Books Sep 23, 2010 at 4:00 am

Jonathan Franzen Is the Greatest Novelist the 1950s Have to Offer

Boldly looking backward. Greg Martin


"It is the fault of authors who are so swept up in their own self-regard that they divide books and reading into 'serious' and 'unserious' categories."

Extremely well-put, sir.
Yeah, Franzen was similarly stuffy at the Barnes & Noble reading in NYC a few weeks ago.

As for FREEDOM, I'm finding it very readable, and I'll admit that it is making me uncomfortable as I read about these people fucking up their lives so thoroughly. I don't think it is anywhere near the Great American Novel it has been so highly touted as, but I'm enjoying it.

Franzen's friend David Foster Wallace wrote a scathing review of an Updike novel, and I'll paraphrase the final line of that review: it never seems to occur to the characters, or to the author as far as I can tell, that the reason they're all so unhappy is that they're assholes.
Ouch. Where did this come from?
First of all, filling up the Benaroya Hall for a author's reading is a rare accomplishment. I don't know what Seattle you live in, but that doesn't happen everynight. We maybe fill up the counter table at a Barnes and Noble Starbucks. Cut the guy some slack for enjoying the limelight and making the audience feel good for coming. It's called good showmanship.

My real issue is that you may be putting people off from reading what is an exceptional novel. Yes, the characters are white people (like Hamlet). But it's far from being a book about assholes. Sure characters are at times obstinate, and at other times loving, hypocritical, compassionate, witty, ignorant, thoughtless, reckless, prudish, etc. Kind of like human beings can be.
I have three friends who hate the Corrections because the characters are assholes. That's a dumb reason to dislike art. The lifetime channel is full of wholesome, uplifting characters. Tom Waits sings about alcoholics, low lifes, and creepy philanderers, does that mean his songs suck? The movie Fargo has a whole roster of assholes. Does that make it a bad movie?

Also I'm going to advocate for some reasonable SNOBBERY. Saying that there is no good and bad in art is democratic bullshit. I'm not going to put the Celestine Prophecy on the same level as the Brothers Karamozov, bitches. I'm not going to put the Gin Blossoms on the same level as Radiohead. I concede that ultimately such distinctions are subjective, based on arbitrary assumptions but a dude's gotta have standards. So yes, "serious" and "un-serious" are useful concepts.
@4 Being about assholes and being a good book (or movie, or Tom Waits song [I'd argue that good Tom Waits songs are few and far between, but that's another comment thread]) aren't mutually exclusive at all.

What Franzen fails to do, though, is generate any sense of pathos around his characters. They're not boring because they're assholes, they're boring because I spent 500 pages waiting for a reason to actually care about them. I'm not sure what's supposed to be appealing about watching Bad People Make Bad Choices for the sake of nothing but a tired statement about the upper middle class (though there are certainly sentences worth sticking around for).

I think the problem with SERIOUS versus NON SERIOUS is that it carries much less water when the author is the one traipsing around, going on and on about how SERIOUS he is. It becomes smug, and off-putting, and more than a tiny bit laughable when the book IS certainly serious -- but it isn't much more than that.
I would like to stand up and applaud, but I'm in the library (of all places!!!) right now, and I would just be applauding my lap top, which might, you know, look weird and stuff.
Very eloquently put, Paul, per usual. Franzen expressed a lot of these "back in my day" style comments during his recent interview on Fresh Air, too. Interesting that you say he's the guy who never left high school though, as during that interview he said that only in the last year he's come to feel that he's finally acting his age and not like a guy in his twenties.
@5, I tip my hat to you.
Personally, I thought the Corrections was good, but not earth-shattering, so I tend to take all of this "greatest American novel" stuff with a grain (or a teacup full) of salt. I'll read it when I can get the used "Oprah's Book Club" copy at Twice Sold Tales.
I know we're all very alternative here, but I think we have to give pop culture a pass on this one. I hate it when the masses are right too, but this is a great novel. Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes you have to watch There Will Be Blood and resist the temptation to say, "yeah I guess Day-Lewis is ok, but I would've cast Uhuroo Schmeldon." Every once in a while a redoubtable work of art or entertainment or whatever you want to call it comes along. Let's enjoy it.
I liked The Corrections but I have long suspected that its author is a grown-up version of that self-serious fifteen year old who carries around a copy of The Iliad in order to impress the hoi polloi.
You start by saying that's a bad reason to dislike art, but then you offer examples of judging art as "bad". Those are two different evaluations; you can like something while understanding that it isn't very good and dislike something while understanding that it is good.
I don't get why Franzen's considered a great writer. "Great" is strong praise. Where is all the good press coming from? In 1975, I think it was, when Bruce Springsteen's promoter got him on the covers of Time and Newsweek on exactly the same date, the overkill nearly torpedoed his starting career. Franzen's recent crazy press has me recalling that earlier (pretty hilarious) debacle, yet nothing adverse is happening to him, apparently. And I just don't understand why. Because his writing is tedious.

I like what Lo said. And I think Franzen's characters are boring because their creator is boring.
Something got chopped off my first comment --

wanted to add that to my way of reading, Franzen doesn't seem to have a feel for human frailty in all its infinite variety. If he had that, his writing would be more layered. But it's just flat.
My posting about assholes was made when I was feeling some pretty strong annoyance with the novel, and the characters, and I wish I'd found a more productive way of saying that I was feeling some annoyance with what I was then reading.

As I'm getting closer to the end of the novel, I can pretty well say that the people in this novel are not the kind of assholes that David Foster Wallace was accusing the character in Updike's novel of being. Franzen's people are fucking up their lives pretty goddamn thoroughly, there's no doubt about that, and if I wasn't identifying or liking these messed up folks on some level, I wouldn't be wincing when reading that one of them has made one of the worst marriages in all of my cultural experience.

The biggest problem with Franzen's writing, for me, is the way that he just dumps character info in my lap, basically saying "He was not the same person" just like that, when I'd like a little more info on the change in the character.
#10, I know him, and you have it right.
The Corrections was really good if you decide that most of the characters aren't real and its a hallucination (Try it, its downright fun).

@5 Gin Blossoms and Radiohead are on the same level. You can say and possibly "prove" that radiohead is better, but it wouldn't make it right. Art is eye beholder and all that.

Don't dismiss the 70 lbs overweight 32 year old mom that hasn't picked up a new CD in years, She thinks the Gin Blossoms are fantastic and she is right.

As for Franzen, I don't know if we need more serious writers, I do know that I don't need a great american novelist to tell me what what to read anymore than I need Jackie from Top Artist telling me what to look at.
Franzen is lamenting the lack of book reading and despairs that the American dream isn't all that its cracked up to be. Too bad.
Gary Shteyngart laments the lack of book reading and finds inspiration for a novel.
Super Sad True Love Story ends not with despair but with hope and a love of life that immigrants carry with them.
I thought all the hand-wringing about the "Death of the novel" was both unsurprising and uninteresting, but I did think some of his notes on the writing process were worthwhile.
I liked Paul's piece, especially the descriptions of gray-heads cued up to mourn the throttling of serious culture by blogging, texting, and youth. And, the Tao Lin profile is brilliant, one of the best things in years. (Or months, anyway. It's been a decent year over there.)

But, I find myself wondering: isn't the take-down-the-Great-American-Novel trope almost as tired as the Great American Novel itself?

No biggie, though. Thanks for the laffs!
I read Franzen's 27th City twice, Strong Motion three times, The Corrections three times. I can't believe Franzen would even put his name on Freedom. He shows contempt for his readers on every page.
The novel is about the inadequacy and competition instilled in oneself by failing to care for other human beings, out of fear they won't care for you. I would honestly be afraid to spend much time with someone who didn't relate to the book - you'd have to be closer to the sociopath end of the spectrum than not.

David Brooks, for one, thought it was anti-American rot. 'Nuf said, right?
20 -- Sorry, I don't see Franzen displaying any contempt for the reader. Can you describe how this contempt on Franzen's part comes through to you?

I just read the David Brooks piece in the NY Times, and he makes some interesting points, but I can't agree with his idea (shared by a lot of people, apparently) that Franzen expects me the reader to feel superior to the characters. I see no condescension anywhere in the novel, which is part of what is keeping me reading it. These people, without exception, are fucking up their lives BIG TIME, and it can make for some very uncomfortable reading.

Brooks is clear and correct about another reviewer missing a big point about the novel, but Brooks' own complaint about the novel offering no solutions seems to me to miss an even bigger point -- there are no solutions for these people, except in loving and accepting each other, warts and all.

I freely admit that I may be missing the point myself here.

@21, I agree. I'm kind of wondering how anyone who finished the novel could think that its message was "you must Be True to Yourself". What I take from this review, mainly, is that Paul can't forgive himself for liking Freedom; so he's throwing a few pebbles at Franzen.
@22 For example, take the scene between Walter, Richard and Lalitha that serves as a backdrop for Franzen's very long treatise on mountaintop removal. His use of sex to get us though this long sermon is insulting and un-Franzen like. I just can't see him saying to himself, "If I have Lalitha say "Fucking, fucking, fucking," one more time I can get the reader to stick with me for a couple more pages of politics." And yet, this seems blatantly what he is doing. Ugh.

I think your piece is reasonable enough. Franzen deserves to be criticized, as does the rest of the literary establishment for the exclusive nature of its current arrangement--books written and read primarily by white people in the upper-middle-class, earnest-head-nodders in hallowed halls.

What galls me, though, is your (mostly reasonable) piece is juxtaposed with the Lin cover story. Lin, I suppose, is supposed to represent a more democratic contemporary author: young, non-white, relatively poor, with less access to power. Who is writing the more distinctive literature, Franzen or Lin, is another argument. But if you think Lin's audience is somehow democratic, more representative of America as a whole, I think you are sorely mistaken. The people championing Lin, like those promoting Franzen, are also primarily white and upper-middle-class--their hair is just a different color. Mostly, I'd wager, they are the sons and daughters of the old gray-hairs, nodding so earnestly at places like Benaroya Hall.
Another naysaying critic trying to take some of the piss out of Franzen? It's almost as if people are no longer responding to the novel itself, but to their idea of this writer as a person. Nothing breeds contempt like success.
Well said, Mr. Constant. "the pennies of his innocence", hehe.
Lots of generalization about post-war American Literature. You can't exactly throw Gravity's Rainbow or V or Aberration of Starlight or Invisible Man onto this bonfire of yours, Mr. Reviewer. It's a big country and we've all been reading lots of different stuff for different reasons. And some of us are uncomfortable with fiction, like Kerouauc, who called it "little lies of craft and revision" (or something like that.) Reading Updike and the lot makes me cringe sometimes but sometimes these writers are just boring. But let's keep the bath water. It wasn't all bad or white. Like I tell my friend who is a committed misanthrope, try reading some more books, or different books.
Sorry, kids, but Franzen just doesn't write especially well or have an especially interesting mind. (We can pretend he does, but he doesn't.) He's about as middle brow as they come. If he's a "serious writer," we're in serious trouble.
As time passes and the initial uproar over FREEDOM dies down, I'm finding it harder to think of the book as being anything particularly special. I'm about 100 pages in to Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home, and am far more enthusiastic about it than I ever was about FREEDOM.
For me Franzen is all tell and no show. Bloated and too self-important. You start to pluck away at overreaching metaphors and borderline purple prose ramblings and it all falls apart.

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