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.

Ruth Franklin is also disappointed by the novel, but she’s not nearly as vituperative about it as Myers’ is, even when she agrees with him about the laziness of Franzen’s prose, and it seems to me that while she does get some things wrong, she also gets more right than he does. Some of the things Franklin gets wrong are mere details—she finds a sleepwalking scene in Freedom implausible without seeming to have realized, as most readers I’ve checked with have, that the character in question was faking, and she also misses some subtle cues with respect to another character’s foray into supplying matériel for the war in Iraq—but they point to larger interpretive problems. If you’re going to claim that Franzen has a tin ear for satire, you mustn’t goof on relatively simple readings of the narrative’s events.

But I also believe Franklin is right to push Franzen on the thinness of his development of the female characters, and about the novel’s biggest implausibility—the existence of the female protagonist’s life journal, written in the third person with occasional references to “the autobiographer,” as an actual (within the world of Freedom) document, an existence which is necessary in order for the male characters to discover, and act upon, her perspective on the events that involve them. Otherwise, the autobiography is much like all the other close-third-person sections of the novel—in part, Franzen has admitted, because he’s not up to the first person—so turning it into a “real” “document” is a gimmick, no matter how you slice it, and it’s a gimmick that creates a problem in how we view the character: Either she’s as intellectually unmotivated as the novel seems to suggest, in which case the autobiography’s high degree of introspection rings false, or we take the autobiography at face value, and then wonder why all this therapeutic introspection didn’t take. Even then, though, Franklin’s assault on what she perceives as the novel’s sentimentality leads to an analysis of the novel’s final section and its motivations that is suspect to the “were we even reading the same novel?” degree.

That’s one of Franklin’s bigger interpretive missteps, but there are others, as when she claims Franzen “wore [his disinvitation from Oprah as a highbrow badge of honor;” again, most people with whom I’ve checked agree that he displayed no pride in the controversy and was instead profoundly embarrassed by the results of his public displays of ambivalence. (I also know people who believe he was churlish before getting bumped from the book club, but that’s still not the same thing as wearing his rejection as a badge of honor.) OK, that’s not strictly speaking about Freedom, but given that it’s a detail she chooses to lead her essay with, it’s safe to say she considers it an important plank in her argument about Franzen’s intentions as a writer both in Freedom and in his overall career., and the tensions between accessibility and artistry she sees driving his work.

“Franzen is better than anyone else at work today at delivering the kind of self-reflective portrait of contemporary life that we seem to crave,” she says. “He gives us us, which is most of what we seem to want; and he has a gift for seductive undulations of plot and heart-tugging convulsions of character.” All of which is, essentially, true enough, although we could reasonably argue over that “better than anyone else” designation; from there, however, Franklin moves on to a critical assertion adopted from M.H. Abrams that “the task of the novel… is not to show us how we live but to help us figure out how to live,” which leads to the conclusion that “if Franzen is the best we’ve got, he still isn’t good enough.” I am less trusting of any assertions about “the task of the novel” than I was when I was younger, perhaps, and maybe Franklin’s critique is simply a more polite version of Myers’s assault of Franzen for being “insignificant,” but it still seems to me that, sure, Franzen is trying awfully hard, and in some sections of Freedom that’s more obvious than others, but attacking him for creating a “soap opera” hardly seems fair when he is, after all, and even if he would bristle at the term, a commercial novelist—upscale commerical fiction, to be sure, but commercial all the same. What’s so horrible about a commerical novelist delivering a soap opera, especially if it works?

The headline promised to consider the “liberal backlash” against Freedom, because it struck me that the two harshest reviews of the novel so far have come from The Atlantic and The New Republic, with the latter’s Leon Wieseltier going out of his way to offer a justification for brutal criticism (“I pride myself on this negativism… Anger at the false and the fake… is an admirable anger, because it is the heat of a cause, and our causes are the spurs of our culture”). Now, I’ve got my opinions about that line of logic, but that’s a bigger subject for another day… For now, I’m just wondering if maybe, in the same way Franzen’s prose is just “literary” enough to dazzle many readers/critics with its technical polish, his themes are just liberal enough that readers/critics of the centrist-left persuasion will see him as delivering an insightful critique, perhaps even bordering on the progressive—and, since he doesn’t excuse the flaws of his liberal-seeming characters, nor does he refrain from poking fun at things like environmentalism or immature critiques of consumer culture, right-centrists can also find plenty to appreciate. Which may leave readers/critics who consider themselves to be much more left of center with a desire to re-affirm their position by pointing out the shabbiness of Franzen’s political satire… and if they can hook that up to an aesthetic attack, all the better.

But I could be totally off base with that, too. I mean, it’s only two reviews, which means it’s not even a trend yet.

30 September 2010 | theory |