Monday, September 20, 2010

Let's Talk About *Freedom*

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 clich├ęd 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.)


Admiral X said...

There is no better motivation than spite :)

Admiral X said...

What are your thoughts on ebooks vis a vis the iPad/kindle? Personally, if I had time to do serious reading anymore, that's how I'd do it. This is the post of a thousand questions -- do you do any writing outside of blogging? Once upon a time I used to write "serious" fiction back when I was a lowly grad student. Had a writing group and everything.

Peter Tabakis said...

I think ebooks are great in theory. I love the idea of being able to tote around my entire book library like I do with my cds. Especially when it comes to vacation, when I usually bring 3 or so books, things can get heavy. But I still love reading a hardcover. I think I'll eventually switch over to iPad but will still read some books in hard copy.

I started blogging to get myself back in the habit of writing. I used to want to write "serious" fiction as well, but never really wanted to put in the effort of learning the art. Grand ambitions and laziness don't mix. :) I'd like to read some of your old stuff if you still have it.

Admiral X said...

Oh I have it all, but unless you're a hard core Trekkie, it wouldn't interest you haha. I do have a novella-length work I wrote back in 98 about, of all things, a terror attack on DC that might be worth digging out of the archives. Several professors wanted me to turn it into my creative thesis, but I never got around to it.

Peter Tabakis said...

Star Trek fan fiction! I can't believe you offered that nugget up so freely, without the aid of firefly.

The Diarist said...

Firefly ... now that was a good TV show.

Admiral X said...

LMAO! Oh, it was a bit more than fan fiction. We actually pioneered collaborative writing online. The department was all agog over it. Couldn't figure out why, though looking back it was pretty innovative.