B.R. Myers‘ dismissal of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom in the Atlantic is strange—not least Myers’ complaint that the novel’s coarse language does some kind of disservice not just to the book to but to literature. (If the casual use of the word “fucking” in a novel offends Myers so, by reading contemporary living fiction he’s doomed to be constantly offended.*) But his oddest complaint is that Franzen litters his prose with brand names to please the market:
Franzen uses facile tricks to tart up the story as a total account of American life: the main news events of the past quarter century each get a nod in the appropriate chapter. Brands are identified whenever possible; we go from Parliament butts in the first chapter to Glad-wrapped cookies in the last. Countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked, in the most minimal sense of the term. When Joey and a girl fly to Argentina, Pirates of the Caribbean is playing on the seat backs in front of them. Facile, yes, but Franzen knows his market. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.)
Franzen’s use of brand names is a literary strategy, sure—a way to give the novel an extra touch of precision and verisimilitude, and if Myers thinks he goes a little overboard with the cultural references, I won’t disagree. (Franzen rarely passes on an opportunity to smirkingly mock the authority of the New York Times, or the self-satisfaction of NPR listeners.) But that’s not a craven marketing strategy to gain readers. How could it be? A reader who’s pleased by references to Parliaments and Pirates of the Caribbean won’t find their bliss until they’re deep into the novel anyway, and if that’s the bliss they’re looking for there are shorter, more comforting novels to read. (If Myers is right, perhaps publishers have been putting the wrong stickers on their covers for years. Instead of “Winner of the National Book Award” or “Oprah’s Book Club,” there should be stickers saying, “Mentions Lady Gaga” or “Droll reference to Car Talk on page 428!”) Franzen likes those “trivial particulars” because he wants to say (not wholly successfully) that they’re not so trivial, and if those references fail to create a portrait of modern life that has “real relevance” (whatever that is), it’s not because the author cynically chasing sales.
* And this from the same critic who made his name criticizing literary prose.