I’m nearing the end of Freedom. It was a really quick read, considering its length. It did get a bit tedious and meandering towards the end, but I stand by it. It’s a vibrant and fun book. Not as good as the THE CORRECTIONS, but I fully understand the acclaim and attention that it got. It’s a bit unfortunate that Jonathan Franzen became the lightning rod for everyone who decries male domination of literature, because when people talk about his work, the implication seems to be that he’s got nothing really going on and the only reason he got any attention is that he writes books that cater to the preferences of the literati. And I don’t think that’s fair.
It’s true that Franzen got a level of acclaim by middlebrow sources (Oprah, TIME, etc) that he probably would not have gotten if he was a woman. For instance, Alice Munro writes fantastically unique work that’s better than almost anything else that’s being put out (and, now, she’s a Nobel Prizewinner), but she’s got nowhere close to Franzen’s level of popular attention.
However, Franzen deserves the attention that he’s gotten. His work is really that good. The writing is beautiful, and the observation is sharp. That’s a given. That’s the minimum that you need to have in order to be an important writer. But even more than that, he does something that only a few writers: he creates a twisted and strange world that’s just slightly askew, compared to our own, and he makes us believe in it.
His world is so awful. It’s so fallen and so sinful and so pathetic. There is no grandness or heroism in his world. There’s just the sick falling-away of hope and ambition. But it’s also very alive. His characters lead lives that are worth living. In that, it has something in common with the worlds of Nabokov and Faulkner. But he does his own thing. Nabokov and Faulkner’s heroes are singular. And they contain some epic quality. But Franzen isn’t like that. He emphasizes the smallness and weakness and patheticness of his characters. The way I am describing it, the books no doubt seem unappetizing. But that is their genius. They should not work, but they do. They do.
The problem with our literary culture isn’t that Franzen has gotten acclaim. In fact, I’d say the opposite. I’d say that the one good and hopeful thing about our literary culture is that it was, somehow, able to recognize how good he is. It’s almost amazing when I think about it. Franzen is a writer who’s as ambitious and talented as any of the greats. He’s like our Virginia Woolf or F. Scott Fitzgerald. And Oprah was able to see that! TIME was able to see that!
Really, the target shouldn’t be Franzen, it should be all the other overpraised white male writers who don’t achieve nearly as much: people like Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Dave Eggers. Not that those authors aren’t great (I’ve enjoyed work by all of them), but they’re no Jonathan Franzen =]