Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, has been all over the web for the past couple of weeks. I’m pretty sure I’m going to read it, but there’s little chance I will write about it. Generally, I tend not to feel comfortable writing about books I think are really very good, but complex (and I put The Corrections and Freedom in this category). I have less trouble making absolute statements about films I feel that way about, because I don’t care as much about film, generally. For me, film is something that entertains, and maybe says something important, but not something that’s important in itself, to the extent I feel novels are. I think I’ve written about this before. But Purity, in particular, I feel especially queasy writing about.
For one reason why, look at this Gawker article by CML. It could very well be a satire of the most ridiculous response to Purity that could possibly be imagined. It could very well be intended to make people who write negatively about Purity look bad. It could be intended to make me feel bad! And I feel bad already just reading it, even though I haven’t written anything negative yet, and even though, even if I did, it almost certainly wouldn’t be what Gawker’s CML has written.
On the other hand, there are things that would have to be gotten out of the way before I could say anything about the novel itself. Things that would have to be gotten out of the way before I could think about the novel itself. So, here are four thoughts on the Jonathan Franzen situation (three addressed to JF, and one to the reading world at large). Notice that most of them have little or nothing to do with the text itself.
Franzen should lay off Jennifer Weiner. We get it. We get it. There is no need to perpetuate a media feud. Neither of you is Norman Mailer. Or Gore Vidal. As for Weiner’s books, I haven’t read any of them. I did read one page, when her publisher took out a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review—no doubt because the NYTBR was sure not to give the book any column space in the form of a review—and I read it all, because I was on vacation and sitting by the pool, and I thought, “This is pretty damn good. I wonder whether the rest of it will follow through.” And just now, I read a few pages of In Her Shoes in online preview, and I think I’m going to read it all. I’m not someone who rushes out to read every new entrant in the sex-and-shopping genre, and in fact haven’t read silly women’s novels since I was a teenager, but my feeling at the moment is that I’d rather read Jennifer Weiner than finish either The Submission or The Revolutions or Secret Society Girl or Blue Angel. Jennifer Weiner is not what’s standing in the way of America’s being smart enough to understand the goodness of Jonathan Franzen and all his causes.
Franzen should lay off the Internet. It’s silly already. I’m getting the feeling Franzen wants to get The Newsroom back on the air. I think he may be the least knowledgeable living Internet-peever. At this point, he may as well be shouting, “I’m roadkill on the Information Superhighway!”
Franzen should lay off his friend Dave’s fans. For everything about one single fan that annoys Jonathan Franzen, hundreds or thousands of fans did not do that thing. In fact, for every annoying thing a fan has done, there are probably a dozen fans reading and waiting to pounce on it themselves. Ease up a little. (If he wants to stop doing something that annoys fans themselves, Franzen might ease up, specifically, on the “difficulty is evil” bit.)
Somewhere in the last bunch of gaffes, I had the same reaction I had when Aaron Sorkin called that print journalist “Internet girl.” Enough.
If the vast majority of educated fiction readers were handed a book of the best-thought of literary fiction, they would not be happy. This is true, at least, in the U.S., and the converse is also true: If the vast majority of people with advanced degrees in English or creative writing were handed a quite good work of mainstream fiction written to appeal to the vast majority of educated fiction readers, they would not be happy.
Whole dissertations could be written on how this came to be the case, but let’s stop here.
From what I can tell, the current literary-world consensus (yes, this is litchat, based on Franzen’s own statements about his writing) is that Franzen long wanted to write literary fiction that appealed to an elite within the educated fiction-reading class, but that he decided this was (for a number of reasons, see essays he’s written like “Mr. Difficult”) wrong , and that he decided instead to appeal to that larger set off readers. Specifically, he decided to write something more like the social novel that had long been scorned by young writers of his stripe (you may or may not recall how the late David Foster Wallace described his feelings about Franzen’s beloved Edith Wharton). That is—and this part of it may have been unfair, and adduced without evidence by certain critics—he wanted to appeal to the reader, not exactly of Jennifer Weiner novels, but at least of novels by Allegra Goodman and Margaret Atwood. The women’s market being larger than the men’s, though writers like Richard Ford and others do seem to make a decent living from the latter.
But. Those novels use language differently from the way language is used in the archetypical literary novel. And the readers of those novels expect language to work differently, as well. This is a dilemma that is going to result in comic misunderstandings. My sense is that it’s a circle that can’t be squared, no matter how good the writer is. And Franzen is good, but trying to square the circle is, itself, comic.
To this, there are two possible answers. One, that Franzen isn’t trying to change the way he writes to fit the more mainstream expectations, and so he’s not trying to square the circle in any way. Still, I think, if this is the case, it’s not unfair for readers to wonder what’s going on, and to decide, whatever it is, they don’t like it. Or, it could be the case that two: Franzen doesn’t believe there’s a difference between the language of a mainstream or genre novel and the language of a literary one; and I’m just wrong to think there is. If this is the case, his project is, then, I think, something quite different.