Franzen and “The Great American Novel”

Franzen and “The Great American Novel”

I’ve been watching the hooplah surrounding the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom with something of a jaundiced eye — it’s the Big Book of the fall, and Franzen’s getting similar reviews to the ones he got for The Corrections, that this is the book that explains what it’s like to live in the present moment, the book that expresses what it means to be an American, the one book that sums up everything important about our age. Those kinds of statements always get my hackles up. Really? The Great American Novel?

I’d been sort of rolling my eyes at the whole thing, but it was bugging me. I couldn’t put my finger on just what it was that was bugging me. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Wiener had taken on the white-male-hero aspect of the story, and while the double standard is perennially annoying (when a woman writes about family it’s “domestic” or “chick-lit,” when a man writes about family it’s “the great American novel”), that wasn’t really what was bugging me. Like I said, I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t even the book — I haven’t read the whole thing yet (I’m waiting for the library to get a copy) but I really enjoyed the first couple of chapters when they ran in the New Yorker earlier this year. Patty was a character I remembered, and found myself thinking about from time to time. Which considering how boring and forgettable I find most literary fiction these days, that was an accomplishment.

And then yesterday, while goofing off and avoiding the work project I’ve been trying to finish up all weekend, I found this piece in the Guardian by Pakaj Mishra. Here’s the paragraph that got to me:

Still, it’s very rare for the reception of a literary novel to become a sociological phenomenon. Such encomiums as “great American novel” and “the greatest novel of the century” exalt Freedom to an oddly solitary splendour; and they make us wonder if the criteria for greatness and Americanness have a built-in bias against other kinds of novels, writers and literary genres (not to mention other media: The Wire has fair claim to be the most ambitious and successful American fiction of the new century). Certainly, the three garish and overlapping signifiers in Time magazine’s phrase “great American novelist” obscure rather than illuminate the range and depth of contemporary American writing. One reason is that populist evaluations of literature lean heavily toward the family saga. Most readers, Don DeLillo once complained, “would rather read about their own marriages and separations and trips to Tanglewood” since “it adds a certain lustre, a certain significance to their own lives”. This sounds a bit too caustic. But fictions about dysfunctional families, from The Sound and the Fury to American Pastoral, tend to be prominent in the official literary narrative of America; so do stories of ethnic minorities assimilating into American society.

The canonization of Freedom as “the Great American Novel” stakes a claim that what counts as the central American experience is the struggles of upper-middle-class white people seeking to move up in the world. Yes, Franzen is a satirist, but his claim that “I wanted to produce something that really connected with how it feels to be alive now,” assumes that his experience as a wealthy, well-educated, successful white guy is “the” experience of “how it feels to be alive now.” And I would argue, along with Delillo in the quote above, that this is, in some sense, the reason for the book’s crashing success with the critics. By claiming that the experience of wealthy, well-educated, literary white people is the central experience of our time, he’s not only flattering the powers that be and the critics and his entire circle, but he’s managing to do it in such a way as to render the specificity of that experience invisible. It’s like when I was in the Hamptons a couple of weeks ago. They all think that their way of life out there is normal, that it’s just the way “nice people” live. They’re in a bubble, where they’re always looking at one another and those around them and milestoning — who is moving up the ladder? down? But there’s no sense at all that the very baseline is skewed, that simply by being in “the Hamptons” at all they’re already in a tiny little subset of American life.

That’s what the hooplah over Freedom feels like to me. Like a great big self-congratulatory party in which everyone present reflects off one another a certain smugness, a certain sense of being in the center of things, and by reflecting this off of one another they are all blinded to the varied and interesting lives outside the bubble. And none of these smart well-educated people are asking why it is that they think Freedom is the Great American Novel instead of a book like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example, a book I’d argue is also “of our time” and certainly describes what it feels like to “live now” if you’re a smart oddball Puerto Rican kid growing up in New Jersey. Why is that experience considered something other than “American”? something other than “universal”?

The ignorance those in power, not just in publishing, but in our government and media, to the lived experience of all the American lives outside the bubble of privilege drives me crazy. And that, I think, is what’s been bugging me about the Jonathan Franzen book. That once again, the insiders have not only taken this opportunity to soundly congratulate themselves, but that in this day and age, they’re still so blind they can’t even see that they’re doing it.

7 thoughts on “Franzen and “The Great American Novel”

  1. Charlotte, thank you so much for this! I’ve had this problem with a lot of what has been published and received accolades in recent years, and yet I didn’t make the connection that in the case of Franzen I was buying their line. When The Corrections came out I was excited by the reviews because they made the same claim, as you mention. Yet when I read The Corrections I found absolutely nothing in it that spoke to my own experience, or at least not in any way that resonated as true, good, or meaningful. I hated that book, and I realize now that I hated it SO MUCH because the hype promised something that the book didn’t deliver. If I hadn’t read The Corrections through the filter of that expectation, would I have liked it better? I honestly don’t know, but I strongly suspect I would have at least tolerated it better than I did. Meanwhile, I failed to call bullshit on the reviewers and marketers, when they were the ones slinging it. Instead I was more inclined to decide that there was something inadequate with my reading, with the way I related to the material, rather than something wrong with the package it was wrapped in. In my case, their marketing message was a terrible disservice to me and to the book.

    “The ignorance…to the lived experience of all the American lives outside the bubble of privelege….” Wow. Said perfectly, Charlotte. “…they can’t even see that they’re doing it.” Amen. And even though I see them doing it often, I still miss it sometimes, am still willing to take responsibility for their blindness by deciding that there must be something wrong with *my* perception.

  2. I’ve never been interested in reading fiction that ratifies the paltry existence of the upper middle class, and if that is all that Franzen’s book does, I seriously doubt I would be interested in it.

    I want much more from fiction. Something that amuses and challenges, something that delights and surprises, above all, something that interests me because I don’t see myself reflected in it. Very little fiction does that for me anymore. Even worse, it is my understanding, if one writes such a novel, one’s chances of getting it published today are virtually nil. The Publishers only want what is safe for late middle aged fuddy duddies.

  3. Tim, I want both — sometimes I want a book that challenges me and takes me away, and sometimes I want to read a book that speaks to my own experience. A really good book does both, but I am okay with finding those things in separate packages, too. What books have resonated with you in the past? I’d like to hear about some of the books and authors you have loved, and why. (I had tried to post about some of mine and somehow my browser lost the post. I’m out of time to re-do it, will try to come back another time to post them.)

  4. Two authors I have found interesting are Richard Powers and Steve Erickson. Powers writes mostly about people working in the frontiers of science or the arts. The braided plots make for challenging reads and the characters are fascinating. His most recent one, though is not his best. His best is The Time of Our Singing. Erickson is more of a surrealist and writes a lot about Hollywood.

  5. Thanks, Tim. I haven’t heard of either of them, but will check them out!

    Once again, it’s late, and I need to get off of the computer. Quickly, I wanted to mention titles more than authors — Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Watership Down by Richard Adams, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. These are books that opened my eyes in some way, challenged and stimulated and delighted me. Can you imagine a publisher taking a risk on Watership Down today? It’s possible, but doesn’t seem likely. Also one called Rumors of Spring by Richard Grant. Good stuff.

  6. To me, the problem with this kind of hoopla is actually the prematureness of it. A great American novel can only be properly attributed after the fact. And I really doubt that this one is going to do it.

  7. Well, I think some of it is probably an industry that (falsely I think) perceives itself to be dying trying to trumpet its own importance. Franzen was on Fresh Air last week, and was quite interesting — actually agrees with most of the feminist critique of how books get reviewed for which his book has been used as the poster child. My problem with his work is that I so often find him to be needlessly cruel to his own characters. An alternative that was suggested to me by a book reviewer friend, and which I loved, is The Imperfectionists: A Novel. A great read, memorable characters, interesting things going on with form …

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