Ugly

What I’m trying to get at is kind of two-fold. One is that “ugly” is obviously a boogey-man word like “fat” or “slut.” It doesn’t have to have anything to do with objective reality. You can be “ugly” and look like Edith Wharton. You can be “fat” and be a size four. You can be a “slut” and be a virgin. They’re just words that are supposed to connote that you have no value and that it’s your fault you have no value. (It’s important to understand that these words wouldn’t really work if there weren’t people who were “objectively” fat or ugly or slutty, too. It’s one reason that dismantling the alarm over women having sex is important for getting rid of slut-shaming and “slut”-shaming. If there’s no such thing as a slut, being a “slut” has no sting. Same with being fat. If genuinely being fat were just seen as a medical condition and not as a moral failure or a measure of the lack of one’s worth, being “fat” wouldn’t matter.)

And that’s part of what baffles me about the whole Franzen affair. He’s a writer for a living. Hell, some folks would argue that he’s our best living writer (I would not be among those folks, obviously). And he’s using a word for its boogey-man meaning? I mean, not just using the word, but putting such faith in its boogey-man meaning that he thinks he can use the boogey-man meaning to evaluate and understand Wharton’s work. In public! As if it’s real deep thinking and insight!

This leads me to wonder if Franzen does not know that “ugly” is a boogey-man term. I find this a pretty alarming possibility–that a student and master of the language like Franzen could so fundamentally not get how language works. Wasn’t he called a fag in school? Did he really think that showing kids he was straight would end that? Did he really think they were just mistaken? It’s not like boogey-men words apply only to women.

But the other thing I keep thinking about is that it’s possible that Franzen looks at Wharton and sees someone who is objectively ugly. Which means that, for Franzen, when he goes out into the world, there’s only a very narrow sliver of people who are “beautiful” and everyone else is “ugly.”

This is how he’s been trained up (or trained himself) to see the world–that someone like Wharton is “ugly.”

I mean, I think it’s obvious how believing yourself to be in the position of judging someone by her looks and assuming that your judgement of her is universal and extends even to her own self-undertanding is pretty vile and hilarious.

But I want to get at a slightly different thing. He believes himself to be an objective judge and yet cannot recognize how his seeming objectivity is affected by his skewed view of the world–one in which most people are hideously ugly.

It’s as if you’ve been told that it’s your job to sort cards into piles and you decided that the only two piles are red and green. And yet, a third of your cards are purple but you’ve just been lumping those in with the red, because you can’t wrap your mind around there being more than two piles. But still you would call your cards properly sorted and act all hurt when people point out that they’re not.

Is there ever a moment when a guy like Franzen asks “I wonder why I thought there were only two piles to begin with?” let alone “I wonder why anyone thought I should be a sorter?”

7 thoughts on “Ugly

  1. An excellent question…but no. He’s sure he’s been put on earth to sort (in public, to loud acclaim) for those of us who lack his fearsome critical skills.

    Luckily, his writing inspires little rebellions everywhere.

  2. Have you read any of Franzen’s work? I’ve read excerpts but can’t bring myself to let him have any more of my time or headspace.

    I ask because the _excerpts_ I read were misanthropic skewerings of People, with extra stabs at Women People.

    He seems to see the world as a shit pile and himself as a shit taxonomer. He’s not even looking for the pony–just cataloging each and every turd with literary precision.

    I think he quite honestly cannot see beauty. He can see “pretty” and “cute” when it comes to women (those diminuitive terms that describe you “flatteringly” while making sure you are still less-than.) But Beauty is lost on him.

  3. I read The Twenty-Seventh City back when it came out. Because it was praised and was set in St. Louis, duh. And it struck me at first as an amusing exaggeration of competition between the city and the county, and within the county. But the competition spiraled into paranoia and then out of control. Which, OK, it’s a novel. And a lot of locations were recognizable and the people associated with them were typical of people who would be associated with them in real life. They were all pretty unattractive of soul, so I didn’t notice the women being particularly dissed, and I don’t remember seeing particularly unflattering physical descriptions of the women. The villain, however, was a fantasy-thriller-woman-villain, exotically foreign and out of place and mysterious in her motives (actually, by the end of the book, preposterous in her motives) and awesomely capable. I thought Franzen was afraid of her. Which suggests that he thinks in stereotyped fantasy terms. And I haven’t read anything of his since, but it does suggest why he may have limited nuance available to him.

  4. I read The Corrections, for no good, articulatable reason (guess it was the flavor of that month).

    I kind of remember a let’s-all-pile-on-mom-and-sis vibe, but then I remember the whole book as a depressing, vaguely sadistic blur.

    My husband, bless him, got 95% of the way through it and just put it down and refused to finish it.

  5. Honestly, I’ve never gotten into him, either. I’ve gotten a couple of his books off the shelf and paged through them, but they never caught my eye.

    If he weren’t such a douche in his public intellectual life, I think I’d be all “Oh, Franzen. He’s a great writer who’s just not for me.” And I would never have thought it was because he wasn’t “for women.” I would have just thought that his aesthetic aims and my tastes didn’t really line up.

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