The Liberal Backlash Against Freedom

I’ve recommended Freedom, the new Jonathan Franzen, but I’m not one of those people who thinks it’s an “instant masterpiece.” As a novel, it has some hefty flaws, but the fact remains that Franzen knows how to tell a compelling story, even when he’s cramming Big Issues into the narrative in what comes across as an effort to connect his domestic dramas to the larger world and thus imbue his fiction with larger significance. So when I come across something like B.R. Myers’s condescending pan of Freedom in The Atlantic, about the only thing I can do is shake my head and wonder how somebody can get things so wrong.

Which isn’t to say Myers isn’t right sometimes—such as the Big Issues problem cited above:

“Instead of portraying an interesting individual or two, and trusting in realism to embed their story naturally in contemporary life, the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family ‘typical’ enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society he can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.

I for one would be very happy if the word “ambitious” were to vanish from the collective consciousness of America’s book reviewers, that’s for sure. Mind you, I don’t think Myers would agree with me that it’s this trust in realism (with some dramatic flourishes) that makes novels like Jennifer Weiner’s Fly Away Home interesting and worth talking about in the same breath (or at least the same newspaper sections) as anointed works of genius like Freedom—but that’s because of the broader strokes in his snobbish approach to both literature and culture, starting with Franzen’s use of the word “fucking,” continuing through his utter contempt for the novel’s female lead—who may be seriously troubled, and who may also be unconvincingly delineated by her author, but who is hardly “too stupid to merit reading about”—leading up to the notion that “too much of Freedom takes place in high school, college, or suburbia,” expanses of American culture that are not, in Myers’ estimation, worth writing about as they “change the least.” Uh huh.


30 September 2010 | theory |

Thomas Sayers Ellis, “Audience”


Imagine a door, a door
with a sign on it, a sign that excludes you.
Not a symbol of you,
but the real birth you: erased, gone.

Through the door,
something you think you want,
something you were told was in books,
a false wholeness: Europe.

And if you are lucky… a seat on one
of its not so murderous seas,
surrounded by listeners
who are “kind of” open.

So you go, alone in the mind, often,
despite the sign on the door
and the signs inside,
and you never come back.

You are rewarded for this, in public,
and accepted onto
their realm of podiums.
Disliked, by a few, too.

Skin, Inc. is the long-awaited second collection from Thomas Sayers Ellis. He describes it as “identity repair poems,” elaborating for Publishers Weekly: “The ‘publishable’ American poem seems to have skipped over a certain amount of honesty, boldness, and activism in the name of ‘craft.’ An identity repair poem is one that acknowledges that many of the tools in the ‘taught toolbox’ need cultural improving… If there’s an ideal reader, I guess it would be someone—black, yellow, white or red—interested in literary time travel, so that we don’t end up here again in a place where there hasn’t been an Asian or Latino or Native American poet laureate.”

Skin, Inc. also includes “Race Change Operation” (from the Split This Rock blog). And, in 2005, I hosted Ellis in conversation with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, during which he showed us an excerpt of the poem “The Return of Colored Only.”

29 September 2010 | poetry |

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