Monday, September 20, 2010
I've just started reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a book I planned on hating but am actually kind of enjoying. I've disdained Franzen (yes, my negative opinion of him has been that intense) since the whole Oprah flap back at the beginning of the last decade. I wasn't put off by some great offense against Her Highness of Daytime, but by Franzen's apparent smugness and snobbishness toward the economic gift horse that is the Oprah Book Club, by his attitude that he and his work (The Corrections) were too good for the sudden popularity that followed from Oprah's stamp of approval, that the vulgar "O" printed on the book's cover immediately tarnished its contents by marking it as "female fiction." Didn't he want people to read his goddamn book?
Anyway, it wasn't just spite that motivated me to pick up Freedom. It's too long a book to be read for the sole (and self-indulgent) purpose of further stoking some anger within me. No, I wanted to understand and be part of a conversation about an "important" literary work within the culture. I place quotes around the word important not to be snarky or contrarian, but to underscore the fact that Freedom's import is that it has prompted discussion in the first place, without me having to evaluate how important a literary work it is. It's not often that a work of fiction is discussed so ubiquitously, with angles of debate so multifaceted.
First there's the issue of the book's literary merit. Freedom has been overwhelmingly embraced by critics, with a few poison pens written in gleeful dissent. Then there's the reaction to the book's critical reception, which has become a debate about the nature of literary criticism and what it means to be a Great American Novel. Add to the mix questions of what happened to the popular "middlebrow" novel, why most people no longer read fiction, and whether a woman writer of literary fiction could ever grace the cover of Time, as Franzen did a few weeks ago, and you've got yourself some robust cultural discourse.
The last bit, of the media's attitude toward women literary writers, immediately cuts off any mention of J.K. Rowling, she being the clichéd 800 pound, and multi-billion dollar, gorilla. Of course, the modifier "literary" in front of "fiction" is central to all of this. When in recent memory have people, like real reg'lar people, many of whom are also the erudite consumers of the NYT's Notable Books list, clamored about and discussed a work of fiction? In the last ten years, it's only been in the context of young adult and genre fiction: Harry Potter, Twilight, and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy exhaust the list.
And so, we talk about Freedom. While that's a very good thing on the surface, what about Franzen has established him as the literary topic of discussion? It's not merit alone. There have been a number of great, and for the most part popular, contemporary works that did not make the same splash, books like The Road, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Netherland, Tree of Smoke, and Middlesex, among many others. Perhaps it's because few other authors mix Franzen's prodigious ambition and ability with broad social commentary. While I almost completely disagree with Franzen's evaluation of America and Americans, there's no doubt that Freedom is the work of a writer in full control of his powers, one who is emphatically Making a Statement. Freedom's sweeping 23-page first chapter is proof enough of this.
Whatever the answer, the great debate over Freedom shows the reports of the novel's death within American culture are at least slightly exaggerated. And the townsfolk rejoice, however halfheartedly.
(Mirrored on Cultural Minefield.)