Jonathan Franzen’s Puzzling Letter to the New York Times

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In case you missed it, earlier this week, the novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote a letter to the New York Times in which he rebutted Frank Bruni’s column “Sexism’s Puzzling Stamina.” In publishing a riposte in the paper of record, the “Corrections” novelist follows in the footsteps of Jerry Seinfeld, who wrote a scathing response to Neil Genzlinger’s diatribe on the overuse of “really.

But whereas Seinfeld’s letter was – unsurprisingly – amusing, Franzen’s was out-of-left-field odd:

There may still be gender imbalances in the world of books, but very strong numbers of women are writing, editing, publishing and reviewing novels. The world most glaringly dominated by male sexism is one that Mr. Bruni neglects to mention: New York City theater.

Our favorite part of the letter is the description of Franzen below his name: "The writer is the novelist." Yes, the emphasis is added, but that's surely how Franzen sees himself.

As I’ve written before, Franzen has had his own troubles with prominent women, feuding with Oprah and calling Times book critic Michiko Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York.” In addition, he maligned Edith Wharton’s looks in the pages of the New Yorker, speculating about her “sexless” marriage.

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And does Franzen sound a trifle defensive about sexism in the book world? He certainly does to us. In any case, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, which releases a respected annual list of how women fare in high-end literary publications, persuasively shows that Franzen’s “may still” is superfluous. The upper echelon of the book world is still the domain of men. And then there was the embarrassing imbroglio over gender segregation in the Wikipedia entry for “American Novelists,” as highlighted by Amanda Filipacchi in the Times.

As for theater, we had no idea that Franzen was a crusader for gender parity on the Great White Way. Nevertheless, he does have a point here. Two days after Franzen’s letter was published, a response came from Jenny Lyn Bader, an executive at the League of Professional Theater Women:

I applaud Jonathan Franzen for casting a spotlight on sexism in theater. Two women won Tony Awards for directing this week, but we have far to go.

Over 60 percent of the American theater audience is female, but less than 20 percent of produced plays are written by women. There continue to be more roles for men onstage and backstage, from actors and dancers to stage managers and designers.

In other words, Franzen was right. He wouldn’t have it any other way.


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.