Is Jonathan Franzen Pretty?

Author Jonathan Franzen is at it again, ticking people off in the name of literary commentary. This time, he’s on about Edith Wharton and how her writing must have been heavily influenced by the fact (he presents it as fact) that she wasn’t pretty. (“A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy,” in the New Yorker.)

Here’s just one of seemingly millions of retorts from the literatosphere: Marina Budhos in The Daily Beast.

Franzen can’t possibly be surprised at the backlash. No matter what he writes, especially in his essays and commentaries, he’ll never live down his arrogant and paternalistic dismissal of Oprah’s book club choices as being books for women, somehow less substantial than books for men. (I wanted Toni Morrison to find him and club him with her Nobel statue and then Maya Angelou to finish him off with her Presidential Medal of Freedom.)

But the most important question: Is Jonathan Franzen qualified to discuss prettiness?

For comparison, let’s look at these classic authors:

Charles Dickens
The prolific writer didn’t let his busy schedule get in the way of
good hair care. Going around wearing this pageboy cut with the sassy curl must have given him great insights into his characters.


Ernest Hemingway
High cheekbones. Pouty lips. Luxurious thick hair. Papa Doc was one lithesome beauty in his day. One can imagine him at the bullfights in Spain, scribbling away while checking that his eyebrows were perfectly plucked in the reflection from a silver cigarette case. A boy does what he can.


Vogues like Madonna. Knows how to put his best assets forward with coquettish flair. Strike the pose, Yukio. You’re too sexy for your shirt. Did he pose in front of a mirror while writing his fevered sex scenes? It would have worked for me.


Herman Melville
19th-century hairstyles for men were notoriously unforgiving. But Herman looks ready for his close-up. Must get extra props for rocking that beard. Wonder if he worried about losing his looks to the harsh sea air when he was a sailor, researching his masterpiece.


Though his expression isn’t “come-hither” so much as “Don’t-kiss-me-I’m-crawling-with-existential-angst”, attention must be paid to his bold bouffant, a pre-cursor to The Beehive. Did he find cochroaches in it? Is that what happened to him?



What about Franzen’s very pretty contemporaries? Will discussions of their writing be entwined with assessments of their looks someday?

John Irving

Sherman Alexie

Colson Whitehead

Sebastian Junger

Chang-Rae Lee

Barry Eisler













Ready to compare? Here’s Jonathan!

Plump, pink lips. Well-shaped brows. A fetching upturn to his aquiline nose. Flirty pose. Hmm. It seems Jonathan can discuss pretty from a vantage point of those in the club.

Here’s the thing. Should he? Could he possibly have any idea how a Gilded Age woman’s looks informed and influenced her professional writing? Or any woman? Why would he position himself as someone who could?


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