Friday, November 26, 2010

The Fate of the Novel: Franzen Frets So We Don't Have To

 Jonathan Franzen is a major novelist who seems fated to be remembered for being a weenie as much as being an important writer. In his June appreciation of Christina Stead's 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Women", the stress-tested author feels at ease to share with us his suspicion that ths thing we love, The Novel, is an affection of vanity, not practical need.

" ...haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? As an old English professor friend of mine likes to say, novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them; and wouldn’t we all be better off with one less thing in the world to feel guilty about."

I found myself rather stunned by Franzen's smugness in having it both ways; at times he wants to defend the literary novel from the barbarians who would turn the form into a fast food for the shrinking reading taste for reading, and now he hints that he thinks the Novel in general is a dated, creaking contraption. The eclipse of the novel, the death of the novel, the erasure of the novel are things that have been argued before, and lo, here we are, still reading novels and talking about them, arguing about them, still trying to minimize their importance. Tom Wolfe argued with typical bombast in his anthology of New Journalism that fiction had become irrelevant because reality had outstripped the novelist's imagination, and that the narrative techniques of he novel were better used for non-fiction.

The fiction writer's concept of the world had become a sorry trove of self-reflective theory and it was up to the journalists and the historians to properly tell the tale of our time. Wolfe, of course, desires to be the Dickens or the Balzac of our time, and considers the nineteenth century ideal of precisely capturing the surface the surface of things to be enough for those tasking themselves with working the long quills; to know a man, merely observe what things surround him.

To dare to think that a novelist could render a character's interior life negotiating the flow and flux of the external world (to say nothing of the task of making an entire cast of main characters just as complex) amounts to a terrible heresy against the storyteller's art. Or at least Tom Wolfe's version of what a story teller is; but we remember, Wolfe is a journalist, finally, not a story teller, he is beholden to the 4 W's, who, what , where, when. Pesky novelists, though, strayed beyond the bemoaning and constraining tide of naysayers and they continue with their stories, dealing with people and their complexities, and readers continue to read them. The only task of the novelist, I would say, is to put the reader in the respective shoes of a set of characters in a world they , the reader, might not otherwise experience; the notion is to live a little fuller without having to buy a plane ticket, to experience the world for a period in a way that has nothing to do with what one's instinctive resistance to change instructs us to do. Novels matter. Fiction matters. Arguing that they don't is a species of tedious grand standing. It's a rumpled horn section bleating the same old chord changes on a song that's old and sticks to the table top like a grime-primed coaster.Jonathan, Tom, take the lampshades off your heads.