Who is this Nell Freudenberger, anyway?

What is more comforting than a lobster? One long line segment, the length of the brush, fanning slightly at the bottom. Three or four hook strokes, on the diagonal (three for a small lobster, four for a big one). With a wet brush, three dashes, nearly but not quite joined at the base, like an inverted bouquet. A dot of pure ink for the eye. Then with a clean brush — rinsed, dried, and separated, so that a few long bristles stand apart from the rest — four firm lobster legs. Then the magic.

I remember the first time I watched my teacher, Wang Laoshi, pull a hair from his own head, dip it in tincture (three parts ink, one part water) and draw it lightly across the page. At once there was a lobster and the ground the lobster stood upon; suddenly the lobster seemed to cast a shadow, though there was nothing to indicate rock or seabed beneath him. I cannot explain, except to say that a lobster without antennae is a specimen, dependent on his dead, stalked eyes; with the antennae, he is a creature of motion… (The Dissident, p. 147.)

So I picked up this novel, The Dissident, by Nell Freudenberger, at the library last week. I was struck by the author photo in on the jacket. Nell looked very young (and attractive, in a young Audrey Hepburn sort of way). Just above this black and white photo was a quote from the New York Times Book Review: “Young writers as ambitious — and as good — as Nell Freudenberger give us a reason for hope.” At this, I admit, I rolled my eyes. And, I admit, I *may* have checked the book out partly because of that quote….because I assumed I would be disappointed with the book and find myself annoyed by young Nell’s success in spite of it all. I wanted to be annoyed.

Well, I’ve been reading The Dissident for a few days now, and I’m not disappointed. Or annoyed. And it appears I’m a little bit late to the “I want to hate Nell Freudenberger but can’t” club. When I googled her, I discovered this excellent article in Salon, by the (also young) novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (Prep) about wanting to dislike Freudenberger, and the competitive jealousy young writers are prone to:

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that four factors could lead to one young writer’s becoming the object of other young writers’ loathing. Let’s say these factors are that the writer in question is thought to be attractive, thought not to have paid her dues, known to have gone to Harvard (horrors!), and believed to be without talent. The bad news for Freudenberger is that she represents the overlap of all these factors, thereby becoming emblematic to other 20-something aspiring literati of all that’s unfair and demoralizing about publishing.

I learned that Freudenberger debuted — debuted! — at age 26 in the New Yorker, which caused a big stir among young writers and writer-wanna-bes. Then she got a lucrative book contract…after turning down an even more lucrative one. People didn’t think she could write a whole book, but she did — and her first short story collection, Lucky Girls, was well-received. And The Dissident is a much more mature and complex first novel than I was expecting. The passage above struck me…such an exact and tactile representation of just one, small aspect of the painting process. If The Dissident has a weakness it is that it’s perhaps more “popular novel” than “literary fiction” — it’s breezy and easy to read. Whatever, I’ve been completely sucked in.

Let’s face it: the “four factors” Sittenfeld lists are the typical grudges of youngish writers trying desperately to be published. I’m not saying that it’s healthy or nice to send bitter thoughts to the Jonathan Safran Foers and Nicole Krausses and Nell Freudenbergers of the literary world. But visit any MFA program and you’ll hear these bitter refrains: Of course she went to Stanford (or Harvard or where ever)…of course she just happened to be an EA at the New Yorker and “got discovered.”  Oh, and she’s attractive. Great.

Yeah, I’m a little jealous. But I’m also impressed. These young writers are doing the work of writing, despite how easy it all looks from the outside. And they’re doing it in a fishbowl, with the pressure of big contracts, the expectations of everyone, and doubters and naysayers hurling their barbs. Writing a book is hard. Writing it knowing many, many people want you to fail must be even harder. The rest of us, who didn’t go to Harvard and didn’t get discovered at the New Yorker, have only our own expectations to meet. Which is why when we fail (or at least, don’t measurably succeed), it’s tempting to want to fling our frustrations at the success of writers like Freudenberger.

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4 thoughts on “Who is this Nell Freudenberger, anyway?

  1. ah yes! Nell Freudenberger–the very author and subject of my famous debate last summer at a writing colony. I did not like Lucky Girls–at times it was laden with social injustice. She is a very talented writer and I totally acknowledge that fact. I hope The Dissident shows that she has grown! And not taken hre responsibility as a writer and shown other racial groups a disservice.

  2. Hmm, interesting. I know I must have read the title story of Lucky Girls in the New Yorker, but I don’t remember it. I’ll have to pick up the collection and see what I think. I’m not bothered by the Dissident so far….

  3. I haven’t picked up The Dissident, and am still not sure that I want to, as I’m usually leery about reading narrators who are of a different race/ethnicity than the writer. But your thoughts on the book have swayed me towards trying it out, and made me hope that I can get over that initial hesitation.

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