Jonathan Franzen, 1996 Harper’s essay.
“Perchance to dream: in the age of images, a reason to write novels”
This is basically a bunch of quotes with sparse comments, maybe not that interesting, but it is behind a paywall usually so could be useful for others; hoping these little extracts don’t piss off Harper’s. Oh wait it’s in “How to be Alone” too, except it’s a 48-hour book in the British Library and I didn’t think I wanted it in time to order it.
Solipsism and the American (New Yorker?) milieu:
“Such was my state when I discovered, in the modest Yaddo library, Paula Fox’s classic short novel Desperate Characters. “She was going to get away with everything!” is the hope that seizes Sophie Bentwood, a woman who possibly has rabies, in Desperate Characters. Sophie is a literate, childless Brooklynite, unhappily married to a conservative lawyer named Otto. She used to translate French novels; now she’s too depressed to do more than intermittently read them. Against Otto’s advice, she has given milk to a homeless cat, and the cat has repaid the kindness by biting her hand. Sophie immediately feels “vitally wounded”–she’s been bitten for “no reason,” just as Josef K. is arrested for “no reason” in Kafka’s The Trial–but when the swelling in her hand subsides, she becomes giddy with the hope of being spared rabies shots.”
Pretty much the background to my thesis:
“Exactly how much less novels now matter to the American mainstream than they did when Catch-22 was published is anybody’s guess. Certainly there are very few American milieus today in which having read the latest work of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford is more valuable, as social currency, than having caught the latest John Travoka movie or knowing how to navigate the Web. The only mainstream American household I know well is the one I grew up in, and I can report that my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover, and Time, for my father, was the ultimate cultural authority. In the last decade the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King. These are honorable writers, but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers. The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it.”
Franzen the everyman:
“The irony is that even as I was sanctifying the reading of literature, I was becoming so depressed that I could do little after dinner but flop in front of the TV. Even without cable, I could always find something delicious: Phillies and Padres, Eagles and Bengals, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Homicide. Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units–half-innings, twelve-minute acts–the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites. But of course the more TV I watched the worse i felt about myself. if you’re a novelist and even you don’t feel like reading, how can you expect anybody else to read your books? I believed I ought to be reading, as I believed I ought to be writing a third novel. And not just any third novel. It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context. What more vital context could there be than television’s short-circuiting of that expanse?”
This is weird:
“It’s hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream; sooner or later the therapeutically minded reader will end up fingering reading itself as the sickness. Sophie Bentwood, for instance, has “candidate for Prozac” written all over her. No matter how gorgeous and comic her torments are, and no matter how profoundly human she appears in light of those torments, a reader who loves her can’t help wondering whether perhaps treatment by a mental-health-care provider wouldn’t be the best course all around.”
MFA vicious circle:
“Unfortunately, there’s also evidence that young writers today feel ghettoized in their ethnic or gender identities–discouraged from speaking across boundaries by a culture that has been conditioned by television to accept only the literal testimony of the Self. The problem is aggravated, or so it’s frequently argued, by the degree to which fiction writers, both successful ones and ephebes, have taken refuge from a hostile culture in university creative-writing programs. Any given issue of the typical small literary magazine, edited by MFA candidates aware that the MFA candidates submitting manuscripts need to publish in order to obtain or hold on to teaching jobs, reliably contains variations on three generic short stories: “My Interesting Childhood,” “My Interesting Life in a College Town,” and “My Interesting Year Abroad.””
Whole thing about this anthropologist whose work Franzen takes as spark for his crisis of faith in the social novel:
“For Heath, a defining feature of “substantive works of fiction” is unpredictability. She arrived at this definition after discovering that most of the hundreds of serious readers she interviewed have had to deal, one way or another, with personal unpredictability. Therapists and ministers who counsel troubled people tend to read the hard stuff. So do people whose lives have not followed the course they were expected to: merchant-caste Koreans who don’t become merchants, ghetto kids who go to college, men from conservative families who lead openly gay lives, and women whose lives have turned out to be radically different from their mothers’. This last group is particularly large. There are, today, millions of American women whose lives do not resemble the lives they might have projected from their mothers’, and all of them, in Heath’s model, are potentially susceptible to substantive fiction.”
Franzen sets himself the Big Task:
“Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society–to help solve our contemporary problems–seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?”
Brief narrative of literary decline:
“As recently as forty years ago,when the publication of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was a national event, movies and radio were still considered “low” entertainments. In the Fifties and Sixties, when movies became “film” and demanded to be taken seriously, TV became the new low entertainment. Finally, in the Seventies, with the Watergate hearings and All in the Family, television, too, made itself an essential part of cultural literacy. The educated single New Yorker who in 1945 read twenty-five serious novels in a year today has time for maybe five. As the modeled-habit layer of the novel’s audience peels away, what’s left is mainly the hard core of resistant readers, who read because they must.”
I’ve read fourteen books this year, I think (one of them was IJ, too, which I think counts for at least three). How many have you read?
Think I actually used same prize/divided motif in some early draft of this chapter. Seen someone else call out Franzen for being too obsessed with fame/money:
“That hard core is a very small prize to be divided among a very large number of working novelists.”
Then there’s a whole bunch of meaty stuff about tragedy and the writer’s place in the world and the social novel leading not reflecting culture, with cameos from David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo. The conclusion? Franzen feels comfortable with his mission as both connected to and representing the world he lives in. That this seems to be his grand plan for what his writing should be.
Oh, the reason I’m interested in Franzen (not sure I mentioned it in the last post) is as this vocal supporter of the social novel, against ‘experimentation’, which might be tomorrow’s post.
Someone compare IJ and The Corrections for me, in lieu of me reading the latter?