Saturday, August 28, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, Our Literary Messiah

Is Jonathan Franzen a Great American Novelist, or the Great American Novelist?

On this week's cover, TIME magazine carefully drops the article in front of "Great," leaving the rest of us to add things like "Super-" or "Not-So-" or "Who Cares?" in the boldly trumpeted headline.  (For what it's worth, I think Franzen falls somewhere between "a" and "the.")

On the eve of publication of Franzen's newest work of fiction, Freedom, people other than the editors at TIME have also been blaring trumpets.  By now, we have a veritable brass section which promises readers that this (along with the Kindle 3) is the salvation of our contemporary literature.  For the nervous, huddled masses of readers who flinch at every dip in B&N stock and gnash their teeth in Twitter debates over literary v. commercial fiction, Franzen alternately wears a halo or horns on that TIME cover.  He's our modern James Joyce, or he's an overblown elitist.  You loved The Corrections or you hated it; the middle ground is virtually unpopulated.  For the other 4 billion people out there--the ones who are saying "Jonathan who?" in the supermarket checkout lines this week--life goes on with nary a ripple.  To many of them, novelists (great or otherwise) fall pretty low on the scale of entertainers.  Reading fiction was something they did back in high school or maybe college, or maybe that one Christmas when their well-meaning uncle gave them a copy of The Bridges of Madison County.  These days?  Not so much.  As Lev Grossman notes in his TIME cover story, Franzen is a member of a "perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist."

Endangered or not, the publicity-shy author is now the Soup du Jour.  This week, writers, and readers, and people who write about writers and readers have latched bulldog teeth onto everything and anything related to Franzen and Freedom.  The 576-novel about Patty and Walter Berglund's dysfunctional Midwestern family doesn't arrive in bookstores until next Tuesday, but that hasn't stopped the teapots from getting tossed into a tempest.

I'm probably a non-committal Franzen fan.  I absolutely loved The Corrections, but I haven't read anything else by the guy--not The Twenty-Seventh City, nor The Discomfort Zone, nor even How to Be Alone.  My Corrections fever seemed to be a one-off delerium.

That is, until Freedom came along with its rolling snowball of hype and hysteria.

Now, I'm ready to forsake family, work, and America's Got Talent semi-finals just so I can read Freedom.  I have it pre-ordered to drop onto my Kindle and I am doing all I can to clear my reading calendar before next week, but my enthusiasm is starting to waver with every calliope note from the carnival which blew into town this week.

Generally, I try to avoid reviews of books before I've had a chance to read them for myself.  But how can I resist, when The Guardian is proclaiming Freedom "the novel of the century"?  Really?  That may very well be, but let's not sell short the next 90 years of novels, okay?

All of this spittle-flecked praise can be a dangerous thing.  Blurbs with the words "genius," "masterpiece," and "Dickensian," tend to set my bar of expectations so high that the book inevitably fails to reach it once I start reading.  I hope that's not the case with Freedom.  I hope I'm just as excited as the rest of the clamoring crowd.

In TIME, Grossman tooted the trumpet, saying Freedom was "more like a 19th century novel than a 21st century one," adding:
Freedom is not the kind of Great American Novel that Franzen's predecessors wrote--not the kind Bellow and Mailer and Updike wrote.  The American scene is just too complex--and too aware of its own complexity, for anything to loom that large over it ever again.  But Freedom feels big in a different way, a way that not much other American fiction does right now.   It doesn't back down from the complexity.  To borrow a term from the visual arts, Franzen's writing has an enviable depth of field:  it keeps a great deal in focus simultaneously.
In the first sentence of his New York Times review, Sam Tanenhaus calls it "a masterpiece of American fiction."

Even Tanenhaus' colleague, the typically-dour Michiko Kakuntani (a critic who JF once called "the stupidest person in New York City," by the way), allows as how "Mr. Franzen has written his most deeply felt novel yet — a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times."

Apart from the wet-mouthed reviews, Franzen enjoyed a particularly headline-heavy week thanks to two other individuals: Barrack Obama and Jodi Picoult.  The President was shopping in a bookstore during his Massachusetts vacation when the store's owner handed him an advance copy of Freedom.  This touched off a chorus of other bookstore owners who claimed Vineyard Haven's Bunch of Grapes had unfairly broken a publishing embargo by selling the book to the Reader in Chief ahead of schedule.  When they learned that the advance copy had been a "gift," they backed down, still grumbling, and agreed to abide by the on-sale date.  The White House reports that Mr. Obama is reading Freedom and finds it "entertaining."

(Thanks to crossed wires at Amazon, for a brief slice of time this week you could have read the entirety of Freedom in preview mode at the website.  I don't know if you had to read the whole thing in one gulp, or if you could save the preview.  Either way, I think I'd rather have the much more portable Kindle or hardcover to enjoy my time with the novel.)

Meanwhile, Jodi Picoult fired-off a Twitter-bitch, complaining that the New York Times, by running two separate reviews of the novel in one week, gave undue attention to an author whose sales were already pretty much assured (long before next Tuesday, Freedom was already in its second printing, now up to 300,000 copies).  This is not the first time the Times has double-reviewed a book, but Picoult decided to tweet her justifiable frustration and thus....the predictable cyclic literary gender wars were launched, sharp volleys coming from both camps over White Male Writers versus...Everybody Else.  It didn't take long for this to shift into the equally-hysteric Literary versus Commerical Fiction conversation.

In fairness, Picoult did not intend to start another battle and has publicly said she "has absolutely nothing against Jonathan Franzen."  But the resurrected gender and lit-com debates sizzled and flared across the Twitterverse and the Blog-o-sphere, spilling into the aisles of mainstream media.  Jennifer Weiner eventually joined the fray, complaining: "I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book -- in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."

From the sidelines, this was the kind of week which was heartening to see (People talking about reading!  An actual writer perched at the grocery checkout with the likes of Kim Kardashian's breasts!).  On the other hand, the arguments started to feel strained and redundant.  For those of you who were doing better things with your time, here's a quick scan of some of the singers in the chorus (feel free to skim downward if you're already bored by the whole dialogue):

Here's an idea: If you're going to try to report on the fact that a couple of women who write books have tried to start a discussion of whether the mega-response to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is symptomatic of a too-narrow view of interesting fiction, it might be a good idea to stay away from the formless and dismissive term "chick lit" in discussing them.

The Huffington Post:
Picoult may be right that "a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what I see lauded in literary fiction" but there is still a difference in how well one writes about those themes and wisdoms. The truth is that authors like Picoult and Weiner can't hold a candle to Franzen.  But they also can't hold a candle to Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, or a number of other "women" writers who write on many of the same themes as Franzen, Weiner and Picoult: family, life, children, work, relationships.  Why the two women are picking a fight with the coverage of Franzen's new novel is confusing. It seems more about professional jealousy than equal coverage or women's rights.

The Awl:
And of course it isn't necessary, for an individual writer trying to write one good book, to make sure that it represents, in every significant respect, every experience out there under the sun. Yes that's demanding too much. But it might, indeed, be the task of literary fiction as a whole to continually be revising its standards to be sure it's being as inclusive as it can be. In the age after we've realized that white men are not the end-all and be-all of humanity, it seems worth trying to build a canon that says if we are separated from one another by class and race and gender and any number of things, the very least we can do is recognize that in a literature that's really about "what it is to be human," every single one of those experiences must be given airtime. It's not a request; it's a requirement. This, literary fiction and its defenders do not do particularly well.
The Huffington Post (again):
Is Franzen the literary world's ideal representative?  Maybe not.  Maybe yes.  I don't think it matters.  What matters is that on the cover of one of the most widely read magazines in the country, a writer is looking directly back at us, and we are being told that His. Craft. Matters.  We should have no tolerance for the snipers, the agitators, the petty grievers who lament that Franzen was given this honor rather than someone else who may have been a better fit.  When the day comes that writers are commonly granted the accolades and recognition they deserve, we can argue over who deserves what and why.  But for now, Franzen is being lifted up for all of us.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When our culture tells us that the ignorant are to be admired, that vacuousness is the new entertainment, the battle over ebooks feels like a battle over who has to sweep the deck on the Titanic.  When reading and intelligence is presented as overrated or unimportant, these small quibbles seem laughable.  Too few know the importance of the written word, how important letters are, how important thinkers are, how important books are.   And so here it is, in big bold letters: Great American Novelist.  Whether he is comfortable with it or not, Franzen is the representative for the entirety of publishing. His cover is telling millions of people, shouting from newsstands, that writers are still the soul of our culture.  That books still matter.  That books still matter.  And this, beyond anything, is reason to celebrate.  And this, beyond anything, is a reason to be hopeful.
In all the noise surrounding what the New York Times calls Franzenfury, I find it interesting that most people are focusing on the Man or the Issue, rather than what really matters: the Writing.  I'm also thinking that Jonathan Franzen must have one hell of a publicist or agent to be getting him this much sound and fury before Freedom is even unboxed in bookstores.  It's good to chatter about books and to see a writer gracing the cover of TIME for the first time since Stephen King appeared there 10 years ago, but really, can't we all just settle down, find a quiet corner, and read the book?

And, finally, to clear through all the clutter, I leave you with this parting shot from LitCritHulk who earlier this week posted his green-skin rant on Twitter:  FINAL WORD ON FRANZEN: EVERYBODY STFU UNTIL YOU ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK. WHICH NOT EVEN OUT FOR ANOTHER WEEK! HULK SMASH GUN-JUMPING CULTURE!


  1. I'm willing to wave the Franzen flag without having read the book. The Corrections was that good. The stories in the New Yorker, better. The guy deserves a crown or something. The HuffPo seems to have expressed my feelings pretty accurately.

  2. I hope you'll give us a "review" after you've read it!

  3. Having read all of Franzen's earlier efforts, I am very much looking forward to reading the new book. He may not be my favorite writer (not a big fan of his non-fiction), but he's up there.

    I must admit to being pretty aggravated by the Picoult & Weiner thing.