Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Literary Fiction

I’m sitting here listening to the rain for the fourth day in a row. A shy flicker scouring the backyard lawn for bugs is joined by a couple of agitated robins. Two wet hummingbirds hover at the feeder dangling off the shiny wet pergola. Stretched out on the couch, my leg feels funny where a dog bit me last year and my eyes ache from fatigue, reading manuscripts on the laptop screen. Damn, I start dozing off and almost drop the laptop.

This was to have been an active week-long vacation, swimming and hiking and canoeing, but the rain has been too heavy and insistent to get out much. A long walk yesterday has been about it. I play Stephen Hough’s recording of Chopin’s late works. His Mazurka in A minor amplifies my melancholy, I feel worthless, tired, old.

In this pitiable state, I’ve been trying to amuse myself by paying sidelong attention to the brouhaha over Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom. Quist once told me, “You’re so easily amused.” Most of the pieces I’ve been scanning are not about the book -- I doubt that many people have really read it, after all it is a big magilla, nearly 600 pages of prose. Instead, they’re mostly writing about other pieces written about the book, a kind of cascading waterfall of emotional outpouring, some of it undoubtedly heartfelt, much of it simply banging a can in the absence of anything else to bang about. I don’t know what else there is -- obdurate reality maybe? The rain?

I don’t know much about Franzen but the Farrar Straus publicity department has done a good job getting the word out -- the author’s bespectacled midwestern face is everywhere. I guess it’s the face of a guy that arouses emotions. Like a billboard in the rain announcing the lotto jackpot. Some complain that he’s arrogant and compares himself to Tolstoy. I say, so what, doesn’t every writer possess an ego? Hell, Richard North Patterson used to compare himself to Dostoevsky. Others bemoan the fact that there is not enough serious literature being paid attention to in America, so Freedom has to stand in for all the unloved, unpublicized works that are languishing out there, in addition to being itself. That’s a lot to ask of any novel, no matter how big and serious, especially in an age when fiction is an anachronism, according to David Shields, among others. Could be the case.

I do a little surfing through the blogs and Twitter. I probably should turn off the computer and give my eyes a rest, but I’m easily amused. Some people are saying that there is a genre called Literary Fiction while others violently disagree, opining that there is only Fiction, any strand of which may exhibit literary qualities. Some say that genres like Mystery, Science Fiction, and Romance are every bit as literary as Literary Fiction. Others say Fiction can’t be judged, only read. Some say that ambition and motive are a big part of what makes Fiction literary or not. If you swing for the fence, you’re Literary, even if you pop out. Others think Literary Fiction is elitist and elitism is harmful or pretentious, or both. Some are not sure about any of this, so they apologize for their opinions in advance. They are sorry that they haven’t read enough women writers or haven’t given the populist genres a fair shake. Others are giddy and run on intemperately, practically shouting, “It’s about time someone tackled Big Ideas in contemporary fiction. That other stuff is tripe for neanderthals.” It’s a pretty good show.

And somewhere behind these pronouncements and assertions lies Freedom itself, Franzen’s big novel about an American family. According to most reviewers, it’s not unlike Franzen’s last novel about an American family, except this one is better, or just as good, or the same, or maybe not quite, or maybe not at all. One thing is for sure -- it will be a long time before anyone will be able to read the book without prejudice. It’s too late to sequester the jury.

The other day Morris Dickstein called Stoner a masterpiece on the radio. Then he went further and said it was “perfect.” Now, I like John Williams’s novel enormously -- I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys American fiction -- but I’d be hard-pressed to call it perfect. Why the hyperbole? Why characterize books in absolute terms? How can anything be anointed a “masterpiece” until it’s survived a few generations. The road to oblivion is littered with yesterday’s “masterpieces.” Franzen’s book may be impressive but who knows where its reputation will stand fifty years from now. Our grandchildren may say, “Boy, Freedom was really something. Franzen nailed it.” Or they may say, “Can you believe what they considered great back then?” This kind of see-saw thinking provokes a lot of anxiety -- none of us wants to miss The White Whale on its way to critical and popular acclaim, as its contemporaries did. But none of us wants to get conned into giving ourselves over to Jaws, either. This anxiety -- is Freedom the real thing or isn’t it? -- is amusing in others, but not so much in oneself. So I stall. I like birds and there’s a bird on the cover of the book. Should I take that to be a good sign? Maybe I’ll like Freedom after all.

Lying here I think of all the times I lied and said I read a book when I hadn’t even looked at a single page. Everybody I know in the book business does it all the time. We have to: there simply isn’t the time to do otherwise. But with this novel, given all the contentious opinion, it’s different -- I wouldn’t want to offer my views until I’ve really read it. I might make a mistake. But I don’t want to read it, especially now: there’s too much noise. Plus it’s long. I think to myself, geez, isn’t it enough to have read The Corrections? Do I really have to read this one too?

Mortification. I’ll be asked for an opinion soon. I can feel it. What to do? Demur and actually admit to not having read it? Dance my way around the question by reviewing the reviews and blog entries in place of the book itself? Figure out whose opinion carries weight and get in line? Maybe I’ll attack Kakutani or Tanenhaus. They’re easy targets, no? Jeepers, I’m getting more anxious by the minute -- if I don’t read some of Freedom, I’ll be out of the loop when I’m back in the city. Everyone will be talking about how much they love it or hate it. I can picture some stinker coming up to me and saying, “Franzen’s a helluva writer, but I can’t stand his persona.” And I’ll need to say something smart in return. What if I say, “Well, it’s true he’s more literary than Steig Larsson, but I think he lacks the Swedish zing.” Think I’ll be safe, poot? By the way, I loved Jaws. We saw it on opening night at the Bellerose Theater in Floral Park, slightly high. The joint was packed. It was a roller coaster ride, everybody screaming in unison. The scene when the dead face appears in the porthole of the sunken boat? Now, that's something I'll always remember.


  1. Hi PK. I really enjoyed this posting. It was better than the literati tone of your April 2007 "PK box" cover letter that seemed to have hit a raw nerve out in the heartland. I think Kakutani is all wet when she say it inappropriately partners the gravitas of Tolstoy with the glib insouciance of Bill Bryson. To me there's not been a more enjoyable riff on literary fiction in many a moon. There's hope for the great American blog after all. (in all seriousness, this was fun to read and made me think....can't say that for most of what I try to absorb off my Sony Reader. I had an especially big grin at your comment "Do I really have to read this one too?") Cheers, Chief.

  2. David: Thanks for the nice words, and funny comment. As we used to say, it's not brain surgery, it's books for god's sake. Important, beautiful, silly, profound, entertaining, maddening, etc etc -- but in the end, just books. Like you, I've staked my working life on them, and love them, but I doubt I'll be making room in the grave for them. Hope all is well out in the real world beyond Manhattan. Hope to see you soon.