Karen Rivers

on Franzen and literary snobbery.

Karen Rivers

Coming to us on a wave of controversy, Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, is arriving today.  Are you going to read it?  

I'm torn.    I loved The Corrections, which I read before the Oprah controversy (and would have been much less inclined to read after), wherein Franzen publicly disdained the idea of HIS book being something so common as an Oprah book, the implication being that he was too good for that kind of mass-market pandering.    Actually, I don't even think it was implied, I think he said it outright.   Never mind that Oprah books have encompassed everything from the light, fun read to heavy, literary classics.   Never mind that people are people and, let's face it, the point of writing books is to have people (and not just people of YOUR choosing) read them.  

But Oprah's audience wasn't good enough for Franzen.   So I guess I have to ask:  Am *I* good enough for him?  Are you?

How much of the author bleeds into his work?  How much does knowing about and disliking an author affect your decision to read his books?   If you believe HE doesn't like YOU, will you pay him to hear his story?

Franzen is an excellent writer, by all accounts.   There were parts of The Corrections -- particularly the description of the character afflicted with Parkinson's trying to eat a meal -- that resonated with me years after I finished reading the book.   I loved it.   I did.

And yet.

And YET.   

There's something about writing:  It's so incredibly PERSONAL that when you buy a book, you are buying a piece of an author.   You fall in love with that author simultaneously as you fall in love with their stories.  So what happens when you find out that the person behind the words is kind of a ... jerk?   Are you still able to love their words? 

It's not just Franzen.  Over the years, I've met some authors who behave as though they are "better", superior, too-good-for-the-likes-of-you -- as though there is a caste system inherent in literature, with literary fiction outclassing all other forms of the art, and nearly every type of writing outclassing YA and MG.  

When I was at university, this point was drilled home again and again.   Genre-writing?   Was for uneducated hacks.  Writing for kids?  Wasn't even discussed.   And literary fiction?   Was for the elite.   The upper-classes.


But here's the rub:  Literary fiction very very very rarely pays the rent.   (Or anything else for that matter.)   Franzen, in a way that I'm guessing might be a bit misguided, thinks he is going to single-handedly "save" literary fiction.    And maybe he is.   I like literary fiction as much as any other type, so let's hope he DOES save it.   Maybe it's the way he's doing it that's the problem.   It's the whole, better-than-worse-than judging.   But then again, by judging Franzen, aren't we all (who are writing these blog posts) doing the same thing?   Judging something (or someone) as "not good enough"?  

Maybe Franzen just isn't good enough for US.  

Maybe it isn't even him.   Maybe his words are being taken out of context, maybe it's nothing to do with him at all, perhaps it's just what he represents:  Ye Olde Boyz Club of the writing establishment.   The politics of being reviewed in the NYT.   The cover of Time.  

Maybe this isn't about literary snobbery at all.  

At the end of the day, I come back to what I really believe is fundamentally true:   I believe that fiction -- no matter how "serious" and "literary" is meant to be enjoyed.   Fiction is an escape from our own mundane existences, a journey into a different life, a glimpse of something new.

In other words, it's entertainment.  And all these goings-on about who said what and who is better than whom, it's not so much fun.

I read fiction because I enjoy it.   I write it because I love doing it.   So at the end of the day, I'd ask Mr. Franzen, What is fiction for?  Your fiction?  Anyone's fiction?   And more to the point, WHO is it for?   I'd be interested to know his answer.

What do you think?