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.

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As one of those commenters, what upset me was not that you were being ‘too mean’ to Franzen (fire away, he deserves lots of criticism) but the comment about his readers possessing only ‘a smattering of intelligence.’ I think this highbrow attitude towards more mainstream/commercial work is counterproductive, not to mention insulting.

It’s sad to hear that even the Brits, who can easily read American book coverage online, hear more about Franzen than writers such as Wallace. It’s similar with the USA’s best music and films not getting due attention overseas. But if readers in other countries only have room in their noggins to hold one American author at a time, then Franzen vs Wallace is a lose-lose fight.

To defend the dreaded Tanenhaus a bit, I think it was fair of him to focus on Freedom as an American fiction – it takes the USA as its subject. A State of the Union novel.

Lastly, after I picked on Jennifer Egan, I noticed she was commendably humble in the face of her awards sweep ( and addressed the ridiculous, problematic level of hype that attaches to novels like hers (and Freedom). To me this stupid focusing of conversation pro/con on one novel per year or so is a problem. While you are rightly interested in these hurdles that keep works of literature from circulating internationally, and your coverage of such keeps me coming back to this fantastic blog.


I never claimed, nor do I now claim, that only stupid people read Franzen. Smart people read bad books all the time. But they are not the target audience of Freedom.

I’m further questioning Freedom’s positioning as “mainstream.” Why is it that we must equate “mainstream” with “commercially viable”? To me it seems odd that fiction, unlike most other arts, is saddled with this sort of a limitation.

To be clear, I have focused on Franzen not because of any personal qualities he possesses but because of his place in the market. As to Egan, I don’t believe that any American author working today deserved the volley of praise she received, and to her credit she seems to have been honest about this, but her novels are far more interesting than Franzen’s.

I resent people telling me that Freedom represents life as we know it in the USA, or that it’s a ‘State of the Union’ novel. It’s not. It’s a novel written for a very specific demographic by one of its own members, and this demographic represents a very small slice of the American pie. Big Publishing’s (successful) attempt at elevating Franzen to GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST is self-serving and strikes at the heart of what Don DeLillo said about “trips to Tanglewood.”

Concerning the popularity of Freedom in Europe, I would be very interested to know how it is selling compared to We, The Drowned. Why some books take off, irregardless of their respective qualities and the advertising dollars invested in them, while others fail to resonate and sell remains a mystery to me.

This again seems to be a mislabeled post, as it is about everything except the content of the book Freedom. Much like the last post condemned Franzen for what some reporter said, this post condemns the book Freedom based on what some Guardian writer thinks.

“To me it seems odd that fiction, unlike most other arts, is saddled with this sort of a limitation.”

This would seem to be the case in music (both popular and contemporary classical) too, which is really the only comparable medium where people can choose what to see/hear. The big-A “Art” world is completely inaccessible to any normal person, and the manner in which breakthrough works emerge in the plastic arts is far more contrived and managed than literary fiction.

There are probably a dozen good approaches to criticize Freedom but complaining that a lot of people read it is reactionary (in the literal rather than political sense) and blunts real criticism. Any critic should know that the book should be judged on its own merits and by what other people think about it.

But Padraic, Snr. Esposito’s critique was not that too many people read Franzen. That’s not what he criticized at all. He was critizing, and rightly I believe, the fact that Franzen intentionally waters down his novels. That is to say, he ‘targets’ his books to the broadest, most mainstream audience possible, rather than authentically write the truest novel he could. That’s what’s wrong with Franzen.

This is a long quote from Ben Marcus, in 2005, but I think it explains a bit Franzen´s drive on lists, for instance. Thanks for the continuous output of articles:

“As a champion of industry, policing not just writers but audiences as well, Franzen is a prickly advocate at best, seemingly unable to judge an author’s work without resorting to the concept of “fame.” In his long review on Alice Munro in the November 14, 2004, New York Times Book Review, rather than discuss her book, Runaway, he sandbags the entire piece by trying first to account for what he sees as her lack of supporters. “Outside of Canada,” he writes, “. . . she has never had a large readership.” Before he gets to the book and its merits, he wants to take “some guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.”

Never mind that Alice Munro was one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005, or that she was awarded the Medal of Honor for Literature by the National Arts Club, or that Runaway itself was a bestseller in the United States, or that her books regularly hit bestseller lists and have appeared in at least thirteen languages. Aside from the fact that Munro could only be better known to readers if she were Jonathan Franzen or maybe because of it Franzen provides a sassy list of possible excuses, each of them having little to do with Munro’s work. She’s Canadian, she doesn’t write educational fiction, she fails to brood in her author photos, and “She doesn’t give her books grand titles like Canadian Pastoral,’ Canadian Psycho,’ Purple Canada,’ In Canada’ or The Plot Against Canada.'””

I hate discussing this without having read “Freedom”. I will soon, hopefully.

Parks writes; ” . . . As for the voice, the supposedly unsophisticated jock Patty turns out to have a style that is undistinguishable from that of the extremely sophisticated Franzen; . . .” As I read the excerpts of “Freedom” I, initially, thought Patty’s voice delineated well, although somewhat difficultly so, from Jonathen Franzen’s. It was only on the 2nd and 3rd readings that Mr. Parks seemed to have a point. This, obviously, makes me wonder why the difference between readings?

Was I influenced by Mr. Parks opinion? I guess I can’t answer that at the moment. This question of narrative vs. authorial voice seems a big one regarding “Freedom”. At least Mr. Parks addresses it even if he turns out to be wrong.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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 . . .


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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