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.