Monday, September 27, 2010

It Is Easier to Hate Franzen than to Read Him

I need to stop writing about Jonathan Franzen, but people keep saying things about him that bear repeating.

Not that they’re really talking about Franzen — no, by now they’re discussing a concept Franzen has come to represent (perhaps, unwillingly.)

He’s the alpha dog. He’s the messiah. He’s the establishment.

He’s an icon, and every icon draws iconoclasts.

It was trendy to love Franzen. Now, it’s equally trendy to hate him.

It’s even a story when people don’t read him.

Jessa Crispin of Bookslut fame has declared Franz-abstinence.

I checked out of Freedom. I just didn’t care. But the build-up of attention, everyone in the literary world pretending that Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time was as important as James Joyce’s appearance on the same magazine, and the debate about sexism, and the proclamations and the fuss... surely one should just get over it, read the book so that one can make an informed opinion on the matter. But I dug in my heels...

She notes that no classic author is infallible.

Of course there is no such thing as a must-read book. Maybe you should read some Tolstoy, but then again maybe not, if overly long descriptions of fields don’t really do anything for you, or if you have some problems with the whole woman-has-a-desire-and-so-must-die thing. Maybe you should check out some Jane Austen, but then again, Jane Austen is pretty boring and the whole marriage-as-life thing, I mean who really cares?

She concludes that no book is sacrosanct:

There is no such thing as a canon — what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works. If anything, the homogeneity of the responses to Freedom proves only the homogeneity we have in people discussing books in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Leon Wieseltier writes an essay, defending his publication’s right to criticize Freedom. Wieseltier insists that The New Republic was trying to restore sanity after everyone else had decided to quit worrying and love the Franzen.

A negative review of a book is often not an attack, but a defense against an attack — a retaliation, or, if you will pardon the Begriff, a negation of a negation. The “hatchet job” is sometimes the second hatchet on the scene.

Wieseltier also invokes William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating,” which seems to have been written in response to the Franzen slobber mob.

The popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them.

Franzen’s stature has peaked and, at least, a vocal minority has turned against him — some (like myself) without even reading him. I suspect that people are fickle enough that Franzen will become so disliked it will become fashionable to like him again.

I will say this in Franzen’s defense. It’s more difficult to dislike him when reading his interviews.

Salon asks, “Obama famously was photographed with a copy of Freedom. If he read it, what do you hope he took away?”

Franzen answers, “I hope he was so preoccupied with urgent national affairs that he wasn’t able to take away much more than a general enjoyment of the experience. I didn’t vote for him in expectation of his mooning around pondering literary novels.”

-Jason Lea,



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