goon squad wins!

Sure, I get why millions of people follow college basketball, but I don’t understand why more people don’t follow March Madness: The Morning News Tournament of Books. Sixteen books going head-to-head in critical review over a three week period for a prize called The Rooster.

I was genuinely excited when I woke up to see who won between my favorite novel of 2011, Jennifer Egan’s brilliant A Visit from the Goon Squad and another of my top-5 novels of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s ubiquitous Freedom. And Visit from the Goon Squad wins! Granted, one of those votes was from one of the central principals in the “Franzenfreude” movement, but still.

The most inspired chapter in Visit from the Goon Squad is made up entirely of Power Point slides, and is available (with audio enhancements!) here.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

11 thoughts on “goon squad wins!”

  1. One thing I found interesting: a clear gendered difference in judging.

    9 men, 8 women.

    1 woman voted for Franzen. 7 voted for Egan.

    2 men voted for Egan. 7 voted for Franzen.

    I loved Egan’s book.

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  2. Somehow I missed Goon Squad! It is going on my “to read” list right now.

    About Franzen, if you are a woman, it is pretty easy to see why women are less enthused. He’s a good writer, don’t get me wrong, but the gender theme of Freedom is that women enjoy serving and being dominated by men. His central character is bored by the husband who is trying to please her. Yes, there is a psychological reality to this as the character has developed. I said Franzen is a good writer, he has a lot of good instincts, and I did enjoy the book but still, there it is.

    I started Corrections. I stopped in an early chapter in the middle of an extended description of how the main character first lusts after the sexy undergraduate woman in the first row and is then being pursued by her; I’d already been subjected to a vivid description of male masturbation techniques and the obligatory over-demanding mother. I thought to myself: I’m 61 years old. I read a lot of books. I’ve read hundreds of books by men. I must have read at least a couple hundred descriptions of male sexual fantasies and their troubled relationships with domineering women. I’ve done my time. I don’t need this. I don’t care how the books comes out, I don’t care if it has redeeming social or literary value, I don’t care if the author is implicitly criticizing the character. I’m out.

    I’m not gender biased in my reading. I’d say it’s pretty much 50-50. Depending on my mood, I often prefer the sensibilities of books written by men to the earnestness and relationship-focus of a lot of “women’s fiction.” I like to read a mixture of things. But after a while, enough is enough.

    How many men have read hundreds of novels written by women? How many men have read hundreds or at least dozens of books written by women that describe sexual tension and relationships from a woman’s point of view? Maybe we’d all be better off if men diversified their reading more. I know Franzen would be a better writer if he understood women more.

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    1. I know what you are talking about Franzen, and I think you are even being charitable about the scenario in the second half where the beautiful young woman seems to be unreservedly in love with an older man whose appeal is uncertain.

      But, if you’d kept reading the Corrections, that guy pays for his deeds. And, boy, that novel has some parts that are SO GOOD. Only a few novels are bestowed with what’s the highest praise from me: I’ve read it twice.

      I do recognize your larger point: there are a number of female authors I adore, but of course I’ve read many, many, many more novels by men. Jennifer Egan helped my total, though: after Goon Squad, I immediately downloaded and read two of her earlier books, both of which are also excellent.

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      1. About Corrections — yeah I could tell that the guy pays, that was set up going into it. What I wondered is whether if I slogged through that section, there’d be better stuff later, or just more of the same. There are way too many books that had been well reviewed that I put up with way too long before I realized they were not going to get better. So on your recommendation, I might give Corrections another try. How long do the self-indulgent sexual fantasies go on before you get back to the “good” Franzen?

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      2. I don’t recall specifics, but I can say this: for me, his sister ends up being the most interesting character in the book, and, well, there’s plenty about her sexuality. If you pick it up again, I’d love to know what you think.

        The best thing about the book for me, though, is all the different ways and levels he manages to convey the general theme of “Correction.” I have a particular fondness for novels that pull this off — the only novel I’ve read *three* times in my adulthood is Kavalier and Clay, which does the same thing with “Escape.”

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  3. Oldewoman,

    In some ways the industry does orient toward “brilliant” male novelists because of what both you and Jeremy are touching on. Women read the fiction of both men and women, men not so much. Overall women read books for pleasure more than men, and much of men’s pleasure reading is taken up by non-fiction. This is an industry that’s operating on a three to six percent profit margin in a good year, so even small disparities matter for them.

    Likewise, a place like FSG (Franzen’s publisher) is really paying its bills off of the publicity of literary awards, and the disparities in reviews at signaling publications like the NYT really does matter for stuff like this. This doesn’t mean that places like FSG don’t publish exceptional books by exceptional women authors, of course they do, but seasonal “lead” titles end up being the ones that are believed to be able to garner the most attention. They’re the ones that get pushed the hardest, and most frequently these are the works of (white) men for their respective publishes (e.g. the literary “giants” of right now, Franzen, Chabon, Eggers, DFW at least for a few more months, Safran Foer until his nonfic tanked).

    All that said (I’m a guy, btw), I do think The Corrections is worth another shot. The early scene you’re describing with Chip almost made me put down the book as well (I think I’ve read too much Roth — and enjoyed too much Roth — to care). Chip reappears in another (in my opinion) weak chapter of the book, a trite comedic set piece in Eastern Europe, but overall, and even despite two other instances of a young woman’s sexual relationships with older men (sheesh), it really is an exceptional book in many ways. That “over demanding” mother ends up probably being the best and most redeemed character of the entire book, in my estimation.

    Of course, the young-woman-as-sexual-salve-for-browbeaten man trope comes up with Lalitha in Freedom as well (with what ultimately ends up being a quite liberal sprinkling of the Magical Negro device for her character as well).

    Actually, As for Chip, come to think of it, I can’t recall if I’ve EVER read a book by a male author with a male professor as a central character who doesn’t have some sort of sexual relationship or aborted sexual relationship with one of his students. I’m sure they’ve got to be out there. At least in On Beauty Zadie Smith pairs Howard for infidelity with another prof.

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  4. This thread reminds me how little fiction I read, and especially how little I’ve read in the past decade or so. I think the last novel I read was Kavalier and Clay, a few years ago, but I got sick of it with about fifty pages left and that was that.

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    1. I went three years in grad school without reading a novel and vowed I would never do that again. Then the Nook has ratcheted it up to a whole new level. Meanwhile, my nonacademic nonfiction reading, once a point of personal pride, has completely gone to hell.

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    2. I read little fiction when my children were small — i couldn’t read anything with a plot at bedtime because it would keep me up too late. In that life phase I preferred popular science and other nonfiction. I read a lot more fiction now with audio books; some nonfiction also works well in audio.

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  5. Reading up on Kavalier and Clay, as well as Goon Squad, I’m wondering whether my divergence from Jeremy in taste might be generational as much as gender. Although I see Franzen as more like I’m viewing “my” generation, so maybe not.

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