The Facile Trick

B.R. Myersdismissal 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.

Links: BREAKING: Book Review Outlet May Publish Review of Book

Department of Ridiculous News Story Premises: “After a summer of glowing reviews for Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel “Freedom,” in which the book was deemed a masterpiece and its author compared to great American novelists, publishing insiders say the literary lovefest may be about to end. According to those sources, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, will pan “Freedom” in an issue out later this month. Judging by literary critics’ penchant for piling on, she probably won’t be the last reviewer looking to draw blood.”

Where are the novels about Hurricane Katrina?

Julia Alvarez: “I struggled early on because my first language was Spanish and when I came here I read all these great male writers whose voices sounded important, so I tried to model my own voice after them.”

According to a Bowker survey (PDF), there are many reasons why a person might purchase a book, but a book review isn’t one of them (see page 29). So, little has changed.

Jack Shafer despairs for the future of the book—though the book’s eroding cultural primacy, as he describes it, seems to apply mostly to nonfiction books, which have increasingly become lodes for data miners. As for novels, you still have to read those from start to finish.

Mystery novelist Bryan Gruley on the distinctions between writing news stories and writing fiction.

James Ellroy: “Well, sir, and this is on the record, I’ve blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read. Blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read, and have decided to drop the curtain on that.”

Inside Jennifer Egan‘s old-school day planner.

Things I’ve Overheard My Roommate Say to Her On-Again/Off-Again Boyfriend or Works by Joyce Carol Oates? (via; this gag also works for Bob Dylan and Dan Rather quotes)

Links: Welcome! You’ve Got Weltschmerz!

Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”

Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.

And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?

On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”

How To Kill a Mockingbird inspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.

George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.

Scott Timberg points to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.

Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.

In fact, it seems like they’ll throw more energy into satirical news stories with headlines like, “Overzealous First-Year Reads Most of Summer Reading Assignment.”

Freedom, Art, and the Infernal Machine

My review of Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel, Freedom, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s standard operating procedure to clip the beginning of the review, but I want to point to a few sentences a little lower in the piece, in order to get at one of the reasons why I think the novel doesn’t quite come off:

Throughout the novel are glimpses of people who are more coddled by art than inspired by it. A rock club is full of fans of a “gentler and more respectful way of being . . . more in harmony with consuming.” When Richard gives an interview saying rock “never had any subversive edge,” the provocation is subsumed into blogosphere noise. But writing can hurt, Franzen insists, and art can reshape us.

“Richard” is Richard Katz, a musician friend of the couple at the center of the novel, and something of a mouthpiece for the frustration/contempt/weltschmerz Franzen feels toward the way culture is made and consumed in America. There’s no question that Franzen is a firm believer in the power of storytelling—the whole novel is a study in how the stories we tell one another or ourselves can have a huge impact, sometimes literally wound us. Yet in nearly every scene in which Richard arrives, Franzen appears to be wringing his hands over the usefulness of pursuing art in a society that’s dead to it. It’s a valuable question, but Franzen pursues it awkwardly, and doesn’t resolve it in a satisfying way.

The problem is that, within the structure of Freedom, Richard can’t win regardless how much or little he succeeds. His first band, the Traumatics, is a poor-selling but critically acclaimed punk band that puts out grim-titled albums like Greetings From the Bottom of the Mine Shaft. He’s a smart guy who’s engaged in a pointless pursuit according to Patty Berglund, who narrates the bulk of the Traumatics’ history: The band is dedicated, she writes, “to releasing further wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small-venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be.” Richard sings angry all-caps lyrics (“A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I’m starting to feel/INSANELY HAPPY! INSANELY HAPPY!”) but not many are listening—though Walter, Patty’s husband and Richard’s friend, is among that enthusiastic 5,000.

When people are listening, the deadness of art-making is even worse. Richard later starts a new band that releases an album of polite folk-rock, and it becomes a hit, “the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households.” That mild sneering about popular art expands a few times in the course of the novel. First in an interview where Richard rails about the relationship between art and mass-consumption and iPods:

We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else. We’re about ridiculing people who have the bad manners not to want to be cool like us. We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes.

The feeling of contempt only deepens when Richard heads to Washington, DC, and attends a show by indie-rock cause celebre Conor Oberst at the 9:30 Club. Richard takes in the crowd:

…left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders. They seemed…to bear malice toward nobody. Katz could see it in their clothing, which bespoke none of the rage and disaffection of the crowds he’d been a part of as a youngster. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming. And so said to him: die.

So how to justify the effort of producing a brick of literature—art!—in 2010 when you’ve expended a lot of effort in its pages dismissing the utility of art, popular or not? A little strangely and unsatisfyingly, it turns out. Franzen has Patty, a woman not especially inclined to reading in his characterization, consume War and Peace, finding parallels in its pages with her own life. (In turn she’ll write her own set of pages that’ll have an impact on her family, pages written in an expert style that recalls a certain American novelist named Jonathan Franzen. Later, people will comment on how well-written those pages are.) And without giving too much of the plot away, it becomes clear that Walter internalized the Traumatics catalog deeply enough to go on an all-caps rant of his own, in a hokey, forced set piece. Awkwardly enough, Franzen is on better footing dismissing the value of art than he is asserting it. And if that’s the case, why bother?

It’s not as if Franzen hasn’t spent serious time trying to answer that question. In his excellent 1996 essay, “Perchance to Dream,” (subscription req’d), he argued that as a novelist he was obligated to look at the big picture, to defend the social novel, even as he was despairing over living in a time when there was no real audience for it. (The essay is a kind of defense of the novel that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world like.) So Franzen knew, going in, that writing a novel like Freedom would put him in a bind. He writes in the Harpers essay:

The American writer today faces a totalitarianism analogous to the one with which two generations of Eastern Bloc writers had to contend. To ignore it is to court nostalgia. To engage with it, however, is to risk writing fiction that makes the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine…

Freedom is no nostalgia piece, and there’s much to admire in it—it reads beautifully, has an admirable scope, and the extended parts about bird population and coal mining are less draggy than they have any right to be, even with one long scene literally taking place in a conference room. But it’s a novel with that persistent, irritating drumbeat in the background—technological consumerism is an infernal machine…—and while Franzen obviously threw his best effort into stifling that noise, to cover it up in singing prose and intimate characterizations, the platitude just keeps welling up.

Links: The Interrogative Mood

I’m doing some traveling over the next few days, which means my internet access will be a little haphazard through late next week. So, the usual Friday links post arrives a day early….

Jonathan Franzen‘s alma mater digs up his 2005 commencement address, which reminds us why he became a novelist in the first place: “I thought I might want to be an investigative journalist. I volunteered for The Phoenix, and I got assigned to investigate why the College’s housekeepers didn’t belong to a union. To do the story, I had to interview the College’s financial vice president, Ed Cratsley, but one of my defects as a journalist, it turned out, was that I was afraid to do interviews.”

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is ready to open this fall.

Michael R. Federspiel is the author of a new coffee-table book on the Ernest Hemingway‘s childhood and adolescent experiences in Michigan, which inspired The Nick Adams Stories. “In some ways, I think, fame corrupted him,” Federspiel says. “He lost the better person that he might have been in Michigan.”

A few common-sense suggestions about improving the quality of book reviews. (The focus is on reviews in academic journals, but the points apply to general-interest publications too.)

And Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips on the complex role the daily newspaper critic has to play in the midst of ever-shrinking word counts and alleged irrelevance. (via)

How Paul Auster‘s Invisible turned one Auster-hater around. (My own experience was somewhat similar, though Man in the Dark is the book that firmly pushed me into the pro-Auster camp.)

E.L. Doctorow, introducing America: Now and Here, a collaborative project involving visual artists, poets, musicians and playwrights addressing post-9/11 America: “Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate.” (Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a moment to swoon over a passage in Doctorow’s short story “Edgemont Drive.”)

Production of the film version of On the Road is underway—in Montreal.

I loved Matthew Sharpe‘s 2007 satire of New World colonization, Jamestown, so it pains me to say that his new novel, You Were Wrong, is a clunker. But your mileage may vary, and his list of favorite music covers for the Times‘ Paper Cuts blog is a fun read.

Remembering the contretemps over Lolita, published in the United States 54 years ago.

Ted Gioia delivers a thoughtful consideration of Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday.

I’m not sure how I heard about Elif Batuman‘s 2006 n+1 essay “Short Story & Novel: American Writing Today”—it may be that August is silly season, so more articles than usual about the decline of American literature have circulated on Twitter. At any rate, Batuman’s piece is very funny and informed, and some of her complaints about the all-too-carefully-machined stories she finds in fiction anthologies are spot-on. Still, I wonder if part of the Batuman’s frustration with short stories stemmed from the way she consumed them—gobbling down the 2004 and 2005 Best American Short Stories anthologies. It’s an unnatural, homeworky way of processing a lot of different authors in one place, and anthologies have a way of highlighting irritating authors’ commonalities instead of distinctions. (At least, that’s why I pretty much gave up on tackling them after reading the 2007 New Stories From the South anthology.)

Tom Grimes: “The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached.”

Links: Self-Inflicted Miseries

An illustrated edition of Mary Griffith‘s 1836 novel, Three Hundred Years Hence, considered the first utopian novel written by a woman, has been posted online. The newspaper of the then-future in the novel is called The Recorder of Self-Inflicted Miseries, which seems like an especially good name for a newspaper enterprise these days.

Following up on yesterday’s post on novellas, some interesting discussion in the comments at Big Other over whether short novels deserve a reputation for being unambitious. (via)

Donna Tartt is allegedly working on a third novel. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for two paragraphs on Bret Easton Ellis.

David Means recalls reading, at Jonathan Franzen‘s suggestion, William Cronon‘s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West”and the Great West, which “made me start thinking about the Midwest in a completely new way.”

Meanwhile, British booksellers look to Franzen to improve their fortunes.

The Ransom Center acquires Denis Johnson‘s papers.

Eudora Welty biographer Ann Waldron has died.

Speaking of Welty: The prospect of interviewing her was terrifying for at least one writer.

The New Yorker excerpts Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent forthcoming novel, How to Read the Air.

In praise of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the first publication of Twain’s 1889 short essay “Concerning the Interview,” in which he likens an interviewer to a cyclone “dusting a continent with your remains.”

I’m a Corrections Fan But I’m Beginning to Understand Why I Shouldn’t Be

Scott Esposito was for Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections before he was against it:

You know, right when I read The Corrections, I really, really liked it too. (And then I read Strong Motion and had a similarly positive reaction.) Both books gave me one of those visceral reactions that I suppose you could compare to falling in love, or perhaps being powerfully smitten after a night of intense conversation.

And then what happened? I got a little perspective. Franzen started looking less and less impressive to me. Other books and authors more so. In other words, I began to embrace that more active part of discernment and taste…

Esposito’s comments follow some earlier comments by Andrew Seal about the Millions’ list of the best fiction of the new millennium. (I haven’t followed the discussion closely, but I gather Seal believes the list is constricted by design—a product of a poll of people with too-alike sensibilities.) The line of thought here is initially a little off-putting, mainly because it reminds me of the kind of arguments you hear poseurs make when they talk about about music. (“You like them? Hey, 2006 called—they want their taste back.”) Nick Hornby explicitly riffed on this notion in his novel High Fidelity. “Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” one of the record-store nerds laments as he introduces his new girlfriend to his buddies. “But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be.”

Esposito isn’t that shallow. But his argument seems to dismiss as fraudulent the pleasure one gets as a reader—as if falling in love with a book makes you a sucker, and you need to fight against that feeling. Critics can interrogate books they like just as easily as ones they don’t. There’s no reason why you can’t study the feelings you get while reading a book, figure out whether that pleasure is a result of some explicit manipulation by the author or something deeper in the text. Indeed, that’s the most basic of divisions between the endless parade of Amazon reviewers (“I loved this book so mcuh!”) and a critic who wants to explain not just what a novel makes him or her feel but how the novel generated that feeling.

Intentionally or not, Esposito argues that pleasure resists discernment, that it can’t be a product of discernment—he once loved The Corrections, he writes, but after his first read he acquired the “more active part of discernment and taste.” Taste evolves, and nobody’s under any obligation to keep on loving the books they loved years back—if I went back to the books I loved 10 years ago, including The Corrections, I’m sure I’ll find reasons to scratch my head over my initial responses and convictions about the book. But our reasons for loving a book can be articulated, even during that first read—we don’t have to be struck dumb by that love.