigs up his nostrils. Humor in the grand Swiftian manner, you see. Pretty sophisticated, eh? (Page 52)
Here’s Anne Lamott describing her own writing attempts during middle and high school:
But I was funny. So the popular kids let me hang out with them, go to their parties, and watch them neck with each other. This, as you can imagine, did not help my self-esteem a great deal. I thought I was a total loser. But one day I took a notebook and a pen when I went to Bolinas Beach with my father (who was not, as far as I could tell, shooting drugs yet). With the writer’s equivalent of canvas and brush, I wrote a description of what I saw….My father convinced me to show it to a teacher, and it ended up being included in a real textbook. This deeply impressed my teachers and parents and a few kids, even some of the popular kids, who invited me to even more parties so I could watch them all make out even more frequently. (Pages xvi-xvii)
She also says this a few lines up from the excerpt quoted above:
All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging. (Page xvi)
There are similarities here – both authors wrote to gain approval of some sort. But when King wrote, it was to entertain his friends. He was doing this all for fun. When Lamott wrote, she used her skill to gain some sort of social standing among her peers. She wrote for herself, but used the success of that writing as leverage. Note that King mentions actually having friends, and Lamott doesn’t.
This lies at the heart of my enjoyment of On Writing on one hand, and my dislike of Bird by Bird on the other: I get the sense that Lamott is trying really hard to prove herself. Whenever she describes her writing process, it sounds like she goes through a lot of emotional turmoil to write something effective and lasting.
I get it – although writing is difficult and unpredictable, sometimes the results are breathtaking. But I’m sick and tired of hearing that writing is an act of Herculean audacity and emotional catharsis. It can be that way a lot of the time. But during the other times, I just want to yank the story idea out and put it on paper so it will leave me the f**k alone. I don’t need advice on the emotional aspects of writing – I need advice on how to transplant the sapling that’s taken root in my head into the fertile soil it needs to thrive.
So, there we have it. I liked the book written by a male author better because it was less emotional and more practical. I guess I’m just as bad as the literary establishment that Vida criticizes.