FIERY INTELLECT ~ LIT BLOG: The Next Tolstoy

People have granted Jonathan Franzen enough attention. I mean, someone actually compared Freedom to War and Peace. Yes, the cliché lives–and the comparison remains as unfortunately abused as ever (honestly, 21st-century upper-middle class America can never provide the intense characters, events, and conflicts of 19th-century Russia).

Franzen appears in all the magazines and at every major New York lit event. His name flits across essays and public radio. The man does not need any more press or publicity.

But I must add this comment: based on Franzen’s two most recent novels, he’s Nicholas Sparks for the over-educated, affluent, white American crowd. Family, love, sex, separation, arguments, humor, and melodramatic moments of reconnection and redemption–packed with just enough college references, alternative careers, advanced vocabulary, and a smidge of loose ends.

He made this move intentionally. Franzen was once a striver for the postmodern set–that was the 1990s. In the 2000s, The Corrections and Freedom maneuvered him to the center of the literary mainstream. He decisively shifted away from writing that used the novel to push and explore language, artistry, and the limits of story. And toward writing that uses the novel to tell traditional stories peppered with conscientiously simplified, unthreatening postmodern tics. It’s like American suburban teenagers running around in Che Guevara t-shirts. They’re wearing a consumer representation of rebellion–they aren’t rebelling. It’s just so much easier than actually rebelling though.

This approach sells more books while still attracting critics and literary readers, who demand the appearance of intellectual challenge within the pleasure of seamless, naturalistic narrative. In Franzen’s own interview patter, he’s become “more interested in story”–a novelist’s way of saying more plot-driven and commercial.

Franzen accelerated down this path during the Oprah Book Club Smackdown of 2001 (no, not the “you betrayed millions of readers” guy–he’s a different media manipulator). Oprah chose The Corrections for her book club. Of course the publisher and Franzen accepted the pick and issued new books with the OBC stamp. Only then did Franzen make some comment about the womanly appeal of Oprah and how he felt uncomfortable with the book club. So Franzen got his name all over the media plus got out of his appearance on the daytime talk show (he would’ve felt so tacky and dirty afterward). Very savvy–popular sales and literary cred all bound into one neat package. (But in 2011, it’s Oprah’s last season. Freedom was chosen as the momentous final book, and Franzen expressed appreciation for the historic acknowledgement.)

I am not arguing against Franzen per se. I’m just saying let’s call it like it is. Franzen has gone the way of Grateful Dead posters, girl power, and Miramax. He’s softened the most radical elements of his fiction for the mainstream–it’s where the audience, income, and speaker fees reside.

I don’t particularly enjoy avant-garde or experimental or postmodern or whatever theorists are calling bizarre fiction these days. (As a teenager, I preferred the Rolling Stones to the Ramones, even though intellectually I understood the value of the Ramones’ art and music.) But I guess I have greater respect for authors who take sincere creative risks. I also have great respect for authors of traditional fiction who are obviously writing from their own authentic artistic place without self-consciousness–like Alice Munro.

All that said about “Franzen the Famous Author”–he is a good writer, has a fabulous head of hair, makes an effort to raise attention for women authors, and does amazing work on behalf of birds and their habitats.

 

One Comment

  1. Posted May 6, 2011 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Stands back from the keyboard in amazement! Thanks!