Friday, January 16, 2009

Jonathan Franzen, Monasticism and Lit-Blogs

In part of an interview on the Fifth Estate website, Jonathan Franzen talks about how he has adapted his youthful ambitions to something else:
As for my own ambitions for the novel nowadays, I make fun of the ambitions I had when I was 22 and thinking, I will write the book that unmasks the terrible world, I will cause the scales to fall from the public’s eyes, and they will see how stupid the local news at 11 is, and they will realize how cliché-riddled the pages of their local newspaper are and how corrupt their elected officials are. And they won’t stand for it any more. Exactly what kind of utopia I thought would ensue was never clear.

In the 1980s, I think what I was really reacting to was my sense of isolation and loneliness and having this body of perceptions that I didn’t feel was widely shared. I was so young that I actually thought I was the only one with this particular body of perceptions. My enemy was everybody and my allies were nobody. I think the difference now is that I recognize that there’s a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways, and that my task is to reach them and to participate in the life of that segment of the population. This is what I’m writing for, for the people who want a literary experience. I’m no longer worried that nobody besides me can have that kind of experience, but I’m also not imagining that, in any conceivable twist of history, everybody will want that kind of experience. So it’s a weird and possibly selfish-seeming form of communitarianism: I’ve ceased to care much, as a writer, about people who don’t care about books. And the world of readers is thankfully still not tiny. We may lose a little more ground each year, but we’re still creating new readers who are excited about good stuff.
Franzen's turn to address this "non-zero segment" as his primary (and perhaps exclusive) audience mirrors a sentiment I've found on a number of blogs but articulated particularly eloquently by D.G. Myers. Myers, thinking about the reasons there are for for blogging (and particularly blogging about literature), also talks about the redeeming force of the mere fact that there is a non-empty set of readers who deeply love literature and are eager to have powerful encounters with it. In his words, "there is an underground of book lovers in this country who read every chance they get, who do not wholly trust their own judgment, who would follow a book discussion to the promised end if they only could."

I find the tone of both Myers's post and Franzen's comments extremely interesting; they both treat this realization that there are true book-lovers in almost revelatory tones, they both stress the modest nature of this revelation and this new-found community, and they both seem to feel that this modesty gives them a stronger and more stable reason for carrying out their work.

I find it somehow counter-intuitive that technologies which make instantaneous global publishing possible have encouraged the development of what must be considered a relatively monastic attitude—a twinned belief that a vanguard of scholar-devotees can preserve both knowledge of and passion for literature in a dark time and that this vanguard is its own best and only audience.

I'm not trying to criticize here, merely to consider how this came about, how the possibilities brought about by the internet have led to the development of this attitude in many notable quarters, and how inevitable such a development was. And finally, to ask whether this technologically-facilitated monasticism will increase over time, or whether there will be a sort of humanist reaction, and if so, how long until that comes about.

Joseph Kugelmass had a striking post a few days ago which seems to me to take a strong and practical position against the sort of intentional cloistering which Franzen advocates. Kugelmass's reading of the situation is, as ever, direct, pointed and convincing. Kugelmass talks about his decision to turn his attention to blogging for Pop Matters, a large website which publishes essays that "draw on sophisticated interpretive strategies derived from a theoretically informed point of view but will be presented for a general reader in lively, accessible language," and which covers an extremely eclectic range of pop culture topics. Pointing to Pop Matters as an example of the kind of cultural criticism that should be done while taking advantage of the increased opportunities afforded by blogging, Joe argues very cogently that academic blogging has become a sort of collaborative, self-pitying David Lodge book:
Furthermore, given the current situation, the democratic ideas behind academic blogging (of bringing conversations usually restricted to campuses to the wide world of the Internet) has perhaps only helped prop up the other, worser idea that what we in the humanities do ought to be done for free, since it’s just book hobbyism if it isn’t serious, bare-bones instruction in writing.
In citing all these different voices, I have raised more questions than I can answer, and more even than I want to answer at this point. I've probably bent the nuances of Kugelmass's position and the positions taken by Myers and Franzen in order to oppose them to one another, but I think that anybody who writes about literature seriously is faced with these two opposing options—to find or build an "underground" community of devoted readers that is self-sufficient in terms of consumption and production, or to pursue an audience intermittent in its devotion and irregular in its consumption, to engage popular culture and insist that this work is neither personal in its motivation nor limited in its audience. Most of us, I think, shift in our self-justifications and our practice between the two, and I, for one, can't say where I fall at the moment, or where I'm likely to fall as I read more in both theory and fiction.

I am very excited to see what kind of criticism Joe produces at Pop Matters, and I'm eager to start taking a look at its archives and features. Are there any other sites with similar intents and projects that I should look into?


Anonymous said...

I don't think there's much difference between Franzen's "non-zero segment of the population" and Pop Matters's "general readers." Kugelmass's description of what he tries to write--stuff that "draw[s] on sophisticated interpretive strategies derived from a theoretically informed point of view but [that is] presented for a general reader in lively, accessible language"--is a pretty good description of Franzen's fiction and essays. There's a lot of ground between the extremes of wanting to bring whole cultures to their knees and treating your artistic life like a monastic life. I take Franzen's comments as a corrective to other things he's said over the years regarding the contemporary writer's inability to imprint him/herself on the masses the way Balzac or Tolstoy did.


Andrew Seal said...

Just to clarify, that quote about sophisticated interpretive strategies is from the Pop Matters website, not something Kugelmass said about his writing.

Secondly, what I mean by a monastic sensibility is simply that there is an eagerness for detachment from the larger culture, for a way to limit one's audience to a group that is sufficiently devoted. I think I may not have been very clear about this--I don't mean for "monastic" to be understood as "solitary" or "ascetic." It's still very much a communal sensibility, not introverted or reclusive. In fact, it's necessarily communal--it's just not proselytizing. It doesn't seek to convert anyone or reach ears that aren't listening. It's content to be heard by those who are.

So I'm not saying that Franzen has changed his essay style or anything--I'm saying that his idea of who he wants as his "general reader" has changed. It used to be "anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see;" now it's "the people who want a literary experience." That can be anyone, potentially--I'm not saying this sensibility is in any way inherently biased--but the difference is, the new Franzen seems glad not everybody wants a literary experience, and is most certainly not about to try to make somebody want a literary experience.

So I do think there is quite a significant difference between Franzen's "non-zero segment of the population" and the intended readership of Pop Matters. The way that Pop Matters positions itself does seem to me to be more about engaging culture on its own terms, finding a way to make theoretically-based critiques seem relevant to someone who isn't out looking for a "theoretical experience" or even a necessarily "literary experience."

I could be wrong, however, about Pop Matters's audience. I'll be honest and say that I'm really just going by the statistics they have on their website for unique readers per month--1M+, which seems to me to be a lot closer to a truly "general audience" than anything Franzen might be considering.