Aug 31, 2010

Ambivalence about Franzen

Rolling Stone magazine once ran an article on the man with the biggest penis. I really have no idea how they knew he was the man they said he was, but they did a story on him and his life and what it was like to be the Biggest Man in America (or whatever the title they gave him was).

Unfortunately, he was actually pretty sad. He spent most of the article moping and feeling sorry for himself.

The next issue of Rolling Stone ran a letter. It said, "I know somebody has to have the biggest penis, but did it have to be this guy?"

Which is pretty much exactly how I feel about Jonathan Franzen.

Call it conflicted. Or maybe, forcefully ambivalent.

Franzen is a good writer, despite his terribly conservative aesthetics. He writes good sentences and he has a sense of the way people talk and how middle class people live, his characters can be interesting and the scope of his stories are ambitious, even if the novels themselves aren't. The Twenty-Seventh City was terrible but The Corrections really was an important work.

I'm glad it's somebody, too. It didn't have to be. Literature doesn't have to be a part of our national conversation right now and it'd be just as easy for aesthetics debates not to make it's way onto the online pages of Time and the New York Times. The fanfare Franzen's gotten should probably be judged by poet laureate standards: if it promotes literature (of any sort, by any definition) then so much the better. Better this than nothing.

Franzen isn't even the best American novelist writing right now, though. He's not the best of his generation and would even have to fight for the title, I think, of best living writer of his generation.

If someone does gets to have the title, the attention, the experience of being a literary phenomena, I don't even care if it's actually the person who's the greatest or the best. I just wish it were someone who wanted to do something new with the novel, and someone who wanted to push the art at least a little. Someone who would at least try to experiment.

There's a reason Franzen's always getting compared to Dickens and Tolstoy: He's always in this spot where he wants to be literary and he wants to be challenging, but without actually challenging anybody. He is intentionally old fashioned. Even that could be experimentally interesting, but Franzen does it in this way that by design doesn't challenge any assumptions, old or new. And he's always so whiny.

Does it really have to be this guy?

Freedom released today and The New York Times loves it, the Wall Street Journal was "routinely blown away," the LA Times was moved, NPR said it reads "like smart poetry," and Esquire was very impressed. Reviewers could barely finish a review without alluding to Russians and the great white narcissists. There was kind of a whole Franzenfrenzy, complete with backlash. What do you expect from someone who, both times he's interviewed by Time, talks about birds?