Pointed incoherence is hallmark of Jonathan Franzen’s thoughts about the social novel (fiction that is especially sociopolitically engaged). This telling garble is demonstrated in the 1996 essay Franzen wrote on the social novel – both the original and revised version, “Perchance to Dream” in Harpers and “Why Bother?” in How to Be Alone – and recurs most recently in an interview this January 2009 at 5th Estate where Franzen states with trademark non sequitur:
[When] young I actually thought I was the only one with [more-or-less progressive sociopolitical] perceptions. … I think the difference now is that I recognize that there’s a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways….
Franzen falsely conflates “literary” with enlightened sociopolitical views. Franzen has shifted from trying to reveal public reality for a broad audience to writing for a much smaller audience that shares his sense of the “literary,” whatever the sociopolitical.
And yet, with no evidence or compelling analysis, he states:
Only written media, and maybe to some extent live theatre, can break down the wall between in and out (i.e., between internal reality and the reality of the world)…. All the things that would become impossible politically, emotionally, culturally, psychologically… this is, indirectly, what the novel is trying to preserve and fight in favour of.
The claim that “only written media…the novel…” can so effectively cohere the private and the public to “preserve and fight” for various “political…cultural” realities refutes his claim 5 paragraphs earlier:
It’s not necessarily fair to measure our culture’s engagement with political reality by the health of the social novel, now that we have shows like The Wire and now that we have CNN.
Directly stated, Franzen’s claim is that the social novel is relatively outdated and ineffective; however, somehow, political and cultural life can still be preserved and fought for by literary novels that are not sociopolitically engaged. This claim is so vague, near vacuous, even outright contradictory, as to be absurd. Franzen concedes the vague but not the vacuous, contradictory, and absurd:
I know I’m expressing this in very vague terms, but I think [literary] epiphanic moments have a social and political valence as well…
This is a null statement since virtually everything has “a social and political valence.”
When the established encourage the gutting of highly liberatory social and political features from novels, they speak smooth in apologizing for it by claiming that novelists, literary novelists, can only go so far down the road of public engagement before realizing their prison yard limits, and throwing up their puny hands, and even blaming themselves:
We may just be little specks. As a percentage of the total world population, we [literary readers and writers] are ever smaller specks, and what we are is ever more mediated by the structures we’ve created for ourselves to live in.
In other words, literary readers and writers exist in a terminal “ever smaller” condition, and what can one do but go down with the sinking ship?
All who say Aye! follow Franzen and that of which he is symptomatic – the establishment writ large.
Could this explain why some literature majors joke they enter the field feeling full of hope and graduate feeling “suicidal”?
Fight of flight? Franzen twists his tongue around both but in effect has chosen the latter.
The New York Times claims antiwar novels are “belligerent.” Does Franzen agree? Irrelevant?
As for Franzen “nowadays”:
I make fun of the ambitions I had when I was 22 and thinking, I will write the book that unmasks the terrible world, I will cause the scales to fall from the public’s eyes, and they will see how stupid the local news at 11 is, and they will realize how cliché-riddled the pages of their local newspaper are and how corrupt their elected officials are. And they won’t stand for it any more. Exactly what kind of utopia I thought would ensue was never clear.
Good to take from this that it is never a bad idea to clarify one’s political vision before embarking on a political novel.
In the meantime – so much for powerful literary and popular public works, novels and stories that go out to all the high schools and community colleges and universities across the land, to soldiers and their families, to hard hit citizens, so much for any flood of revealing Hurricane Katrina novels and Conquest of Iraq novels and other sweeping novels of economic, corporate, and state viciousness. So much for these stories thriving in commercial magazines and overspilling the literary journals. So much for any track record of it all these past many decades – the flood of vital stories that any healthy culture and society let alone educational institutions would be immersed in and excited about, powered and instructed by.
We may even suppose that someone lacking the supreme poise, the eloquent composure of responsible and respected opinion might wonder if such pointed convolutions of the established are not emblematic and just flat out typical of the suicidal and homicidal drift and stride of – not the students – the establishment.
No chance “antiwar” novels might be something other than “belligerent”?
Also see: “Send us the money. We know what to do with it.” – an open letter to Jonathan Franzen.