Monday, August 16, 2010

You have been Franzenized

There's this coy authors-shouldn't-make-videos video, a "The Malthusian Candidate" of book promotion. There's his face as "the great American novelist" on the cover of Time magazine. There's a profile in Vogue. Today there's Michiko Kakutani's gush in the New York Times. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Franzenization of U.S. book culture. Again.

For yes, we've been here before. Jonathan Franzen is one of the literary establishment's darlings, one of that coterie of privileged middle-class white men deemed masters whose books get published by the big houses and promoted the hell out of as big. As in, this is a Big Book. Curiously, these Big Books always have a microscopic focus, as in Franzen's latest, Freedom, even if there's some sort of supposed backdrop that ostensibly takes in larger social issues.

If you suspect I'm of the party that still holds against Franzen his insulting, sexist, elitist repudiation of Oprah Winfrey's choice of his last Big Novel for her book club almost 10 years ago, you're right. Still, after that whole hubbub eventually died down, I did decide to give one of his books a try, and so I read his earlier novel The Twenty-Seventh City. I found it offensive on several levels, at least insensitive and probably racist. Sure, the writing was good. Sure, he's a more than adequate stylist with words. But I did not like one bit what he did with the words, what his words were saying, and knew I'd never want to read a book of his again.

He's since lived in a snarky snarly corner of my consciousness alongside his fellows Philip Roth, John Updike, the despicable Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan and others. The only one of these whose writing I haven't forced myself to give a shot is Amis. Are all of them skilled sentence crafters? Yeah. But the publishing industry would have us believe that they are uniquely so. To which I must reply: bullshit. There is much more at work here--and by here I mean the U.S. fiction publishing world, which time and again foists off on us the same stuff by the same guys as if it were the epitome, nay, the definition of fine literature--much more at work here than mere merit rising to the top. It's more like affirmative action for those already on top. As in the rest of this society.

All this raises again the issues I started this blog almost two years ago to address. Whose books get published and promoted? What do we get to read, who/what do we get to read about? What if anything can we do about it?