Tag Archives: jonathan franzen

The Problem With Freedom

Last week, some of the commentors to this blog got a little upset that I was being too mean to Jonathan Franzen and his vision of what fiction should be. I only bring this up again because Tim Parks (who has been doing some great writing on international literature lately) has a post up at the NYRB blog that perfectly explains why Franzen needs to be rebutted:

Franzen, thanks to the size of America’s internal market, but also to the huge pull the country exercises on the world’s imagination, can write about Americans for Americans (which is no doubt as it should be) and nevertheless expect to be read worldwide.

Aside from the recognition factor—this is America—are there other pleasures to be had from Franzen, pleasures available to the foreigner reading in translation? I knew before opening it, of course, that Freedom was “an important novel” if only because The Guardian had dedicated to it an article on its homepage (on which my browser opens). Even before he had read the book, the Guardian writer remarked that Franzen was probably the only novelist alive able to revive our belief in the literary novel. Traveling in Holland the week the English edition was published, I saw that Amsterdam’s main international bookshop had dedicated their entire window to it.

He goes on to note that James Wood claims that “Here in Germany, Franzen’s the only American novelist people talk about.” And so on.

Like it or not, Franzen has become an Important American Novelist, maybe The Most Important American Novelist, not just here but worldwide. To a staggering extent, his books are taken as what constitutes American literature at this moment in time. (As many British acquaintances have told me recently, David Foster Wallace is all but an unknown compared to Franzen in the U.K.) And when the books in question are so mediocre, the image of literature so conventional, that’s a problem. It requires that people who see things differently say so, at times forcefully.

But anyway, I don’t want to give the wrong impression about what Parks has written. It talks a lot about Franzen, but to the end of making some very worthwhile points about the current state of world literature. As such, it joins his earlier essay in the TLS that also makes some worthwhile points about the same. On the whole, Parks is beginning to elaborate a very interesting doctrine of global literature.

Why Jonathan Franzen Will Never Write Another Book Worth Reading

Last week, I called Franzen at his Manhattan home, and we talked about the future of the novel. Franzen has said in past interviews that he writes his novels specifically for today’s kinds of readers. He knows, when it comes to entertainment, that he’s up against DVRs and Angry Birds, and so he says he strives to write the kinds of pageturners that keep a reader fully captivated and engaged.

You will never create art by trying to beat mass culture on its own terms. And also “today’s kinds of readers” is incoherent. Franzen would have done better to say that he shoots for an audience that will net him a million sales and an Oprah appearance. At least then he’d be honest about writing for white, middle/upper-class people with a smattering of intelligence and lots of disposable income.

The Franzen citation came from this article.

Dyer Slams Wallace in Prospect

I have great admiration for Geoff Dyer as a critic, so I’m going to repress the urge to call this David Foster Wallace mini-takedown a contrived piece of literary critical theater. The fact is that he’s better than that. But the fact also is that this is all too predictable.

  • Hot new literary commodity hits the scene
  • Critics collectively bathe it in a flurry of gushy accolade
  • Grouchy critic comes along and tells them all to calm down
  • Instant controversy!
  • (And not to mention, Dyer is also on a book tour selling his latest book at the moment.)

This, minus the book tour, was pretty much exactly what happened with Freedom, and now with Pale King it’s beginning to feel very scripted, in the way that the latest season of Survivor, or Glee, or any other show purporting to depict an obviously constructed reality becomes predictable in its unpredictableness.

Anyway, grouchy tirade over. Dyer’s critique seems to have something to do with Wallace’s style, which he seems to think is excessively showy and gimmicky. Although he doesn’t really write enough to get very precise in his critique, so maybe he’ll follow this up some day with something more valid.

One other thing: it’s weirdly interesting that he finds “Host” an “apotheosis of unreadability,” since I’ve always considered that essay one of Wallace’s tightest. However, I have noticed many older friends of mine–even those who otherwise like Wallace–seem to think as Dyer does about “Host.” Maybe it’s a generational thing.

I guess it’s a question of tone. I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those “sort ofs” and “kind ofs” in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (“Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding”). Or the grunge affectation of the double “though” in: “There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…” It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in “Host,” from Consider the Lobster.

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THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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