And”We” Are?: The Quest for the “Great American Novel”

by Latoya Peterson


The quest is over, aspiring writers, you can go home. Jonathan Franzen has been crowned the Great American Novelist by Time magazine.

The writer gushes:

In a lot of ways, Freedom looks more like a 19th century novel than a 21st century one. The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm. After the literary megafauna of the 1990s — like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld — the novels of the aughts embraced quirkiness and uniqueness. They zoomed deep in, exploring subcultures, individual voices, specific ethnic communities.

Franzen skipped that trend. He remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel. In that sense he’s a throwback, practically a Victorian. His characters aren’t jewel thieves or geniuses. They don’t have magical powers, they don’t solve mysteries, and they don’t live in the future. They don’t bite one another, or not more than is strictly plausible. Freedom isn’t about a subculture; it’s about the culture. It’s not a microcosm; it’s a cosm.

Yet, there were those of us who were not moved.

The anointing of Franzen has sparked a round of what is being termed “Franzenfraude,” with major writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner coining the term after hearing the accolades surrounding Franzen. Picoult commented on Twitter, “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”

And here is the crux of the argument. It isn’t so much that Franzen is or isn’t a good writer – but rather the question of who represents the American experience, and what critics make that determination.

As Michelle Dean writes:

So let’s look at the phrases that have been used to justify the effusive levels of praise being directed at Franzen. Tanenhaus, for example, says that Franzen’s book was great because it spoke to “our shared millennial life.” Grossman, the Time critic, admires the way Franzen “remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel.” Even the Brits agree that Franzen has tapped into some kind of shared experience psyche: the Guardian called The Corrections “a report from the frontline of American culture.”

It seems a fair question, in that context, to ask: “What’s this ‘we,’ white man?”

What collective American experience do these critics envision Franzen as describing? I have a suspicion they simply imagine their own white, male, middle class experiences as the “American experience,” because it’s always been presented that way to them, not least in the novels of Updike and Mailer and sometimes Roth that they so often list as favorites.

What exactly is this “way-we-live-now” novel? What type of life is chronicled? Lizzie Skurnick, in her analysis, publishes a segment from Freedom that shows this “shared experience” may not be so widely spread:

“The collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn…like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job…There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? … And was it true you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts okay politically? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood…Was it impossible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning?”

That’s a scene from a certain type of life. Some of us can relate to none of the above statement, some can relate to pieces, and some can relate to all of it. But more importantly, evaluating literature is a complex process, and one that has historically devalued the works from many different communities. It is in this environment that Franzen’s Freedom is pushed forward as “The Great American Novel” and it is this environment that pushes back, asking “which America?”

Syreeta, over at the Bellweather State, concisely describes the dilemma:

In our conversations over the past weekend, we concluded that we’ve been losing control of the plural narrative of America in the public sphere for some time. The backlash manifested through Beck and his lot, some folks from the Tea Party, the Lost Cause folk, seem to be pushing for an America that erases my kindred and me. Some of us have grown exhausted from this constant siege of the right to claim what is and is not American. And while I’m aware that they share some inherent fear that their ‘losing’ America to an amorphous ‘other’, I refuse to submit to a singular, ‘true’ version of our origins. America is allowed to have her complicated and colorful stories of how she came to be, for all who call her home, regardless of how we got here. Somehow a foreshadowing of this crisis of existence in politics, culture and literature, Russel Banks raised this question in 2000, in a piece for Harpers, asking, ‘So what is our story, the one we all share, regardless of how we label ourselves on the left side of the hyphen? Do we even have a story?”


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