Another one. It still exists. For a time, the most popular post was about Roger Scruton’s “A Carnivore’s Credo”, which you are welcome to Google. Now, this most popular post, by which I mean the post that is read based on the greatest number of Google searches, by which I mean the relevant thing on the blog people are most often searching for, is Jonathan Franzen’s “Perchance to Dream” a.k.a. “The Harper’s Essay”. Here, in the interest of complicating those search results, is what I ages ago had to say about it:
No one likes Jonathan Franzen. Surely, after his Oprah episode and the dreary irrelevant memoirs he published in the New Yorker several years ago he makes such dislike easy. But I like him. I do. I think he’s smart and terribly good at running with an idea. I like him the way I like Jim Belushi, or friendly kittens to whom I’m allergic.
Franzen’s essay was written six years after DFW’s essay on TV and it’s [sic, alas] concerns are similar though directed less specifically at TV and more toward a mass- and multimedia culture of image. Whereas Wallace’s problem was that TV is such a totalitarian force of ever-progenitive self-conscious irony that fiction writers are stuck writing in response/reaction to it, Franzen sees the problem as many others before and after him have: there aren’t any interested readers left.
Well, it’s not only this, it’s also that novelists may have once been able to “tackle” the culture, but not longer. “The novelist,” he writes, “has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?” (40).
In other words (and here’s especially where he and DFW line up), how can a novelist comment on our chimerical mainstream culture without becoming either (1) a product of that same culture or (2) so outdated (DFW uses the term “outmoded”) as for your comment to be irrelevant?
Franzen’s eventual answer is to direct those energies elsewhere, and engage a subculture of born readers rather than the supraculture of American Society. This seems at first to be almost petty (or pitiful) in its lack of ambition. It’s not going to stop, so just give up. But once this problem is stated Franzen then goes to show a few key things that help us see where he’s getting to.
One, the social novel is an obsolete relic. (Is that redundant? Probably, sorry.) Here’s where he diverges from Tom Wolfe, in that even if all U.S. writers were to suddenly heed every word Wolfe wrote in Harper’s in 1989 and start hoofing it to the streets to do some hardcore Breslinian reportage, the novels they’d produce would all be inferior records of contemporary U.S. mores than anything seen on TV or in movies or read online. Newer faster media have superceded novels in the job of reporting what the world is like. (Franzen calls Wolfe’s essay “the high-water mark of sublime incomprehension,” chiefly owing to “his failure to explain why his ideal New Social Novelist should not be writing scripts for Hollywood” .)
Two, though writers like to think of a general audience, such an audience is a myth. This is the part of the essay that he quotes Shirley Heath a lot, who’s shown that readers—i.e., people who sort of kind of have to read—are formed, not innately created, due to the presence of specific external forces acting upon them in childhood. I won’t get into all of it here, but what this means for Franzen is that readers form a community or subculture and that, if one does one’s research, this has kind of always been the case.
Three, because the social novel (and the kind of democratic nation of keen, conscious readers it dreams of) is obsolete and because the community of readers comprises such a relatively small but fiercely devoted number of people, the novel cannot seek to inform/expose/enlighten, it can only seek substantivity.
That’s a lousy word, but it ties in with how Heath understands serious fiction, that it’s “substantive,” meaning that it “impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them.” And what’s cool about this idea of what constitutes literary fiction is how well it mirrors the act of creation of fiction on the writer’s end. What else do we do as novelists but impinge circumstances on people’s (well, characters’) lives? Cutely, Heath argues that building characters (whether as a writer or reader) builds character.
And anyway, Franzen writes, the social novel’s successes, whatever they may have been, were chiefly accidental, a function of time and technology, of the novel in the 19th and early 20th centuries having no real competitors. It’s not a factor, as Wolfe tries to argue, of something inherent in the form of the novel. “Although the rise of identity-based fiction has coincided with the American novel’s retreat from the mainstream,” Franzen writes, stating as a plain fact what Wolfe points to as a troubling concern, “Shirley Heath’s observations have reinforced my conviction that bringing ‘meaningful news’ is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental by-product” (48).
So why write? Or, when writing, write what? I keep quoting, but Franzen’s saying it all better than my paraphrases could. “Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems—seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?” (49).
What I like about this quotation (and it may be my favorite from the essay; when I just reread it for the fourth or fifth time this morning I underlined it with the kind of recognition I do when singing along to like an R.E.M. song I once spent an early-Nineties evening listening to closely and repeatedly to learn the lyrics of) is how it seems to sit like Switzerland between the Germany of J. Franzen and the France of B. Marcus. If the one thing hunters and animal rights activists can agree on is that extinction is a very, very bad thing, the foremost importance of careful, honest sentences seems to be what Franzen and Marcus can share a beer over. It’s the way we can as readers enjoy as I do both Franzen and Marcus, and I’m surprised it’s the conclusion we’ve come to in this essay. I suppose the issue now becomes (between realists and nonrealists) what “authenticity” means in the quote above, and whether taking refuge is an adequate response on the part of the reader.
But what I’m taking away from this is the whole “meaningful news” as “accidental by-product” of the novel. Because lying therein is the possibility that novels can indeed do this. (Franzen’s caveat, though, is that “[i]t’s all too easy to jump from the knowledge that the novel can have agency to the conviction that it must have agency” .) Both The Corrections and Infinite Jest followed these essays about the difficulty of writing novels that mean or say anything, and yet look at how much they say or comment on. And yet these comments are always sublimated to characters. The Corrections is only a novel about a family that’s all grown up. And by sticking to this, Franzen somehow found all manner of things to say about psychopharmacology, haute cuisine, post-SSR Baltic states, and Caribbean cruises.
All this out of tending to one’s sentences. This, amid the driest spell of my writing life in the past few years, gives me some hope.
J Franz has a new novel out this fall. I, for one, am excited.