Jonathan Franzen Is No Martin Amis: Where Are America’s Literary Lotharios?

Over at The Guardian this morning, Sam Leith dissects “Why we love to hate Martin Amis,” especially, as now, when he has a new novel on the horizon. The verdict? It’s because he’s surly. It’s because he’s outspoken and sometimes offensive. It’s because of all his rumored fallings-out and romantic encounters and love children and that whole thing about his teeth. It’s because he’s, in general, “funny and outraging.” It’s also because, to varying degrees, he positions himself to be all those things. There is a kind of merry war betwixt the UK press and him, and it’s all very entertaining.

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but be slightly jealous. It’s true that Amis is a singular fellow, but it seems like all of the real contemporary enfants terribles in the literary world come to us from overseas. Michel Houellebecq, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Will Self (just read this delightfully snooty Q&A), etc. Where oh where is the American Martin Amis? (The fact that Amis somewhat recently moved to Brooklyn is not relevant; he is not ours.) Is there a writer we love to hate? Or one who picks fights with equal glee?

No. You know who we’ve got? Franzen. Whiny, whiny Jonathan Franzen. Our hatred of him is there, but it’s utterly joyless. We don’t love to hate him. He just kind of pisses everyone off. And unlike their reactions to Amis, which are frequently ambivalent and all over the map, the critics pretty much universally enjoy Franzen’s writing — which leaves us arguing about whether or not he’s right about Twitter. He’s a pretty toothless figure of controversy, but the media does its best to get worked up over him whenever he says something grumpy.

Perhaps it’s a function of the whole so-called “niceness epidemic,” which, whether good or bad or even worth talking about, probably discourages bellicose writer-personae. As Leith wrote, “We like writers to declare war, and Amis is concerned with wars and revolutions: the war between young and old, the sexual revolution, the war against shame, the war against cliché, the war against Islamism, the war against eisteddfods …” And we used to have such warriors (Mailer vs. Vidal, ding ding ding, begin!). But in North America today, authors get called out for saying the most tepidly negative things about each other. There haven’t been any good literary spats for ages. Even when Clare Messud elicited cheers from the reading public for snapping back against a sexist question, she was taken to task for implicit snobbery. And even our most misogynistic literary men are pretty boring about it. Oh, you don’t teach women? How unsurprising. How embarrassing for you. How dumb of you to admit it. Next.

Despite the headline, I’m obviously not really calling for more misogyny in American letters (though some lady lotharios would be accepted with pleasure — no pun intended). I am calling for more characters, more authors willing to push the boundaries with their public personae. I think the book industry can only benefit from a merry war with one of its giants — if nothing else, wars sell books. I am calling for such a war, and for an author willing to start one, niceness be damned. I am calling for an author we can love to hate. Why? It’s just so much fun.