NO, IT’S NOT OK TO LIKE JONATHAN FRANZEN
I know the Ben Marcus V. Jonathan Franzen thing is an old debate, but I’ve been recently reminded of it so thought to weigh in. I’m not responding directly to Marcus V. Franzen, though I’d obviously come down on Marcus’s side. I am instead responding to the argument that it is silly to dislike Franzen- that he’s fine, that’s he’s a good writer just doing something different than Marcus and we should be happy they both write, that instead of engaging in polemics we should just appreciate them both.
I tried to make an argument for Mr. Franzen. Let us assume that we enjoy reading his work, that we find it touching, that we don’t find his very essence to be of smugness and pedantry. We could say: Jonathan Franzen is a competent chronicler of the condition of people of a certain class and period. He uses the conventions of ‘literature’ to produce finely wrought craft items. He is sensitive to and thus helps make sense of the human condition in his era, and in so doing he entertains and enlightens his readership.
At the very most, he is a member of a rather large class of very talented writers. Quite frankly, I don’t see how this is a laudable position. This kind of literature is not, at the level of its construction and goals, in relation to or in conversation with its moment. It is stale by design, a decadent expression of nostalgia, an analgesic comfort food for a self-satisfied middle brow.
I firmly believe that Ben Marcus’s work is of greater worth and greater artistic value than Franzen’s. I believe there is a place for a polemics that stresses the value of innovation, ambition, and serious grappling with the material and ontological condition of text as a medium.
Still, I am well aware that, as much as I dress it up with theory, any opinion I may have on Mr. Franzen and his work is only a matter of taste. However, laying aside general questions of the literary value of innovative vs. traditional writing, I think there is still a strong case to be made against Franzen. It ought not be controversial to say that there are more very well written conventional novels published every year than any person could possibly read. Many of these books are written by people with humility and a simple desire to tell a good story; by people who don’t take lack of artistic ambition and market-based aesthetics as badges of honor.
Which is to say: No, I don’t think that A) -it’s ok for people to like what they like- correlates to B)- it’s ok for people to like Jonathan Franzen. Given the volume of equivalent writers of erudite middle-brow fiction, it is unethical to support a huge fucking asshole who contributes nothing new to literature.