Critics' choice?

Jonathan Franzen and the Great American Novel
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  August 29, 2010

FREEDOM TO CHOOSE There’s nothing wrong with Franzen’s novels — it’s the critical hype that’s the problem.

This month, Jonathan Franzen became the first living American novelist in 10 years to make the cover of Time. His Freedom — out this Tuesday, and his first novel since 2001's National Book Award–winning best seller, The Corrections — has been anointed the latest Great American Novel.

A quick survey of Freedom's advance reviews shows what's wrong with book criticism these days.

Time and Esquire both succumbed to Great American Novel Syndrome, an affliction whose symptoms reveal the strange premises on which contemporary book critics operate, in a space that's both depressing and deservedly marginalized.

Time sent Lev Grossman, whom the New York Times places "among this country's smartest and most reliable book critics," to spend the day with Franzen watching otters.

What does a distinguished writer have in common with our bewhiskered fish-eating friends? They're both under threat of extinction. For you see, Franzen is that rare being, the American Literary Novelist. He makes no concessions to trends or the marketplace. He alone shuns temptation and shows us The Way We Live Now.

As a Literary Novelist, Franzen is "painfully conscious," and so must bear the burden of those who are not. The insights he shares won't alienate the "beleaguered" modern reader — Grossman assures us we'll enjoy Freedom because it's not too difficult to read.

How does Franzen do it? Asceticism, duh. He locks himself away in "a rented office he has stripped of all distractions." He works on an "obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire," and whose Ethernet port he has sabotaged, MacGyver-style, with a file and some glue.

Half hagiography, half sales pitch, Grossman's profile brands Franzen as the one to guide us away from our iPhones and into the light. Does this portrait of the artist as bird-watching Messiah in nerd glasses benefit potential readers?

And who are these readers? An accompanying infographic suggests that they really don't know much about fiction. The floating heads of Toni Morrison (labeled here as an "Old Master"), Michael Chabon ("New Regime"), and Jhumpa Lahiri ("Young Turk") contextualize Franzen in a pantheon of Literary Novelists, must-reads in a supposed critical canon that, thanks to the Internet, no longer actually exists.

Grossman's "readers" are hostile as well as ill-read. "In the court of popular opinion," he claims, "all writers are guilty of being elitist pricks until proved innocent." It's doubtful that Grossman, a bestselling writer himself, believes this. Rather, to make Franzen palatable is to restore the writer and the beleaguered critic to a position of cultural authority.

That's a lot to ask of one cover story and some otters.

But Grossman's unimaginative worship of a self-flagellating male hero looks positively benign when compared with Benjamin Alsup's review-cum-hand-job in Esquire. Alsup uses our novelist friend as a cudgel to beat the writers and readers he so clearly detests.

He begins with the assertion not only that America has given up on books but that "many of our writers have given up on the very notion of greatness." This is silly bombast. Anyone who's willing to submit to the inevitable countless rejections from publishers is not looking to write books that are merely okay.

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