The limits of “sympathy”: Franzen on Wharton

Without sympathy, whether for the writer of for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.
So what to make of Wharton, on her hundred and fiftieth birthday? There are many good reasons to wish Wharton’s work read, or read afresh, at this late literary date. You may be dismayed by the ongoing underrepresentation of women in the American canon, or by the academy’s valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of more naturalistic fiction. You may feel that, alongside the more familiar genealogies of American fiction (Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernacularists, Herman Melville and the postmoderns), there is a less noticed line connecting William Dean Howells to Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and thence to Jay McInerney and Jane Smiley, and that Wharton is the vital link in it…

But to consider Wharton and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy.

— Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy” [subscription required]

A case of perfect timing?  Wharton’s 150th birthday has ensured that I have plenty of up-to-the-minute criticism to fight against in my thesis.  While I absolutely agree with most of the middle of this long quote (I am indeed dismayed, etc.), my chapter on Wharton is predicated on the thorny argument that negative affect (i.e., the frustration or irritation at the text that prevents “sympathy” in the reader), at least in The Custom of the Country, is exactly why that novel is still considered to “matter” today.

Without wasting my day typing up a longer discussion here (sorry, saving that for my thesis itself), I should say that my major problem with Franzen’s argument rests with the overwhelming subjectivity of most of his terms, including “matter” and “sympathy.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that fiction “matters” to me for very different reasons than other readers, and that any “sympathy” I feel for a character will depend at least somewhat on my race, gender, class standing, and personal history.