Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

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

by Latoya Peterson

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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?” Continue reading