I still have not read Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, but had intended to after Mike Potemra’s glowing review in these pages.
Now I’m conflicted. B.R. Myers has an absolutely scathing and pleasingly conservative/elitist review* in The Atlantic this month. One passage that struck me as particularly trenchant:
Franzen does not take his story very seriously, but the irony is indiscriminate and directionless; he hints at no frame of reference from which we are to judge his prose critically. Nor are we to imagine that a fool or semiliterate is addressing us. The same narrator who gives us “sucked” and “very into” also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if syntactically crude sentences. An idiosyncratic mix? Far from it. We find the same insecure style on The Daily Show and in the blogosphere; we overhear it on the subway. It is the style of all who think highly enough of their own brains to worry about being thought “elitist,” not one of the gang. The reassuring vulgarity follows the flight of pseudo-eloquence as the night the day. Like the rest of these people, Franzen should relax. We don’t need to find a naughty word on every page to know that he is one very regular Joe.
But if Freedom is middlebrow, it is so in the sacrosanct Don DeLillo tradition, which our critical establishment considers central to literature today. The apparent logic is that the novel can lure Americans away from their media and entertainment buffet only by becoming more “social,” broader in scope, more up-to-date in focus. This may be the reason we get such boring characters. Instead of portraying an interesting individual or two, and trusting in realism to embed their story naturally in contemporary life, the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family “typical” enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society he can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.
I’d rise to defend the blogosphere (a bit of social slang Myers doesn’t seem to have a problem using without scare quotes) and note that the medium is very much capable of supporting good writing, but that’s not the point. The point is that novels aren’t social media, and shouldn’t try to be. I heartily agree.
*Warning: the review quotes an awful lot of crude language.