Saturday, September 25, 2010


The first three sentences of Sam Tanenhaus's fawning review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom told me a) that I didn't need to read it, and b) that I didn't need to read anything Tanenhaus might have to say about fiction in the future.

The sentences in question:
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.
To begin, The Corrections was no masterpiece. It was overwritten and simultaneously over- and under-thought. So the second sentence is more warning than tribute. And finally, who is this "we" of which he speaks in the third sentence?

When I was young and stupid, I laughed at complaints from readers who said particular books or stories didn't "speak to" them. I thought that, say, the girls in my high school AP English class who disliked Heart of Darkness because there were no female characters to identify with were being absurd. But contemporary literary fiction is so fucking infuriating on this score that frankly I'm starting to think even the most PC ranters may have understated the case.

Jonathan Franzen writes books about and for upper-middle-class, overeducated white people. Period. And as I am a white dude who started out middle-class and is now somewhere in econosocial limbo, and who is undereducated by the standards imposed by the elite media, he does not speak for me. In fact, he speaks to only such a shrinking minority of Americans that assuming his book does in fact reach a mass audience, it will likely be received as almost a kind of science fiction, a dispatch from a strange mirror-world. Without even cracking the covers of Freedom, knowing only what I know of it from reviews, I feel like Flavor Flav on Public Enemy's "She Watch Channel Zero": "Look, don't nobody look like that, nobody even live like that, you know what I'm sayin'?"

I don't know anyone who lives like the people in Jonathan Franzen novels. I know they exist, but not around me. I live in a city of immigrants, a city where the store signs are in Spanish with English subtitles and the faces on the street are almost all one shade of brown or another. The nearest higher education facilities to me are Union County College and Drake Business School. And these people's stories are not being told.

Franzen and pretty much every other writer whose fiction is praised in the pages of the New York Times Book Review are the chroniclers of a gated community. They live in cultural and socioeconomic segregation so extreme it's like they're real-life versions of the characters in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. But instead of convincing themselves the world outside is too dangerous to interact with, they've convinced themselves that it doesn't exist—that their world is the only world. That's what Sam Tanenhaus means when he says "we." In his America, there are no poor immigrants, only educated people—mostly white, but skin tone doesn't matter as long as your CV's got the right institutions listed on it.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in rejecting Franzen's anointment. B.R. Myers, a writer whose thoughts on literature I have admired in the past, tore him a new one in the new issue of The Atlantic. And now Jessa Crispin, editor of Bookslut (a site I admit I have never visited), has decided she will not be reading Freedom.
The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.

There is no such thing as a canon — what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works. If anything, the homogeneity of the responses to Freedom proves only the homogeneity we have in people discussing books in the U.S. It would take me, I’m guessing, four days to read Freedom, four short days out of my life. But here I am, refusing out of principle. I might think the book is a work of genius, the book of the century, but I’m willing to risk that loss, because the book I don’t read in place of Freedom might also be that book. I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored.
I'm passing on Freedom because I read The Corrections. Once bitten, twice shy. I take the same approach to the works of many of the other Big Writers.

Philip Roth: read The Human Stain, liked it; read American Pastoral, didn't like it as much; no desire to read anything else.

William Vollmann: read Rainbow Stories, liked it a lot; read Butterfly Stories, liked it a lot; read Whores for Gloria, thought it was okay; read Rising Up and Rising Down (the short version), found it intermittently interesting; read 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs, didn't like it; read The Atlas, liked maybe half of it; made it about ten pages into Europe Central before donating it to a local library; no desire to read anything more by the guy.

Ian McEwan: read The Cement Garden, enjoyed it; tried to get through Saturday, gave up halfway through.

The fiction I have enjoyed this year has mostly been grubby genre stuff: Walter Jon Williams' This is Not a Game; Jeffery Deaver's Roadside Crosses; the Stieg Larsson novels; Charles Stross's Accelerando, Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky and Glasshouse; Scott Sigler's Infected, Contagious and Ancestor; Justin Cronin's The Passage (if you don't expect much more than a ripoff of Salem's Lot and The Stand, it's pretty good); Stephen King's Under the Dome; and most recently, Harry Connolly's Child of Fire. If you want to go ahead and tick your way down the approved reading list, the Chronicles of Morose Upper-Class White People, you go right ahead. I'll be in the corner, reading pulp fiction and enjoying myself thoroughly.


Josh said...

Following a link from the balloon-juice comments, I find this nice critique of Franzen's limitations from a guy who likes books by men. So I thought I would comment on it.

There's a couple of good Roth books that you're missing out on, notably The Ghost Writer.

Lainad said...

Excellent writeup, Phil. I feel the same way about 95% of all mainstream publications and fiction novels (and non-fiction, like that bulshit best-seller Eat, Pray & Love). That's one of the reasons I stopped reading Paste, as a while male reviewer dismissed a book written by a black woman because "he couldn't relate." Therefore, the experiences of the protagonist were not realistic nor worthy of his time to properly review.

What was also sad is that no one challenged him on this and Paste published the review - in print.

lucas said...

Bah humbug. I don't feel like I need to overtly "relate" to the characters in a well-written book to enjoy it. I thought The Corrections had some really nuanced shadings of the human condition, especially the shortcomings and bittersweet failings of the parents.