Friday, October 24, 2008


By chance I happened to pick up, in the Bass Library, Jonathan Franzen's How To Be Alone (2002). The essays contained therein were all published or written before Franzen's big breakthrough with his third novel The Corrections (2001). It struck me that part of "the buzz" that surrounded that novel may in fact have been due to the kind of gauntlet thrown down in these essays, one of which, "Why Bother?", was published in Harper's in 1996 and took to task, in depressed terms, the state of fiction writing in late 20th century America. This passage, from another 1996 gripe called "Scavenging," gives you an idea of Franzen's long road to recovery:

"It's healthy to adjust to reality. It's healthy, recognizing that fiction such as Proust and Faulkner wrote is doomed, to interest yourself in the victorious technology, to fashion a niche for yourself in the new information order, to discard and then forget the values and methods of literary modernism which older readers are too distracted and demoralized to appreciate in your work and which younger readers, bred on television and educated in the new orthodoxy of identity politics and the reader's superiority to the text, are almost entirely deaf and blind to. It's healthy to stop giving yourself ulcers and migraines doing demanding work that may please a few harried peers but otherwise instills unease or outright resentment in would-be readers. It's healthy to cry uncle when your bone's about to break. Likewise healthy, almost by definition, to forget about death in order to live your life: healthy to settle for (and thereby participate in) your own marginalization as a writer, to accept as inevitable a shrinking audience, an ever-deteriorating relationship with the publishing conglomerates, a retreat into the special Protective Isolation Units that universities now provide for writers within the larger confines of their English departments (since otherwise the more numerous and ferocious lifers would eat the creative writers alive). Healthy to slacken your standards, to call 'great' what five years ago you might have called 'decent but nothing special.' Healthy, when you discover that your graduate writing students can't distinguish between 'lie' and 'lay' and have never read Jane Austen, not to rage and agitate but simply bite the bullet and do the necessary time-consuming teaching. Healthier yet not to worry about it -- to nod and smile in your workshop and let sleeping dogs lay, let the students discover Austen when Merchant and Ivory film her."

I'd be lying (laying?) if I said this passage didn't strike a chord. But even Franzen elsewhere allows that "confessions of doubt are widely referred to as 'whining'" -- and whine he does. And if that's not bad enough, the terms of the whining, in the Harper's piece, establish a degree of naïveté that's truly striking for someone with ambitions to write "the big social novel." Franzen's depression sends him off to seek therapeutic words from a sociologist who has studied people who read fiction and who makes him feel better when she tells him that "resistant readers" (who become readers without a parent mentoring their reading) often become writers because they need the kind of contact an imaginative world provides and which can't be found in the social world. Whew, Franzen more or less sighs, I thought it was just me! Could it be that there are other people who really need books more than they need television? Franzen's the kind of writer who makes a big deal about getting rid of his TV, so that he will start reading again. And now sociology has given him the grounds for seeing himself as "a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world." And the live television audience applauds.

At times, you can sympathize with the guy: he clearly wants to be a "great writer" so bad, and, you know, our therapeutic society should have some kind of support group in place so he doesn't come down so hard. But since Franzen was born the same year as me, I have little patience with the degree of naïveté he's able to toss off as though a hard lesson learned after graduating college in 1981: "I hadn't heard the news about the social novel's death. I didn't know that Philip Roth had long ago [twenty years] performed the autopsy." Franzen's model, at the time, for an "uncompromising novel" that was a hit was also twenty years old: Catch-22. Ok, that would be bad enough, one thinks, lots of people graduate from college utterly clueless. But the essay in which this assessment appears, and which includes the food for thought provided by that sociologist, is published after Franzen has written and published novels that were supposedly, by his own estimation, on a par with Proust and Faulkner. Is such a thing possible? Is the problem here the flattened, trivial culture we've been living in since TV took over the world in the '60s, or is the problem that our writers are just as trivial as those non-readers? Could it be, Jonathan, to cite another of our contemporaries, Morrissey: "you just haven't earned it yet, baby"?

I haven't read Franzen's first two novels, but I did read his novel that "everyone" read. And it occurs to me that the reason everyone read it is because of the hype he had created for himself with these "woe-is-me, the serious novelist" essays. Everyone felt so bad for him, they read his next book. Finally he was recognized -- (does he desperately want "to communicate with a substantive imaginary world" or does he desperately want to be a famous part of a wider circle of imaginary worlds?) -- and even Oprah threw him a lifeline, just to show that even TV would recognize him (no hard feelings!), giving Franzen the supreme self-satisfaction of spurning the demon box!

The problem I have with these essays, besides how self-serving they are, is how little they seem to understand the history of the art form of which Franzen presumes himself to be a contemporary master. Nor, apparently, has he ever (before these essays, at least), given serious thought to the idea that "success" and "opposition" don't really go together, nor to the fact that most of the greatest practitioners of the novel in the twentieth century didn't exactly have a happy, celebrated, Harper's-enhanced time of it. But what galls me more, in the passage cited above, is the glib assessment of why serious readers aren't swarming all over his books to ferret out his meanings, wide-eyed and appreciative of his obvious cultural significance: "older readers are too distracted and demoralized to appreciate" the intricacies of his work -- and yet the academic appreciation, by those older and younger than Franzen, of truly great and complex works (many by people who didn't have televisions) continues apace: Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Proust, Faulkner... And though Franzen's grad students may not have read her, Austen has been known, in a given year, to outsell best-selling women's writers like Mary Higgins Clark. In other words, the great are not great until time has passed and they continue to be read and studied. Joyce, in his time, was mainly known by a coterie; when his book was deemed scandalous it attracted a larger readership (mostly disappointed, one suspects), and when it got canonized, it became the task of students to read and study and analyze it in perpetuity. Franzen wants it all: to be a celebrated modernist master in his own day, while reserving the right to gripe that his culture is too trivial to appreciate him.

Nothing in The Corrections convinces me that Franzen is someone to be read with the degree of attention he seems to feel is his due. Perhaps the point is that his first novels are more challenging than his third, that the success of The Corrections is due to the fact that he learned to "dumb down." Maybe so. If I get around to those other novels, I'll report back. But at this point I would simply offer this observation: a writer's agon is not with the non-readers of his own day. No one will ever convince someone not disposed to read a novel to read it. One can only "win" those who do read and it seems there are three strategies for this: One can enter a struggle with the greats who have marked the territory for serious accomplishment in one's chosen art and seek the same degree of esteem and respect. Or one can choose to ignore that challenge and write what the readers who buy and read books buy (according to Franzen, in 1994 John Grisham's The Chamber sold more than three million copies). Or one can write what one has to write, and the devil take the hindmost. Franzen seems to be groping, through the fogs of his own naïveté, ambition, disappointment, depression, and success to the third position. Good luck.

I hate my generation
I offer no apologies
I hate my generation, yeah
--Lowery/Hickman,"I Hate My Generation" (1996)

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