The Franzen hype: good for American writers

By now, everybody knows that Jonathan Franzen’s new novel FREEDOM is out, and speaking for the book club, we can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, we have been mulling over the reviews and the controversy that Franzen inevitably, it seems, excites. Don’t we love it? Is the book “a masterpiece of American fiction” or “unappealing” or, quite conceivably, both?

We won’t know those answers until we read the book but on a couple of levels we think the hype over FREEDOM is good for U.S. writers. One is obvious. Anything that gets people reading, talking and thinking about books is a plus for books and the people who write them. One can imagine the publishing industry salivating over this, a big book by a serious American author who harks back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the heyday of the American novel. Oh, to tango like we did back then.

The other level is more subtle and it has to do with Leo Tolstoy. Much is made in the reviews of Franzen’s references to Tolstoy. The editor of the “New York Times Book Review” calls Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE a “touchstone” for FREEDOM while a second Times reviewer writes that Franzen’s references to Tolstoy are “laughably conceited.”

The point to us is not that Franzen equates himself or his work with Tolstoy, but that he equates us to characters in a Tolstoy novel. Whatever else he may have to say in FREEDOM, we feel confident that he is saying our society and our times are every bit as worthy of being recorded in great novels as Tolstoy’s Russia of 1869, the year WAR AND PEACE was published.

That is the takeaway for American writers. It is also, to some extent, what the fuss is all about. For years, serious fiction has been dominated by foreign writers, as if the American experience was so over that only stories from raw, struggling places had merit.

Franzen clearly thinks we have merit too. Where he may get into trouble is in the way he sees American society today. He has written that he got lots of angry mail after his last book, THE CORRECTIONS, came out. One enraged correspondent called him “a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole.”

We are not suggesting that writers try to emulate Franzen in style or substance, but we are saying that there is much in our society to inspire and be written about. As Franzen demonstrates, we are such stuff as books are made on.