The XX Factor


Jonathan Franzen’s response to the franzenfreude frenzy is admirably cordial, striking just the right gracious note. Disarmingly, Franzen agrees with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, suggesting that their argument that the New York Times Book Review pays more attention to male writers, and male genres, is not only valid-it’s something that has occurred to him, too. In responding this way he establishes a kind of moral supremacy over the women who have been tweeting their irritation, implying that the same injustice that bothers them began to bother him long ago, perhaps even longer ago than they first noticed it! So masterful. He really is a good writer.

In the spirit of Picoult’s and Weiner’s confessions, I have been wondering if perhaps it would be interesting, and cathartic, if we all confessed our own secret, shameful envies of male writers. Since I am not a critically underappreciated and wildly best-selling domestic novelist, my brand of malenfreude is different from that of Weiner and Picoult. Rather than obsessively counting reviews of books by male writers, totting up reviews of my own, and doing the math, 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.

Since, like Macbeth, I am so mired now that there’s no crossing back to the virtuous side of the river, I will go ahead and confess further than I experienced malenfreude most recently upon reading Michael Lewis’ terrific Vanity Fair piece on the financial debacle in Greece. As a kind of full disclosure: I knew Michael in college and really like him, and like everybody else in this solar system, I admire his writing and truly do not feel envious about that gift. No, indeed. I do not! I do not feel envy of his writing! What I do feel envious about is the fact that this man I used to idly hang out with in the dining hall is able to leave his beloved family, including young children; that he is able to fly to Greece, spend days interviewing high-level officials, and then get on some lurching bus and some ferry-apparently not knowing whether this excursion will yield any material or whether it will be a big waste of time, a luxury unavailable to many women, since when you are a working mother every second of your reporting trip must be productive or else you cannot psychically justify it-to a remote monastery that is emblematic of the Greek financial crisis.

Not only is he able to take trips like this; I could be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that while he was on that trip, and other trips to places like, say, Iceland , he rarely if ever has his interviews interrupted by calls from a nurse saying that his daughter has a stomach ache and wants to be fetched from sleepaway camp, the way I was on a recent trip to the somewhat less glamorous location of Detroit. A trip I had arranged specifically because both my kids were at camp, meaning I could travel for a few days without having to worry about household logistics. And wouldn’t you know it, here the cellphone was, ringing in the middle of an interview, and here on the line was the nurse saying that my daughter was in the infirmary. Mere stomach ache? Appendicitis? Who knew? And here my daughter was, getting on the phone, feeling terrible, pitifully asking that someone come get her. And now here was the phone ringing from my husband, to discuss the severity of the situation, which of course we had no real way to gauge, because who knows with stomach pains! And I have to further confess, here I was thinking: Surely the camp nurse is better equipped to detect appendicitis than he or I would be, so better that she stay at camp, under professional surveillance. And now here was the phone, ringing yet again, not long afterward, from the nurse cheerfully reporting that things seemed to be better so not to worry! And here I was, apologizing to the person I was trying to interview, because the phone kept ringing with stomachache updates. Now, what we were talking about?

God! To go to Greece! To take a rickety bus and a ferry to a religious retreat and to be unreachable! That, yes, that is the source of my personal malenfreude ! And also to get to write a book on fatherhood ! As opposed to the woman I know who went on a reporting trip and called home to find that her husband had left her. Or the woman who orders groceries to be delivered to her home, online, using her BlackBerry, when she is away! Or the friend who went on a weeklong reporting trip and returned to find that her husband had contracted an infection requiring hospitalization! I am so sorry to be unsympathetic, but women never get critically ill when their husbands go away on trips. They just do not. They soldier on. They wait for a convenient time to get sick.

So that is my own Franzen-inspired confession. I do not feel good about it. It’s pointless and unproductive. Sorry, Michael. Great piece. None of this is your fault. And frankly, even if the Times starts devoting way more ink to female writers, it still won’t solve this logistics issue. It won’t stop the nurse from calling me! But I hope the Times changes its ways anyhow, because hey, maybe someday I will write a chick-lit novel. You can stay at home to do that, right? Sounds pretty easy. But that’s fictionfreude, an entirely other topic.