Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jonathan Franzen Wants to be Alone.

The essay that appears below was first published at this blog on February 14, 2006. Due to all the computer warfare I can not say whether I will be able to return to these blogs. 

Jonathan Franzen, How to be Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux - Picador, 2002), $14.00.
Jonathan Franzen, Strong Motion (New York: Picador, 1992).

Who is Jonathan Franzen?

Jonathan Franzen is that semi-weird guy in your "Introduction to Philosophy" class in college. He sat in the back row, did not say much, looked as disheveled and distracted as you did, was always pleasant and non-judgmental about everything. Inevitably -- to everyone's surprise -- he wrote the best paper in the class at the end of the semester. At that point it would occur to you that you should have been much friendlier to him since there were obviously aspects to his personality beyond the dullness of his surface persona.

Franzen is probably a mild-mannered Clark Kent-type in what is laughingly called "The Real World" (not the one on MTV), but after entering the nearest phone booth (if they still exist), he emerges transformed, at least on the page -- so that one encounters if not exactly "Superman" then at least a much more interesting, discerning, and welcoming personality in his writings than one might have expected to find in such an unassuming guy.

There is a refreshing duality and ambiguity about Franzen's literary voice, also strength and solidity. He surprises the reader which is always good.

My guess is that Franzen has been underestimated his entire life. How fortunate for him that he has made the world -- or at least the ever-smaller reading public -- notice him after all. He manages to produce a clever or profound remark in the midst of a seemingly harmless and pleasant paragraph. Example:

"Elitism is the Achille's heel of every serious defense of art, an invitation to the poisoned arrows of populist rhetoric. The elitism of modern literature is, undeniably, a peculiar one -- an aristocracy of alienation, ..." (pp. 174-175.)

That's not bad for starters. Franzen is an "aristocrat of alienation." Me too.

Franzen is my exact contemporary having been born in 1959. Along with youngster David Foster-Wallace, who was born in 1962, and who was, thus, unable to drive a car until a full two years after Franzen and I became "gentlemen" of the road. Franzen is now touted as "The Great White Hope of American Literature." On the other hand, Foster-Wallace is still able to drive, whereas I  choose not to; but then, things quickly tend to get repetitive and dull for me. I always feel a need to escape routines. If I were still driving, I would tend to regard the rules of the road as mere general guidelines to be interpreted, liberally, rather than hard and fast rules.

After all, what do the words "no parking at any time" really mean? What is "time"? What is "parking"? What is meant by "any"?

I am firmly and loyally committed for life to those few people that I love or admire.

I should be "committed" you say? Likewise, I am sure.

It is always people and relationships, not processes or routines -- certainly not organizations or rules as opposed to fundamental institutions -- that command my most profound devotion. One should be willing to die for what the country stands for, but not necessarily for the Division of Motor Vehicles -- or its rules. ("Law and Ethics in the Soprano State" and "New Jersey is the Home of the Living Dead.")

Those of us who read a lot of books are usually heard to complain that there are no great novelists anymore, that no member of my literary generation is as good as, say, Roth or Bellow, Mailer or Styron, Updike or Vidal. Franzen and Foster-Wallace are not quite on the same level with those gentlemen -- not yet -- nor "on a par," as they say in golf, with Toni Morrison, Erica Jong (in my opinion), nor Mary MaCarthy at her "bitchiest" either; but they are still (for writers or Chinese buried eggs) relatively young and undeveloped.

Franzen and (the now sadly departed) Foster-Wallace certainly have a good shot at reaching the same level of artistic achievement as their elders. True, the world has yet to encounter my first novel.

The shocking loss of Foster-Wallace is something I have yet to come to terms with fully. I know that including Erica Jong in this list will be deemed controversial. Take another look at her work. We can then debate her merits as a writer. I think that Jong is a much better and more important writer than many people realize.

It is my intention to set aside rage at white middle class guys my age who get published whereas equally (or more) talented others do not so as to read both men's books, fairly, and provide my best comments. None of my anger has anything to do with writers like Franzen or David Foster Wallace. ("An Evening With David Foster Wallace.")

Some of the people writing for The New York Times these days are semi-illiterates. Perhaps this was always true. In the past, however, genuine illiterates at the Times were assigned to write book reviews because it was assumed that they would do less harm that way. Today illiterate journalists even cover world news "events." This may explain the unforgettable prose of "Manohla Dargis." ("Manohla Dargis Strikes Again!")

People who make a living by writing or who call themselves, for some mysterious reason, "journalists," should think twice about indulging in censorship. A truism among New Jersey lawyers -- crooked and uncrooked -- says: "What goes around comes around."

Next week it may be The New York Times and Manohla Dargis getting payback for these dirty tricks. ("David Denby is Not Amused.")

The only person I once knew among the Jersey Boys, who was (and is) "connected" at the Times, remains a terrible writer and intellectually non-descript. Anyway, whatever injustices exist in American publishing -- or society -- are not the fault of Franzen or Foster-Wallace. They get the benefit of the doubt from me just like any other writers. ("Jay Romano and Conduct Unbecoming to the Judiciary in New Jersey.")

I begin by reading their non-fiction, I will turn to their novels that I plan to study, along with several works by John Updike and lots of philosophical and critical essays, this summer. By September (notice that I am not specifying the year), I may convert to the dominant contemporary religious faith of America's white middle class which is a pleasant or suburban form of atheism. ("Whatever.")

Everybody is "spiritual" in Scarsdale, but not really into organized religion as distinct from unorganized adultery.

Franzen hints at a fondness for New York thrift stores and sports the regulation small, rectangular spectacles favored by downtown (or uptown?) hipsters in New York (me too!), so he may be O.K. after all. None of us artsy-fartsy types like to shave every day. Franzen is no exception. We like to appear in public with the regulation stubble of the standard intellectual-hipster of a certain age visibly burdened with sensitivity and nicotine stains along with great depth of soul.

Jonathan Franzen bears a strange similarity to "Sheldon Grosbart." ("Magician's Choice.")

Artsy-fartsy women are said to really "go" for such a studiously disheveled look when it is combined with the haunting and manly fragance of the ninety-nine cent cologne that I purchase at my local discount store (better known as "Macho" cologne) and that also serves as a dandy toilet cleanser even as it helps to unclog my drains. "Macho" cologne also serves as a convenient anti-freeze for your car engine. "AXE" body spray comes close.

Having read the essays in this collection I am dismayed to admit that Franzen is indeed a good writer and that there is much that we agree on. (I will double-check just to make sure that I have not missed an acknowledgment or a footnote.)

Worse, there are many ways in which we are frighteningly alike, not least in our readerly and writerly habits. I was hoping to dislike him, but I can't. Must I read someone called "Dave Eggers"? "A.M. Homes"?

The literary persona that one encounters in Franzen's books is earnest, diligent, cool and relaxed in tone (something which is harder to achieve on the page than you may suppose), and his heart is in the right place. I have no idea what school he went to and I don't care. Harvard? With someone who reads as much as he does it doesn't matter. He will teach himself what he wants to know. My resume is available for inspection.

Franzen is mildly Leftist in his political sympathies. My guess is that Franzen is a Bernie Sanders man. He was saddened by the election of George W. Bush. People in the East Village -- I think he is now "movin' on up" to the East Side -- were heart-broken on election day and cannot figure out exactly who voted for Bush since absolutely everyone in Alphabet City and on the Upper West Side (I am capitalizing to feed their self-importance) was against G.W. and Donald J. Trump.

Lots of residents of these neighborhoods -- excluding the Franzens of this world -- tend to forget that there is an entire country beyond the borders of Manhattan. These are the people who often patronize me. ("Barack Obama and 'The New Yorker'" and "Skinny People Dressed in Black.")

I prefer the honest hostility of some Republicans to a pat on the head from such liberal morons. No, not Franzen. Any chance I get, I let them have it. I say this as someone who is more to the Left than Franzen on most issues although on a very few issues I'm also more to the right.

Franzen's one episode of public controversy concerns a decision not to have his book included with others favored by a television hostess who created a reading club promoting, mostly, middle-brow novels for ordinary people to read. There were occasional surprises in the reading choices. ("'The Reader': A Movie Review.")

I am a fan of anyone or anything that gets people reading. I'm also quite ordinary and a middle- to lowbrow -- so that if I publish my novel, eventually (which seems likely) -- and if a television personality is willing to recommend it to America, I will kiss the ground that he or she walks on, happily consenting to interpreting the work in any way that people like. I will do so while standing on my head, naked, if necessary. So much for integrity. My daughter will be graduating from college. She can use any money generated by the books that I write in the next few years to go to graduate school, somewhere.

If you're planning to insert "errors" in this essay, again, this would be a good time to do so. (Maybe this will help: "Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me'" and "'Che': A Movie Review" then "Menendez Consorts With Underage Prostitutes" and "Does Senator Menendez have mafia friends?")

Franzen has a more rigid notion of integrity than I do, however, and would not budge on this question of "cheapening" himself or his work. He has gone back and forth since the incident occurred in an effort to find a tactful way to extricate himself from an unpleasant situation. The t.v. hostess eventually pulled Franzen's novel from her list anyway, halted her reading club, only to start it again with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Take that, Mr. Franzen. Neither Tolstoy (from the great beyond) nor his publisher (from the vicinity of Wall Street) had any objections to this. There were even offers to put the t.v. lady's picture on the cover of Tolstoy's novel, if necessary, though this never came to pass.

My favorite essays in this collection and the most important ones, I think, are: "Why Bother?" and "The Reader in Exile." For the remainder of this review, I will comment on the second of these two essays. This is only because it fits the limitations of this setting. I will conclude with my opinion of the author.

In case I forget to mention it later, please read Franzen's work. He is good and he will teach you things. Young writers -- even successful ones -- need money to keep writing. You can help by purchasing at least one copy of his book. After you have paid for it you will feel pretty stupid if you don't actually read it. So get a copy and read it. You won't regret it.

Is the reader in exile?

Franzen mentions giving away his television set. This is something which he probably regrets and which he has, by now, no doubt remedied. My guess is that he's got himself a new t.v. and a DVD player, too. No matter how much you love reading it is simply impossible to understand or stay current with developments in American society -- something a writer must do -- no matter how inane (and/or insane) these developments may be without a daily dose of television and the Internet.

This is depressing when one considers that, in a world of desperate hunger and warfare, most people in the U.S. are primarily concerned about such things as the "reality-t.v." show "Survivor," now in re-runs, and the Donald Trump "vehicle" entitled "The Apprentice," which may be a different kind of survivor show in a different "reality-t.v." world. Irony?

Did you see "Lost"? How about "Glee"? "Grey's Anatomy"? "The Bible"? This is the kind of stuff that rots your brain.

It is interesting that the words "reality" and "T.V." are increasingly linked in a number of contexts. I think of "reality" and "television" as opposites. I once heard a customer at "The Gotham Book Mart" (one of the world's greatest bookstores) ask a salesperson whether she had the "cartoon network" on her cable service.

The salesperson smiled and in a nice-but-very-snotty-bookish-Manhattan-way said: "It's all the cartoon network." ("Sinbad's Excellent New York Adventure.")

I love her for that oh-so writerly put-down. Television is the distorting lens in which we see our warped social reality in all of its absurdity and horror. It is simply indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand this time and place to look into that dark mirror. I mentioned Erica Jong earlier, here is a sample of the high quality of Jong's critical intelligence and of her elegant prose as she defends a different conception of the aesthetic experience:

"Art is always an energy exchange. The book, once opened, interacts with the mind of the reader to create an alchemical reaction [that is always unique]. Again and again, people have said to me in various ways: I was dying in the prison of myself and Henry Miller freed me and gave me new life. Henry Miller was a life-giver, a spiritual teacher, as much as he was a writer, and people turned to him and to his books, to be reminded in the prison of their days (as Auden would say) how to be free men and how to praise."

This paragraph appeared in 1993 when Jong fought against both politically correct "feminist" censors and religious fundamentalists in order to defend Henry Miller in her book The Devil at Large. Franzen writes:

"I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compson, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld. But the life I understand by way of books feels increasingly lonely. It has little to do with the mediascape that constitutes so many other people's present." (p. 165.)

I know exactly what you are saying, Jonathan. I grew up in an environment which was and is brutally hostile to the very idea of literary culture. A young man today in an urban setting, who may be African-American or Latino, or of immigrant stock -- whether Italian, Irish, Jewish or just blue collar -- finds himself in a world where toughness and a lack of sentimentality is valued, usually by people who fail to realize that they are under the spell of Ernest Hemingway's conception of masculinity.

To the extent that education is valued at all in such a setting it is exclusively as training for a job in which you can make lots of money. One is told to be "practical" and not to bother with books or art, at all, nor with any other "bullshit for rich people."

This is an environment that brutalizes and disconfirms the values of sensitive and gifted young males as much (or more!) than those of young women of similar temperament (who will have different demons to struggle against), by demeaning artistic inclination in boys as "sissy stuff," that is, as visible proof of a lack of masculinity, thus adding to the injuries inflicted on the young and gullible -- of both (or all) genders -- through widespread and idiotic forms of sexism and racism, often aided and abetted by women who should know better.

The film Finding Forrester is a dramatization of the kind of thing of which I speak.

It may be difficult for suburbanites to grasp the point that being "intellectually inclined" is a category of guilt in some dark corners of urban America. I suppose the same pride in ignorance may characterize segments of the society that I do not know like The New Yorker magazine and its denizens.

My recent discovery of the writings of Judith Butler helps me to clarify my own thinking on this subject. Books, music and the visual arts are usually regarded in know-nothing corners of "masculine" blue collar America as ways for rich people to "show off" and/or to demonstrate that they are "better" than the rest of us, or so I was told, and certainly not as the kind of thing that anybody can really be interested in or enjoy for themselves because these things are so dull and -- this is the killer word -- "weird." God forbid that any of us should be "weird." ("Who Killed the Liberal Arts?" and "Nihilists in Disneyworld.")

I may be the only person who responded to a classmate's question in my ninth grade class: "Are you abnormal?" By saying, "I certainly hope so."

Anyone who is concerned with art or literature, and this was carefully explained to me, is "trying to be better" than everybody else and is probably (horrors!) "queer." Being heterosexual has never caused me to have second thoughts about my adolescent attitude that the sexual preferences of others are: (a) none of my business; and (b) not something I care very much about anyway. To each his (or her) own. Also, being heterosexual has never caused me to accept that sensitivity to beauty, love of the arts, and caring for those I love, or a fondness for "nurturing" children were forbidden to me merely because I also happen to love action movies and some sports.

It may be a lack of imagination on my part that limits my sexual hunger to the desire for a woman, one woman in particular. Woody Allen sensibly reminds us that "bisexuals have twice as good a chance of getting a date on Saturday night." ("What you will ...")

Social hostility to masculine "sensibility" (that is, sentiment and gentleness in men) continues to be the prevailing attitude in some places, notably in Hollywood, where men "Die Hardest" all the time. A smart young man keeps his artistic interests to himself, reading Wordsworth only with a flashlight under the covers. He engages in the occasional displays of adolescent violence, uses simple words, learns about sports and adopts the "hard guy" style. In college, this is known as the "frat guy" style. In law school or graduate school one becomes a back slapper and beer drinker.

Politics in the U.S. is saturated with such "all-around" masculine guys, of all genders, who always lead me to wonder: Why do they feel such a need to prove their "normality"? Is this what voters really want? I doubt it. American middle-class "normality" is just plain weird. ("'The Stepford Wives': A Movie Review" and "'Dark Shadows': A Movie Review.")

After much unfortunate and pointless suffering I have simply decided to say this is who I am: a heterosexual, scholarly reader and writer; valuing artistic beauty; singing Verdi arias in the shower; reciting Sonnets for a woman I love (embarrassing her, I hope!) while still enjoying sports and action movies, as I say, not to mention junk food, and an "Updikean fondness for cunnilingus." (Gore Vidal's term for this delightful practice.) ("Oh, to be in India.")

These colorful interests are not mutually exclusive, as far as I am concerned, especially when "coupled" with a fondness for quantum physics and contemporary German philosophy, but are mutually reinforcing. Each may well require a certain art while yielding great and unique satisfactions. I try to avoid engaging in more than one of these activities at the same time. I also enjoy Opera and chess. ("Conversation on a Train" and "Metaphor is Mystery.")

As a teenager and into my early twenties I was working out and getting physically stronger so as to fit into or just to survive America's violent street culture while studiously avoiding getting into trouble. I was also discovering and loving, nineteenth century Romantic Opera, classic fiction by Dickens and Austen, the novels of Vidal, Philip Roth, histories and biographies, Plato and Shakespeare. I was fourteen when I stayed up until three in the morning, fascinated by Olivier's "Hamlet" on the "Late, Late Show," which is now another relic of a pre-24 hour television culture. ("Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

Had I been foolish enough to discuss any of these interests and lived to tell the tale I doubt that I would have survived the ostracism that would have followed. Learning, civilization, culture, books -- all fall into the category of things that are a "waste of time" in militant middle- to low-brow urban America. Money, on the other hand, is something that is not a waste of time. ("Why Jane can't read' and "Who killed the liberal arts?")

"Money talks," according to America's folk wisdom while bullshit either "walks" or goes into politics, law, or best of all, Hollywood." ("Senator Bob, the Babe, and the Big Bucks.")

The experience that is suddenly new to many young middle class writers raised in homes where books mattered of being deemed "irrelevant" is a familiar aspect of the lives of intellectually-minded minority group members -- male and female -- who discover a literary vocation early on, despite discouragement from family, friends, schools, and society as a whole.

"Latinos are not smart enough to be philosophers." "Maybe you're just too stupid to get it."

Such statements -- sometimes in more subtle forms -- will become a regular aspect of one's life. They are uttered to the intellectually-inclined Latino by a woman in her fifties who attended a middle level university and is an advertising executive yanking down 100 big ones per year while working on her third divorce. I always avoid stereotyping people or generalizing. ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism" and "Why I am not an ethical relativist.")

Daily explanations of things that one understands better than the would-be explainers is the unhappy fate of the minority male in America.

Well-meaning liberals presume to instruct us concerning matters that we know better than they do -- for example, the effects of social stigma on the development of an intellectual life -- then are reluctant to help us into print, but wish to have us to ease their social consciences by agreeing that "something should be done" so that more people with different perspectives are "heard."

How about publishing rather than plagiarizing my book you greedy bastards? ("What is it like to be plagiarized?" and "'Bridehead Revisited': A Movie Review.")

Persons who have read less -- much less -- than I have and who write less well than I do will have an easier time getting into print than I have. ("Manohla Dargis Strikes Again!" and "Colin McGinn Explains Movies and Minds.")

Not only is this a matter of "knowing somebody" or politics (such things do count), but it may be a result of the assumptions that editors will make on the basis of ethnicity, or because of my refusal to adopt the jargon of our currently dominant ideology which is a combination of psychobabble and policy wonk-style, or social science nonsense with some legalisms sprinkled over it all like sugar on a plum cake. ("John Banville's 'The Newton Letter'" and "Master and Commander.")

Originality, far from being a virtue, is an unforgivable fault among the politically correct undercover squads in journalism and literary circles or academia. Despite my best efforts I am unable to find the person with whom I must have sex in order to be published, as I should be, although I am more than willing to "open my legs" to prove the point to one and all. Happy, Manohla? ("'The Reader': A Movie Review.")

More books are published every Fall describing in gruesome detail just who got laid last summer in the Hamptons. My guess is that the people who claim that they did, didn't.

Consider the autobiographical asides of James Baldwin, as an essayist, or the early life of Malcolm X, and ask yourself whether those books would be published by a mainstream publisher today. I doubt it.

Affluent people will not commiserate with you, Jonathan, when you comment on the appalling ignorance of those unenlightened souls who refuse to read Hemingway or Fitzgerald, let alone William Gaddis (for which I don't blame them, despite Gaddis's talent). The rich probably have not read these writers either. If you are African-American or Latino, however, then those same rich people -- who sometimes work for publishers -- may smile at your lack of realism for being interested in books at all, given who you are, or pat you on the head for "trying" to write which is worse.

I have experienced such things. As a younger man, I was told things by so-called "experts" that continue to infuriate me. A young male is advised by street friends and family members that an interest in books is foolish and proof of the ultimate sin, in their eyes, effeminacy; but then, he is also told by authority figures -- even university professors! -- that the ambition to write or that the best things in the culture are "not for him." To suggest that frustration results is putting it mildly.

"Don't waste your time on philosophy?"

Violence, especially self-violence or pathology, is not unforeseeable in such circumstances -- and when violence does not occur it may be safely inferred that the young man who has avoided it has an indestructible appetite for learning, imagination, and a genuine gift for the written word, not to mention a personality "issue" or two to deal with.

For such a not-so-young man no one's hostile opinion and no amount hypocrisy or experience with oppression which is real enough in parts of the U.S. (usually involving manipulations of the legal system) will deter him from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Inserting "errors" in my writings will only feed my hatred and "pump me up more" in going after you worthless lowlifes in Union City, New Jersey. ("Is Senator Menendez a Suspect in Mafia-Political Murder in New Jersey?" and "Is Union City, New Jersey Meyer Lansky's Whorehouse?")

Franzen juggles several books that he does not so much review as interrogate during the course of his fine essay. The first is entitled "A Is for Ox" by the literary scholar Barry Sanders:

" ... who takes as his starting point two dismal trends: rising violence among youth and falling verbal SAT scores." (p. 165.)

Franzen shares the concern that "kids drop out of school and, in the worst case, join violent gangs of what Sanders calls 'post-illiterates.' It's his thesis that without literacy rooted in orality, there can be neither a self, as we understand it, nor self-consciousness." (p. 166.)

Franzen is unpersuaded by this plausible claim:

"The problem with Sanders' argument, as a killer, is that he has to finger too many culprits." (p. 166.)

"Sanders blames television, the culture, but ultimately it is the loss of a literary culture and its replacement with electronic images that is doing enormous harm to these kids and it is difficult not to agree." (p. 166.)

This is true despite Nicholas Negroponte's apologia Being Digital, which Franzen treats with greater respect than I would. The good-old American "niceness" that Franzen cannot avoid displaying sometimes gets the better of his critical faculties. Passion and outrage in a writer can be good things by compelling the reader to engage with the issues under discussion. It should be O.K. to say that someone like Negroponte may be a fine person, but is not living in the real world if he really believes in the digital utopia:

"Negroponte paints a tomorrow of talking toasters, smart refrigerators, and flavorized computers ('You will be able to buy a Larry King personality for your newspaper interface') that is Jetsons-like in its retention of today's suburban values." (p. 168.)

I will now draw the conclusion that Franzen is too polite to spell out. Nicholas Negroponte is wrong. The future "sucks" for most people denied access to a first-rate education because people who cannot read very well will suffer from impoverished emotional lives with limited economic and social opportunities no matter how many gadgets they happen to have. They will also be much easier to manipulate by the powerful. ("What is Memory?" and "'Total Recall': A Movie Review.")

And here is Franzen's real complaint (and mine too), one that recurs in many of these essays in one form or another:

"The truth is simple, if unpretty. The novel is dying because the consumer doesn't want it any more." (p. 171.)

Citing Birkets's The Gutenberg Elegies -- a book I read and liked -- Franzen goes on to pronounce a fiery and defiant eulogy at the novel's funeral:

"The most original and far-seeing novelists of our own day not only accept the shadows but actively seek them. 'Everything in the culture argues against the novel,' Don De Lillo said in a Paris Review interview: 'This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation.' " (p. 177.)

Franzen goes on to make the point which justifies this collection:

"The modern idea of the oppositional writer is a long established tradition, and its modern variants have been around since at least the First World War, when Austrian satirist Karl Kraus described himself as the 'hopeless contrary' of the nexus of technology, media, and capital. Something that has taken longer to emerge, but is implicit in a work like The Gutenberg Elegies, is the idea of the oppositional reader. The paradox of literature's elitism is that it is purely self-selecting. Anyone who can read is free to be part of it." (p. 177.)

Some people receive a greater invitation and better training than others for literary life, Jonathan, but there is a great deal in what you say. Effort can make up for a lot, except that it sure feels as though the odds are against you from the start if you are a poor street kid who wants to become a civilized human being let alone a writer and thinker. Franzen concludes:

"The electronic apotheosis of mass culture has merely reconfirmed the elitism of literary reading, which was briefly obscured in the novel's heyday. I mourn the eclipse of the cultural authority that literature once possessed, and I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of a text becomes difficult to sustain. I don't suppose that many other people will give away their TVs. I'm not sure that I'll last long myself without buying a new one. But the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone." (p. 178.)

How to be alone.

Franzen seems unaware that his argument concerning the loss of the reader by the novel, or novelists, has been made before -- by Gore Vidal in the fifties and John Fowles in the sixties, and by many others since. Anyway, it is always important to consider the predicament of the novel and even more the dilemma of those who write and read them in this anti-literary age.

Gore spells it out in The New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1956:

"After some three hundred years the [serious literary] novel in English has lost the general reader (or rather the general reader has lost the novel), and I propose that he will not again recover his old enthusiasm."

Vidal goes on to say:

"The fault, if it be a fault, is not the novelist's (I doubt if there ever have been so many interesting or talented writers as there are now working) but of the audience, an unpleasant accusation to make in a democracy where, ultimately, the taste of the majority is the measure of all things. Nevertheless, appalling education combined with clever new toys has distracted that large public which found pleasure in prose fictions. ..."

John Fowles comments for The London Times, in 1964:

"Why have I got it in for the novel? Because it has been shifted away from life, whatever, as Wittgenstein put it, is the case, these last fifty years. Circumstances have imposed this shift. It is not the novelists' fault. [All of the novelists agree that it is not the novelists' fault.] In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was at one remove from life. But since the advent of film and television and sound recording it is at two removes. The novel is now generally about things and events which the other forms of art describe rather better."

Solitude, privacy, silence are all becoming rare commodities in this noisy and dirty postmodern metropolis and society that we live in.

We must struggle to preserve the precious space in which the thinker can think, the writer can write, the artist can fashion his or her artifacts, so that we may receive them and share in them together.

We must hold on to the fragments of community provided by "aesthetic encounters" within our anxious culture because so many other forms of community and genuine social relations have been taken from us.

The following sentence appears in bold script in "The Week in Review," The New York Times, Sunday Edition, September 26, 2010, at p. 4:

"It may be dangerous to try to locate the value of the work in the life of the artist -- or in their [sic.] morality."

Disagreement in number? How about this: " ... or in his or her morality."

Preserving gender-neutrality (or P.C. language) does not preclude writers from doing their best to avoid such "errors." I will now commit the great sin of recommending a book by a Republican: Try William Simon's Paradigms Lost.

Right after the writer learns "how to be alone" he or she should remember that the purpose of solitary writing is to establish a lasting connection between writer and reader in the "community of the text." ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz" then "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Author" and "What you will ...")

Some day it will no longer be necessary to make use of such hideous locutions as "gender-neutrality."

The only important purpose of being alone is to discover "how to be together." If you will keep writing, Jonathan, I will keep reading your work. Strong Motion is next. Maybe some day, you will read my work. Jonathan, you are terrific, but $27.95 for the hardcover is on the steep side.

I will wait for Freedom to be in paperback.








Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home