In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen reports with a certain glum satisfaction that following the publication in 2001 of his third novel, The Corrections, he began to receive large quantities of angry mail. Some of the anger was sociological. “Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.” And some of it was just plain personal. One reader accused Franzen of being “a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole.”1
Franzen’s novel spent twenty-nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and won the 2001 National Book Award. But no general readerly consensus seemed to exist concerning the book’s merits. The novel had hit a nerve, and it polarized its readers into two camps: those who hated it with particular venom, and those who felt it was a fine and beautiful book. (I was among the latter.) The author’s own ambivalence about the mass media didn’t help matters. After saying some indiscreet words about the Oprah Winfrey imprimatur on his novel’s book jacket, Franzen was disinvited from appearing on her show. It was a scandal, for a week or two.
The disagreements haven’t gone away. In his recent Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields denounces The Corrections without having read it: “I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it,” he asserts. For him, Franzen’s novel—sight unseen—exemplifies “the big, blockbuster novel by middle-of-the-road writers, the run-of-the-mill four-hundred-page page-turner.”2 Shields claims that he is amazed that people still want to read such fiction. Oddly, what Shields seems to distrust about Franzen’s work (its mass appeal, its middleness) is exactly what the author’s enraged readers claimed The Corrections lacked. Was it still possible for a mass-audience novel to be artistically refined and thematically important? On this point there was no agreement because there hasn’t been any for decades.
For the most part Franzen writes as if literary modernism and experimental postmodernism had never occurred. All four of his novels, including the new one, are somewhat loose and baggy, and they contain an easygoing and warm attention to the complexities of human character. Reality-as-given is for these books an endlessly renewable resource. There is no “relentless investigation into the possibilities of form,” to use a phrase from Gilbert Sorrentino to describe the avant-garde.3 However, Franzen’s books do address sizable cultural events. Strong Motion is in the honorable category of eco-catastrophe fiction. The Corrections has several subplots having to do with clinical depression, biotechnology, and the recapitalization of Eastern Europe. The subplots of Freedom include species extinction, mountaintop removal used in West Virginia coal mining, overpopulation, and private-sector subcontracts for the Iraq war. The personal is invariably sutured to the social, but the personal—the portrait of Enid Lambert, the mother in The Corrections, for example—is what generally remains most memorable in these books.
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