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Franzenfreude: Reporting Trips From a Planet I’ve Never Visited

September 22nd, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  7 Comments

Apparently, this Jonathan Franzen fellow has written another book that people are excited about. A great deal has been and could be written about why his success tends to piss people off, but it does. Perhaps the best-written example of the anger he inspires through his great and enormous and giant success can be found in the pages of the magazine for which I work (please see Ben Marcus’s “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it,” from the October 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, although the headline tells you a quite a bit already). Maybe you know a better-written example, and if so, correct me if I’m wrong (zing!).

One of the less-expected forms of being angry at Franzen has very little to do with him specifically–namely that his success demonstrates the continuance of sexism in the publishing industry, literary media, and the culture in general. To wit, read this from the writer Jennifer Weiner, during an interview with her and Jodi Picoult on the Huffington Post:

Why do you feel that commercial fiction, or more specifically popular fiction written by women, tends to be critically overlooked?

Jennifer Weiner: 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…The only mention my books have ever gotten from the [New York Times Book Review] have been the occasional single sentence and, if I’m lucky, a dependent clause in a Janet Maslin flyover piece: “Look! Here’s a bunch of books that have nothing in common but spring release dates and lady authors!” I don’t write literary fiction – I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today. Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.

I neither agree or disagree with Weiner, who I’m afraid I’ve never heard of before–but if she wants to be the lady-Nick Hornby, well that’s her problem. I will point out that on Weiner’s website, included among the blurbs in praise of her newest book, Fly Away Home, is this little tidbit from USA Today: “The season’s hottest chick lit!” Make of that what you will.

The Huffpo thing then prompted another piece, this time on the site, Double X (what, they were too cheap to spring for the third?), by Liza Mundy, a reporter for the Washington Post, in which she discussed the double standard female reporters face while traveling for their work:

I find myself obsessively counting reporting trips, men’s versus mine, and comparing their distance and ease and duration. I personally love reporting trips and professionally feel that it’s important to talk to people in locations other than, say, my own neighborhood, but like all working mothers, I pay a price whenever I try this. Forgive me, hard-working fathers, if I hyperbolize, but in my experience, male reporters say something along the lines of “Bye, honey!” when they go out the door to the airport, while women reporters have to make 7,000 back-up plans involving not only spouses but primary baby-sitters, secondary baby-sitters, pet-walking services, and carpooling colleagues, just to make sure that while they are away, no child gets forgotten overnight at gymnastics practice. Women reporters take the earliest train trip to their reporting destination in the morning, and the latest possible train back, rather than spend an extra, leisurely night in a hotel room. Women reporters stuff breast pumps in their carry on bags and help with homework over the telephone. Because of this, from time to time I confess I do suffer from stabbing spasms of malenfreude, when reading that a reporter got to take some long, luxurious reporting trip to an exotic destination, despite being, you know, a dad.

I’d be curious to hear what Matt and Nathan, both of whom travel for reporting more than I do, have to say on this topic. I will say that in my household, her assertion is more than just hyperbolizing–it’s a crock. When I was still with JP’s mom, the few reporting trips I took were subjects of endless debate within our home, and on my return, the guilt and recriminations flowed. Now, with my girlfriend, I don’t face the same problems. But I do still schedule my reporting trips around my parenting responsibilities to the extent that I can, and I would bet Matt and Nathan, and most male reporters under the age of 65, do as well.

In general, my work tends to come second in my home, and for a very simple reason: I make less money than the women I’ve chosen to be with. Full stop. I earn less, therefore I get less choice about what things I do. Is that the case with all the swinging dick Post journos Ms. Lundy has to contend with? No clue. Am I less successful within my chosen field than they are? No. But someone’s gotta pay the bills, and that means my reporting work comes after JP goes to bed, and on weekends when he’s with his mother.

At bottom, I’m not really sure what Mundy is saying. Does she want the freedom to be away from work without feeling anything? Or does she want her male colleagues to feel bad about their trips? As for the breast pumps women are taking with them, I’m afraid there isn’t much to be done to rectify that.

Meanwhile, someone send me a free copy of Freedom–all this attention has made me curious.


  1. scottstev says:

    September 22nd, 2010at 12:29 pm(#)

    I think a key component to raising a modern family is to have a designated “flex-parent” who can drop work for appointments, illnesses and errands. For most of my career, I was that designated partner, as my wife was in a management position, and I could set my own schedule. Now that I have more responsibility, it’s a harder thing to balance.

    The other key point is that both parents need to be “cross-trained” as we say in Corporate World. Both should be able to handle any household task. If the husbands in Mundy’s circle practice avoidance by incompetence, then shame on them. If the wives are martyring themselves by claiming that they’re the only ones who can run the household, then that’s on them.

  2. Nathan says:

    September 22nd, 2010at 2:47 pm(#)

    I flew from Sweden to India and stayed for all of 23 hours, turning down both extra assignments and free time, all so I could race back home to my wife and kids. This is just an example, but I completely agree that the guy just waltzing out the door is a thing of the past.

    I also agree with the other comment that there are probably a lot of men and women doing the whole gatekeeping/incompetent guy routine and making everyone unhappy in the process.

  3. Tim says:

    September 22nd, 2010at 3:26 pm(#)

    I think there are far too many women who gripe about what they’ve got as though it was standard. If your husband watches football all weekend and is uncommunicative that’s not a case of “men being from mars” it’s a case of “shitty husband”.

  4. Carly says:

    September 22nd, 2010at 9:58 pm(#)

    Thank you Liza Mundy, and thank you for pointing out this piece. Mundy’s “circle” seems to be most American families, where woman remain the designated flex parent (nice coinage, scottstev) based on the extensive baseline study I’ve conducted of schools-and-playgrounds-I-hang-in. Nathan, you are totally the exception. You are a good man. In fact, as Newsweek might say, you are the new man. I would also point out that several women I know have simply dropped the words “reporting trip” from their repertoire post-kids, for better or worse.

    As for what that Mundy woman wants, might we all ask ourselves this question before every blog post.

  5. Nathan says:

    September 23rd, 2010at 10:02 am(#)

    @Scottstev I like this flexparent thing. Switching roles
    could be difficult, though, as you say. Kids as well
    as parents begin to have certain expectations about who does what, though kids are definitely the more flexible in their thinking.

    @carly Thank you for approving of my padre-skills. The first Nathan who commented here, however, was another Nathan–I’m guessing the illustrious NeoSwede
    dad who praised European socialist paternity policies in Slate recently. I have similarly shrunk reporting trips, but not so drastically, and not (yet) at the expense
    of possible extra stories. That day may come soon though.


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