Last week, Frank Bruni devoted his New York Times opinion column to the “puzzling stamina” of sexism in the United States and “all the recent reminders of how often women are still victimized, how potently they’re still resented and how tenaciously a musty male chauvinism endures.” He covered gender imbalances in the military, the Senate, corporate America, film, television, pro sports, and finally, books. “Even in the putatively high-minded realm of literature, there’s a gender gap, with male authors accorded the lion’s share of prominent reviews, as the annual VIDA survey documents,” Bruni wrote. “Reflecting on that in Salon last week, the critic Laura Miller acutely noted: ‘There’s a grandiose self-presentation, a swagger, that goes along with advancing your book as a Great American Novel that many women find impossible or silly.’ ”
Naturally, Jonathan Franzen was moved to respond.
“There may still be gender imbalances in the world of books, but very strong numbers of women are writing, editing, publishing and reviewing novels,” Franzen wrote in a letter to the editor. “The world most glaringly dominated by male sexism is one that Mr. Bruni neglects to mention: New York City theater.” A note below his byline clarified that—lest we confuse him with some lesser Jonathan Franzen—“the writer is the novelist.”
I’m wondering why the novelist—according to Time, the Great American Novelist—would be moved to file this limp non sequitur of an argument in the paper of record. (Franzen famously refuses to tweet all the half-baked thoughts that pass through his brain; apparently he prints them out and mails them to the New York Times instead.) If Franzen wanted to administer a sweet burn to Frank Bruni for calling out sexism in his profession, he could have criticized the male-dominated field of New York City restaurants. (Bruni served for years as the Times’ chief food critic.) He could have dug into the demographics of the Times opinion page, where 10 of its 12 op-ed columnists are men. Instead, Franzen laid into theater with bizarre specificity. Why? I can only conclude that this was a conspicuously ineffective letter from a man considered one of the greatest writers alive. Or else it was a gay joke.
Frank Bruni is gay; Broadway is one of the few American industries that is perceived to be dominated by gay men. Franzen is smart enough not to explicitly chide Bruni for failing to singlehandedly resolve sexism in the gay community before speaking out against chauvinism in all other corners of the United States, but he may be just self-important enough to imply it. Then again, not everyone picked up on Franzen’s subtext. “I applaud Jonathan Franzen for casting a spotlight on sexism in theater,” Jenny Lyn Bader, a member of the executive board of the League of Professional Theater Women, wrote to the Times this week. In light of Franzen’s little note, “maybe the public will finally take note hearing it from a man, who cannot be accused of speaking out of self-interest.”
I’m not clapping. Instead of leveraging his clout to recognize gender imbalances in his own field (“there may still be, but” is an impressive hedge, but it does not count), Franzen deflected responsibility for resolving gender inequality onto gay men. Or maybe he just wrote a terrible letter that makes no sense. I’m not sure which accusation would bother the novelist more.