Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jonathan Franzen on the Social Novel

An interview with Jonathan Franzen appears in the latest issue of boundary 2 alongside a number of very interesting articles on the American novel. I'll be getting to those in a later post, but I just wanted to pull out a few quotes from the Franzen since I think boundary 2 requires either a subscription or a university affiliation.

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 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.
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.
Also, as someone who grew up right on I-70, I think his cartography's kind of bullshit.


americanfiction said...

Really interesting stuff here, Andrew---I think I'll have to pony up a few bucks to read the whole interview.

A few quick thoughts:

* I'm biased, but I'm calling bullshit on Franzen's including Oak Park as an example of an "isolated" suburb. Yes, it had the elements of the "broad lawns and narrow minds" that Hemingway groused about, but the el went from Oak Park straight into Chicago, and its border is right next to the city's. Maybe Franzen knew a different Oak Park than I did, but as a guy who grew up a suburb not far from Oak Park, I always thought about OP as a gateway into the wider, more city-centric world.

* I'm curious what Richard Powers novels Franzen is thinking of in the passage you quote. I think he may be correct in terms of "The Time of Our Singing," which I thought was an overly mechanical attempt to run through the history of America's racial conflicts in the last century. But I don't think Franzen's complaint rightly applies to, say, "Galatea 2.2" or "Gain," both novels that I thought were more than just attempts to "illustrate a social reality." But then, I really don't think of Powers as trying to write a social novel, any more than Don DeLillo. He's an ideas guy.

Andrew Seal said...

Very good point about Oak Park: it's almost as if Franzen has taken all of the East Coast sneers about the Midwest as flyover country and reversed their charges, so that isolation and provinciality are not only real, but great--the best thing about the Midwest!

Unfortunately I have yet to read Powers, but Franzen seems to be trying far too hard to distinguish his (good) fictional project from Powers's (bad) fictional project for me to believe that he's being fair to Powers. I'm glad to find that's the case.

Actually, Franzen does something very similar with Roth: "One of
the problems with Philip Roth’s later work is that it is so pompously preoccupied with Important American Themes. Capital I, A, and T. I don’t even think in terms of a unitary America anyway, or a unitary contemporary reality.
This is partly because my own experience of the country is so divided and splintered between the nineteenth-century Midwestern childhood I had and the ongoing nineteenth-century vestiges of a Protestant ethic that I inherited from my parents and grandparents, and the faster-moving and more jaded, sophisticated coastal world I now spend most of my time in.
The primary fact about the country as I see it is that it is multipartite and eclectic and pluralistic. It tends to make a fool of anyone who tries to write about Important American Themes."

I almost agree with him about Roth, but it's really funny to hear Franzen call Roth out on being "pompously preoccupied with Important American Themes."

Anonymous said...

Franzen talks too much. He needs to shut up and get on with it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous. Franzen is no doubt a great writer, but he seems to spend as much time doing PR work on behalf of the type of novel he says he wants to write than the actual writing. Plus he seems obsessed with measuring himself against the giants of American letters, which does him no favors.

Richard said...

I actually think the Roth point is fairly stupid. Which later work is he talking about? Roth writes a book like every year! What are the Important American Themes in Everyman or Exit Ghost? Or is he only talking about, say, American Pastoral? Also, has Franzen read The Corrections?

JRoth said...

Also, has Franzen read The Corrections?

He got halfway through and set it aside, never to take it up again. Too wordy, too self-satisfied, he thought.