Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Franzen & Fantasy

Hello Reader!  I recently began reading Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, a 2001 novel that has been called by numerous critics and readers "the best novel of the millenium's first decade".  Heavy stuff right?  Definitely.  The novel deals with consumer-driven America and a very broken, very dysfunctional family's attempt at having one last Christmas together.  It gives the reader a rather cruel, incredibly stark, and unapologetically brutal depiction of this family's faults and worries, each imperfection clearly outlined without the slightest hint of empathy.

Which doesn't make it bad.  In fact, Franzen's objectivity in writing is masterful.  Most other authors would feel the need to inject some sentimentality in order to lure the reader into a false sense of pity.  Not Franzen.  He relies only on his prose and the events of these characters' lives.  And his writing is absolutely brilliant.  Metaphors are created without relying on default images.  He uses a Nordstrom bag filled with old letters to describe an old woman's paranoia and frailty.  Details are thrown at the reader without hesitation, as if Franzen has a secret well full of them.  It's amazing how much the guy has made up in his own head so his story will work.

But I don't like the book.  I just can't wrap my head around it.  It's engaging, only because the writing is a river of discontent and malformed values that I can't help but follow.  The events of the novel I could do without.  I don't want to read about how a disgraced college professor fulfills his lust for a former student by masturbating on his comfy leather chaise, and in the next few paragraphs learn that that college professor's Parkinson's-rattled father is sitting on the same leather chaise eating hors d'oeuvre.

It's level of detail is disgustingly magnified and, in a way, kind of arrogant.  The entire writing style reminds me of a bemused parent watching over a struggling child, one of those kids who valiantly attempts to stuff the triangle piece in the circle hole.  Franzen has stated before that the entire novel was a memorialization of the Midwest...but is that from the perspective of a guy who was educated at Swarthmore and lives on the Upper East Side of New York?

His apparent arrogance aside, I think I'm just biased against books like this.  There isn't really a redeeming factor about any of these characters.  Even the father, who has dementia, is given the same brutal treatment.  And while that does say something about the American character, I need heroes in my novels.  Therein lies my beef with literary fiction.

The subset of fiction has, in my ill-educated opinion, become a medium of retreat for the incredibly well-educated authors of America.  For no better reason than "they can" are their books esoteric in nature and highly specialized for a specific group of people: those who have enough time in the day to read. These people don't have to work nine hour days then return to a hectic home where they must clean the house, their kids, make dinner or buy it, and then attempt to catch up on the extra work they've accumulated because they couldn't get it done at the office two hours away, three with traffic.

No, the people that avidly read Franzen, or Foer or Chabon, come back from work with their house sparkling and their children tucked away.  They read at night before they go to bed because they had been lounging beforehand and need a good way to ease into their dreams.  Novels that they read are filled with the moans and groans of first world problems, setbacks self-inflicted and relationships devoured by our own greed for more.  Most people aren't like that.

Another beef I've got with literary fiction is the emphasis on style and prose.  Sure, I get it.  The very reason why the genre is a subset of fiction is because of this emphasis and the prevalence of writers who participate.  But if Jonathan Safran Foer is going to write a novel with random pictures of doorknobs strewn throughout and a 14-page flipbook at the end of it, and then sell it successfully, something has been sacrificed.  If Franzen can get away with writing an entire half-page using only one sentence, he's lost a very important element of literature along the way.

Critics allow these authors to get away with such murder.  Why?  Because what they do is cool, it's chic, it's new and vibrant and original and audacious and splendid and requires a lot of explanation in order for people to actually get it.  Franzen is tolerable, only because his audacious/vibrant/new/original/cool/chic/splendid prose style is characterized only by writing very long sentences.  Not that bad compared to Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, which was written in two voices: one by an incredibly literate Foer character who narrated the tale of a fictional magic-town, and the other voice by a Foer character who spoke in broken-English and narrated the straightforward adventures of finding aforementioned town.  Sounds interesting right?  Totes magotes dude.

And people wonder why no one's reading books anymore.  The idea may seem interesting.  That doesn't mean you should do it.  The idea would be better if there was substance behind the novel, if the story itself were worth the time.  Often in literary fiction, the story is not worth it.  Everything Is Illuminated is the tale of a guy looking to find the person who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust.  I respect the tragedy of the Holocaust, and offer my deepest condolences to those who lost loved ones during that horrific time - as if my condolences mean anything.  But let's be honest, the story is not original.  It's been done before.  It's nowhere near as original as the WAY in which Foer has written his novel.  Franzen's novel about Midwestern values clashing with big city rules and the regulations of a society slowly going south are as old as those same big cities.  He hasn't written a compelling story, he just writes about something compellingly.

Hey Reza! Stop being an asshole, that's exactly what literary fiction is for! To allow authors the space to write incredibly well, without the baggage of plot.  My response to that is: A) That's a stupid idea, and B) if that's the case, why is literary fiction given more prominence than commercial fiction?  Because that's the essence of commercial fiction: plot story.  Lord of the Rings, if Tolkien attempted to publish it today, wouldn't be published!  It wouldn't be lauded or rewarded at all.  It's too silly and straightforward, oh how naive of Tolkien to not experiment with his writing!

Look at J.K. Rowling!  Her masterful work (ok, yes, I get it, "he/she said" is used way too often, but that's minor) is an epic of fantastic proportions, engaging the reader in a whole world with real consequences and lessons to be learned!  Yet critics, and those of the literary elite, bash her for being far beneath them.  It shouldn't be Franzen as the greatest author of the new millenium's first decade.  It should be Rowling!  Her novels inspired millions of children to read, write, and entertain themselves using their imaginations alone.  Her novels spoke about love and hope, pitting heroes against villains in an epic world created from her own mind.  

Franzen and his cohorts inhabit a world where story is second to prose.  Where the very core of writing and fiction means less than its packaging.  That is what angers me about literary fiction, and what draws me to fantasy or science fiction writing (read: commercial fiction in general).  Stories are the very reason why we have novels.  Stories are the oldest modes of communication, ancient mediums for relationships and struggles that each person can relate to on the deepest level.  We see each other more clearly through stories than in any other way.  Past racial divides and ethnic chasms, religious feuds and family wars, stories reach and speak to all of us.  Check out Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.  It isn't sci-fi or fantasy, it's commercial fiction.  But it has an engaging story that draws you in, even if you don't readily relate to a Muslim family living in New Orleans around the time of Hurricane Katrina.  Franzen and the literary elite shake off this ancient tradition of storytelling in honor of the way you tell a story.  

Commercial fiction isn't without its faults, nor is the world of fantasy/sci-fi literature unblemished.  But I feel it's far better to tell stories, than write novels.  These stories should matter, they should be important. I'm not going to remember anything about the final Christmas for Franzen's family.  I'm just going to remember how indelibly he wrote that masturbation scene.  I'm not going to care whether or not Foer's character finds the person who saved his grandfather.  I'm going to be struggling with his prose, trying to understand the "brilliance" of it all.  To me, and I believe to many others, the package doesn't matter that much - of course, I'm not going to read some really cool plot without having a decent writer behind it (Shyamalan, here's looking at you).  Overall though, it's the story. The weight of what's going on around and between the characters, that matters.

Admittedly, I have no problem with literary fiction or the people who write it.  It's all very fun and endearing, an incredible journey through what people can do with syntax and structure.  I just wish they'd stop saying it was better than everything else.  Until next time then.

1 comment:

  1. this debate reminds me of abstract / modern vs classical / renaissance art.. haha.. people today seem to like feeling that they have the capacity to dig for a deeper meaning in something that, on the surface, looks entirely incomprehensible. It makes me think that artists sometimes just throw stuff at a canvas without any sort of motive or meaning, just to screw with people =d