Showing posts with label Jonathan Franzen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonathan Franzen. Show all posts

Sunday, October 6, 2013


 The Guardian continues to give Jonathan Franzen novelist room to vent; this week he opines at length that modern life is horrible, awful, far, far inferior to the good old days when he was young and the internet was only a dream fools had after a  tequila binge.

I was born in 1952, and 'though being somewhat older than Franzen, I think he's become a tiresome, humorless prig who views modern life through a filter that renders repetitive results. It's a natural instinct to resent and resist change, but truly smart and creative people cease with a protest that will not be heeded and adopt to the changes times and technology have brought us. 

Often enough, the writers, poets and playwrights and publishers and book retailers who embrace the means available to them find themselves doing more interesting work; it means that they are engaged with the world that swirls about them and are fearless enough to interrogate shifting assumptions and remain relevant to readers who, I think, like to read writers with stylish prose styles wax poetic on the doings of human contradiction and convulsion. 

Me, I love the internet, and I haven't had to give up the things I love, ie, literature, movies, poetry, jazz and blues, writing. The social sphere has been changing for the last 30 years, and I prefer being in on the conversation. Franzen continues to mumble about his fabled good old days, he continues to rue the dawning of the 60s and all the decades since. What a pathetic sight, a premature elder alone in a room with the shades drawn, the floor littered with crushed party hats and shriveled balloon skins. It was a great party, Jonathan, but it's over. Much fun and sadness has transpired since then. Did you miss all that.?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jonathan Franzen’s “Farther Away” is marred by his anger about David Foster Wallace

Jonathan Franzen’s “Farther Away” is marred by his anger about David Foster Wallace:

.It is the writer's job to be interested in his responses to events around him, but there is such a thing as creating a style that makes one's intense self-regard a bearable  thing for a reader who otherwise might care less. Jonathan Franzen is a the author of several important literary novels and he does a fine job, over all, of casting his own personality as the model from which his characters find their motivating nest of bad habits and rationalizations; he is much better at it than ,say, Philip Roth, too often cited as the Next American Nobel Prize winner, who's creations sound more or less sound like the same person , albeit each with particular scab to pick. Franzen gives you the feeling that his characters , although different versions of his established personality, are actually the sorts of people who naturally be attracted to each other, for good or ill. His fictional universe is whole enough to add dimension and texture to gripes and rationalizations that would otherwise seem self serving.

Franzen, however, is way too serious to be considered a serious writer of non fiction; what he finds time to write about between novels makes it sound that just being Jonathan Franzen is a burden.  He treats his job as a novelist not as gift, or even a craft, but as task, an endurance of miserable labor done with  the obligated resentment of someone charged with raising the masses from the murk that is their collective habit of mind.Franzen the nonfiction writer appeals to that part of the audience who thing quality writing is a stream of associations, metaphors and similes that defer the point the author assures us he is reaching. All the divergences and deviations from the stated topic seem to me to be a ploy to makes us think that there is more going on than we thought, or that the scribe has done their homework and rigorously considered his expression. That is a problem with having a superficially elegant style; you're generally able to wing it, inserting any notion that occurs to you, making their intrusion seamless, seemingly, because you've mastered transitional devices. This is the reason I prefer Franzen the novelist, because it at least it a form where making stuff up is required. Fiction, literary or popular, is the next best thing for the compulsive fabulist, aka liar, as all the narrative inventions are contained in a form where the contents have no fidelity to actual events. Not that I think Franzen is a liar or a trader in shaded accounts.

Writing about your life as if it were fiction make for remarkable reading experiences; there are number of writers who even went so far as to refer to themselves in third person--Julius Caesar, Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer. Melville fictionalized his persona in is expansive poems in order to give a sense of how America is singular historical and cultural personality made possible by an unprecedented diversity in the population--he took on himself to speak for the collective Us as no one else could. The light touch is needed, however, and one needs to know how little to talk about oneself having an experience and how much they need to speak to whatever facet of their world their guise as a fictional character brings them. In any event, it is a device to bring a writer's ideas to the world, shame free.

It's a musty theater adage, one actor telling another, that you shouldn't let the audience notice you "acting". In that sense, Franzen is vainer about his status as a writer that he cannot help but seem as though he's preening even in his uncertainty. His persona is too large for the true stories he wants to tell; the art of writing literary memoirs, I suspect, is knowing when to drop the personal pronouns and concentrate instead on what one has witnessed. This is a key element in what has made travel essay writing, from Henry James, Mark Twain upward through Paul Theroux and beyond, a generally pleasurable experience. Franzen never actually convinces me that he forgets his status while composing --I suppose this writer regards his material the way a construction worker regards a large stack of bricks that need to be carted to another location on a work site. This should be done without fretting. Franzen frets and it seems he can't help himself.

His problem as an author of autobiographical pieces is his attempts to make his life, the writer's life, more interesting and dramatic. The writing has the faint aroma of perspiration, the kind of stench that arises when you overwork the body. Franzen is unfailingly elegant in his prose writing--for purely stylistic reasons, he is one of the best writers currently committing words to a page ,  whether paper or computer screen.  Beyond that, his writing grates because his default response, or reaction, to matters that occur in his life are that they are things that happen to him and that beyond his ambivalence as to how he should react/respond , there lingers a resentment that these events have gotten in his way, slowed him down, ruined the symmetry  of his timeline. Franzen the non fiction writer is the kind of person you want to avoid because you're afraid you'll become more like them, a nervous dweeb who wants to be left alone and yet forever feels resentment because he feels good folks are ignoring him. He makes you nervous reading him because you worry  that you might be more like him than you already know.

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.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Notes on "The Corrections"

It's not a book I hate, but it is one that I'm tired of reader’s reference as a "masterpiece": The Corrections, by the currently over exposed Jonathan Franzen. It was a padded family tragi-comedy that would sit well next to John Cheever’s two Wapshot books and John Updike's quartet of Rabbit novels without embarrassment, but there is something worked over in the writing.

Franzen, for all his long, virtuoso sentences connecting the minutiae and detritus of this miserable family reunion into a readable prose, the shadow of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon loom over his shoulder; the paragraphs are rather too packed, too often, with every scrap he can remember to put in, and there is, fatally, that hint of delirium that made the both the Gaddis and Pynchon use of the insignificant so alluring. The Corrections falls short of the masterpiece its admirers want it to be because an editor wasn't brave enough or assertive enough, to force Franzen to downsize his landscape. It became a trod, and what might have been a powerful and painful comedy became instead a blunt and painful to endure. I suspected Franzen had somewhere in the writing crossed a line and had begun confessing a host of his own traumas , with other names attached to the recounted deeds and results; the novel has that seamless, unstoppable quality of a monologue professed by traumatized sole who keeps on naming names of those who've slighted him , regardless of the topic under discussion, who will only incidentally, mechanically distance themselves from the details with a passing qualification of "I'm just saying" , or "maybe I'm wrong". And yet the recounting continues, recollected again, and yet again when a new analog occurs, until your consciousness shuts down like a machine responding to symptoms of over heating.

I had read How to Be Alone a few years later, his memoir/ essay collection where he writes movingly of the passing of his parents and the clash of his youthful idealism becoming tempered by the undisclosed facts of Life; but the poignancy seemed a matter of effect, of a certain manipulation of the narrative points; his telling in the memoir read as if this were one of his novels. The bleakness was too literary for comfort; not that I think Franzen dressed up his own memories, but it occurs to me that he has made a decision to treat his life like it were bleak comedy whose last chapter had yet to be written. I understand this, somewhat. I used to wallow in my depressions and despairs and exaggerate the hurts and aches that befell me, knowing this gave me ample material to write about. I lucked out, however, as even I became bored with the style and tone I inflicted on countless pieces of typing paper. Franzen has lucked out as well; he managed to get paid.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Twitter replaces literary criticism

Jonathan Franzen's problem is that he's been typecast as Jonathan Franzen, Serious Novelist, and the burden of having that media-installed millstone around your neck is that discussions about you generally cease to be about your actual work , nor even about your reputation. Rather, what people will talk about is your celebrity and whether you're worthy of possessing this dubious gift. Jodi Picoult has a real beef about the media's slant toward white male writers, but her response to the focus on Franzen is sour grapes --she , already a famous, best selling novelist-- is essentially complaining that  she is not famous enough.

One wonders how egregious Picoult considers the over-estimation of Franzen to be. In the not so distant past, critics and novelists between projects would vent their gripes against their fellow fabulators in long, detailed essays and cranky squibs--Mailer, Vidal, Dale Peck , et al, named names, staked their territory, and at least provided readers with a series of elegant resentments they could argue with.

 Picoult hadn't the time for a major essay , nor the patience  to write a half way literate blog post. Instead, she succumbed to instant gratification and communicated her resentment on Twitter. While she did create a buzz, her argument exists as a bumper sticker , not an indictment. It's a midcult expression of a very real inequity. She comes off as someone who is not so much against Franzen and male writers as much as books where the prose is a step above the diffuse, swooning  romances she prefers to construct. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Grating American Novelist

Time magazine has Jonathan Franzen on its cover, declaring him as an Great American Novelist. Notice how they side a troublesome tiff by not citing him as The Great American Novelist; the equivocation avoids a snarling morass of complaints from every contentious page boy with a BA in Literature who are compelled to snark regardless of the validity of a sweeping statement. Franzen is one among a few (or one among many, depending on how charitable you feel like being) Great American Novelists. The problem, of course, is that Time has decided to write about one novelist, one who made headlines when his novel The Corrections was an Oprah book club selection who then caused a ruckus when he remarked that he thought that , to paraphrase, that his novel was of a better grade than her regular picks. That made headlines, and Franzen walked back his caustic comments, doubtless at the insistence of publisher,publicists and agents , a lot that are assigned to sell books, low brow or lower. Franzen looked ridiculous and spineless, which confirmed my opinion of The Corrections,  foot dragging comedy , pockmarked with a surfeit of "literary" sentences that were with lyric lift or keen on insight.Franzen is a good, but not a great American novelist; he is , rather, John Cheever crossed with Robbe-Grillet, and reading him and his sufferings, real and fictional, is less inviting than having Charles Manson as your barber. The best I can say about Franzen is that he writes inordinately well for the little he actually has to say.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Making the World Safe for Jonathan Franzen

Ben Marcus, a writer and critic of ambitious genre-blurring novels that one might refer to lazily to as "difficult" or, god forbid, Postmodern, makes a good accounting of himself as he protects the good name of experimental fiction in the October 2005 issue of The Atlantic. Not on line, unfortunately, but the issue is worth seeking out for Marcus's essay, which amounts to a smack down of the self appointed protectors of readers against the gurning armies of avant-garders who've taken to writing novels in order to award millions of book buyers migraines. Marcus writes with a sure verbal slap at his avail, and it's a wonder of the intended target, Jonathan Franzen, will ever manage a response.

Jonathan Franzen is a gifted novelist whose last novel , The Corrections , could have used an editor who was unafraid to blue pencil the baggier prose that particular novel contained. Like others of his generation who are uncomfortable with providing what amounts to entertainment for a paying public, Franzen evidently equates length with worth, and thus filled his parody with the most minute things in the world of this horrible family. Everything was mocked relentlessly, continuously, endlessly, and each paragraph seemed to burst with more sarcasm and scorn until you wanted to use novel as a weapon against some defenseless thing. He had some ideas about American culture and what we're doing wrong to each other, so it's strange that his critical slings against William Gaddis and particularly his masterpiece The Recognitions. Gaddis is, from all appearances, the model from which Franzen formed his break through tale. Franzen is a worry wart at heart, one who loves to fret about his own comfort, and it's too his credit that he's a splendid enough writer, most of the time , to make us care about the status of his nerves colliding with the world. His essay collection, How To Be Alone is fine in this regard. It's when he attempts to diagnose the ills of American literature and assign blame (if not a cure) where he becomes a whiner, a sniveler, a sayer of absurd declarations. I am with Ben Marcus on this matter, which is to say that the novel is in relatively good shape and that the point of concern, regardless of style or ideology, needs to be on a writer's talent.These debates about the absolute state of writing have been going on in my life for years, and the result has been to make me , perhaps, a bit of a social retard, one who sees life from a sadly short sighted lens.

When I read Franzen's Strong Motion and The Corrections, there was no reason for me to assume that he was someone who wanted to be general reader's guardian against the legions of literary experimenters whose books he imagines are causing the destruction of coherence and common sense. Franzen, a novelist of ideas no less than those he critiques as too heady and thereby dangerous --DeLillo, William Gaddis-- seemed to be one of the smart one of those writers who felt compelled to make the readers labor for the treasure embedded in his books. His writing is not composed of short sentences, his descriptions are not taciturn, his metaphors are not of the kitchen-sink variety. He seemed more than willing to be mistaken for William Gaddis Jr.

Now he renounces his love of Gaddis and re-introduces himself to America as the reader's best friend, a writer who has a"contract" with his readers with he he promises never to stray from the conventions of good form and so worry the expectations of readers soured on experiment and genre-blurring. It's a rant that gets resurrected every five years or so--Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Tom Wolfe have all taken their major shots at other writers in an effort to decry the decline of contemporary fiction at the hands of various invading goons, geeks and smarty pants stack mongers. The terms change, the cures vary, but the diagnosis is always the same, "novels today suck",and the death of the novel is always near. Franzen's fretting in his lengthy list of complaints seems more self-serving than anything else; the flap over the Oprah Book Club is something he feels , evidently, that he must recover from. But all this fawning over what he assumes are middle brow audience tastes is unseemly. I agree that it's absurd to demand that a novel be "difficult" or otherwise complicated in order to be considered great. It's just a foolish to insist that plain-speaking is the only way great ideas get addressed in fiction. More than anything the issue seems a dust up between very few writers who delight in tweaking each other at length over things that are finally so much energy spent going down the wrong road.It's a handy issue on which to hang a polemic, but it avoids the more difficult issue at hand, the discussion of style.

Curious readers themselves have no difficulty reading so-called difficult writers like Don DeLillo or Salmon Rushdie and then switching without controversy to more conversational scribes like John Cheever or Lorrie Moore so long as the author displays a mastery of personal style that makes what the author is trying to do worth the read. Hemingway, I realized in college, was more than over-the-counter prose sans verbs , adjectives and metaphor and that his mastery of language, his crafted selection of words enabled him to get across(in his best writing) his notions of bravery, honor and personal code as felt experience without arm-waving or excessive bathos. Faulkner, contrarily, had a dense style beholden to cinematic flashbacks,William James' notion of the mind as stream-of-conscious in which the world is perceived through a plurality of associations,and a Bergsonian concepts of interior time ,all heady influences that might make a novel unwieldy and daunting, fiction that is rich less for straight forward morality plays and situation comedies that finally resolve themselves and affirm a vague faith in invisibly dispensed justice but more about the sheer rhythm, pace and texture of experience, the actual duration of time and thought between plot actions. It is daunting, of course, but there is the argument that exposure to and a taste for problematic fiction, fiction that does not rest on conventional expectation, helps a reader think through problems that have more symbolic complications than tactical ones. There is that hope that a reader lands somewhere on their feet after tackling the tides and and eddies of Faulkner's novels and recognizes that life isn't a series of problems to be solved as if it were a take home math test; empathy is the word here, and it is the story less revealing that would have us speak to one another a bit more richly as differences are covered and common ground cleared away. Faulkner's his ability for empathy and poetic description (again, in his best work) moves you along, experiencing something wholly other than the world one lives in.Individual style, how it's developed, and how a mastery of language through style makes a text, conventional or dense,interesting to the ideal reader is more difficult to discuss than the cleverly coined dismissals of ideas one doesn't like.