Here's Franzen on the social novel:
the thing I abandoned, the two hundred pages of The Corrections that I abandoned, was essentially an illustrative work. And I couldn’t smoke enough cigarettes in a day to interest myself in using a novel to illustrate points I already understood very well. I think, although he is extremely kind and erudite and a lovely person, Richard Powers’s books are good examples of what happens when you try to illustrate a social reality that’s already known to you. Powers can still sometimes make it exciting because he’s so bright. He’s brighter than almost anyone who’ll read him, so you can always learn something from him. But I’m not sure he’s learning much himself, and that’s the big danger of trying to use a novel to mirror the social reality. Sure, when there were no other media to do the job, it was useful for Zola and Sinclair to broadcast important social info and dramatize it and make it accessible to a bourgeois readership. But TV can do all that now, and so the purely social novel has pretty much shriveled up and died.I like the term "illustrative novel"—I think the way "the social novel" is talked about is far too abstract (strangely enough) and diffuse. Here he is on whether a Washington novel—a novel about politics at the national level—can still be written:
A better way to go about it—and I still have some wish to do this, in the new book—is to track political passions within a family. My own father’s family is an interesting study in shades of conservatism, from my John Bircher uncle Erv to my unexpectedly tolerant dad and his brother-in-law Walt, an Air Force colonel and a lifelong Democrat. They would have these huge fights at family dinners, just blazing political fights. And then the subtle interactions between political convictions and the texture of our daily lives. When I drive down the street and I’m making stereotyped observations about the person driving the humongous SUV with three yellow ribbons on the bumper, that’s just my politics at work. Maybe some minor cultural things, too, but it’s mostly a political rage. “This person probably voted for George Bush twice.” That’s what I’m thinking. And how these passions are formed and handed down, and why they’re so important to us, these are still very interesting questions. But it’s not a Washington novel.He also says some interesting things about the Midwest.
Interviewer (Christopher Connery): It’s hard to say that regionalism has much purchase on the general literary imagination these days. But what does regionalism mean for you in the work?I tend to think Franzen's conception of the Midwest is framed rather extremely by his experiences as a regional expatriate (and being one myself, I think I can tell), and I would argue—or this is at least how I argue with myself—that his emphasis on the distance between the Midwest and the centers of power is not as definitive or as determinative as what specific forms of communication and transportation existed to bridge those distances. Indianapolis ain't Brigadoon, Mr. Franzen. It's the ways that ideas and trends get filtered out by the narrowness of the channels of communication and transportation that is determinative, and not so much the time lag that he talks about. But it's much more romantic to think of the Midwest as a land time forgot, I suppose.
Franzen: I can never find a satisfactory answer to this question. I might lead with my theory about the Midwest and why so many interesting writers come out of it, from Twain and Fitzgerald and Cather to Saunders and Vonnegut and Wallace. I think it has to do with a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world. Historically, there’s been no immediate point of contact with foreignness, and also no immediate contact with the true centers of power: New York and Washington, increasingly Hollywood as well. When I was young, styles that took over on the coasts would get to the Midwest about two years later. It was a shock for Midwesterners to find, when they got to college, that clothes they thought were cool everyone else has stopped wearing. Something about having been a victim of a time lag—something about not having had a clue when other people the same age were already getting a clue—produces both a sense of optimism and a kind of reactive curdled cynicism. You become more worldly in response to not having been worldly enough for a little too long.
That’s my personal myth, at any rate. If you ask what the Midwest means to me, it’s that myth of an innocence prolonged and then abruptly lost… And somehow this dynamic seems more like a Midwestern thing than a Lower East Side thing or a South Boston thing. I’m not enough of a social historian to have a good theory of why exactly this is true. I do know that, for a long time, you really were isolated in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, or Webster Groves, Missouri, or Oak Park, Illinois—it really was a long way from the Lower East Side. This is all rapidly changing with our new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs, but some of the social and mental habits that grew out of isolation may persist in succeeding generations, leaving vestiges of a “Midwestern” character…
[On what counts as the Midwest:] Indiana is a special case. Evansville is the South. Fort Wayne is still Rust Belt, Valparaiso is definitely Midwest. That’s actually an interesting way to approach it—to define where my boundaries of the Midwest run. I think it begins around Columbus, Ohio—Thurberville—and stretches west. Anything below I-70 is basically southern. And that’s true right across Missouri. My Midwest is bounded on the south by I-70. It stretches all the way to about an hour east of Denver and includes pretty much all of the Great Plains states north of I-70… You can take all of Kansas, some of Oklahoma, too. But not, for example, downstate Illinois. You start hearing the South in people’s voices. They don’t sound like Tom Brokaw anymore.
Also, as someone who grew up right on I-70, I think his cartography's kind of bullshit.