Literary Readings: Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore (11/13/2010)
In the deeply downtrodden, recession smashed state that the publishing industry is in, and in a culture in which few people seem to have the attention span to read an entire novel (much less one nearly 600 pages long), it seemed unlikely that America would ever crown yet another Great American Novelist. However, Jonathan Franzen has been given such a title by many media outlets, some of which showed a photo of President Obama carrying Franzen's latest work, Freedom. Franzen’s readings across the country have lead to lines around the block, giving life to a dying industry. But all of the fawning and attention directed at Franzen has lead some writers, like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, to wonder if writing by men is automatically taken more seriously than writing by women, who are often written off as "chick lit" or left to play second fiddle.
This question seemed to be in the air at the opening of the 92nd Street Y’s talk with Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Franzen. Despite being a well known and prolific writer, Moore was the first to read, and functioned much like the opening act at a concert, warming up the crowd for the headliner. She even made a joke out of the situation, choosing to begin by reciting the lines: “Opening acts,/opening acts/I’m not a girl complaining,/I’m just facing facts.” Moore then launched into singing part of the song “We Shall Overcome,” poking fun at her underdog status.
While the majority of the attendees seemed to be there for Franzen, Moore managed to solicit more laughs in the end with her warm, laid back nature as she read from her novel A Gate at the Stairs. Franzen’s reading of his recent, critically lauded Freedom was, by comparison, a bit hurried and self-conscious. He did not stop to pause over the language and coy jokes the way Moore did as she languidly hovered over the lines in her story that drew the most laughter. This caused her work to come across as more humorous than Frazen’s, though they both implanted plenty of wry observation into their respective works.
Both authors chose to read passages that depicted women naively giving all of themselves to men who do not love them quite as much as they assume, with Moore’s being from the woman’s point of view and Franzen from the man’s. The similarity of their two plots made it seem as though they were reading two sides of the same story.
Following the reading, a moderator took questions from the audience. One audience member questioned whether there was a connection between being from the Midwest and writing humorously. Moore responded that perhaps it is the result of the terrible weather in the Midwest, and that they have to find ways to amuse themselves. Franzed added that “those who can leave the Midwest must have mastered one coping skill, such as flight,” and Moore noted that perhaps humor is another of those coping skills.
During the course of the evening, Moore’s warmth and Franzen’s self-consciousness showed that, unlike stars of other artistic mediums, those of the literary realm are much more grounded, even when endless lines of fans wait in rapt anticipation for them to autograph their newly purchased books.