The fanfare accompanying the publication of Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom" is heartening to upholders of traditional literary culture. After years in which novels, especially large and serious ones, were pushed to the margins of American culture, Franzen's book is receiving cloudbursts of attention, including Franzen appearing on the cover of Time magazine.
With reading of novels and other books in decline, our attention spans short-circuited by the Internet, television, mobile phones and I-pads, and cultural standards falling, the Franzen boom is like a last reflexiive spasm of a dying age. Or perhaps it marks a revived attention to literature, fueled by the popularity of e-book readers like Kindle.
No matter what, I was dismayed by Sam Tannenhaus' fawning review of "Freedom" on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The first sentence set me off, "Jonathan Franzen's new novel 'Freedom," like his previous one, "The Corrections," is a materpiece of American fiction."
How unseemly for Mr. Tannenhaus, the editor of the book review and the noted biographer of Whittaker Chambers, to immediately make an inflated assessment of a novel not yet available to the reading public. Such simplistic and short-sighted declarations would be questionable for a college sophomore; they are disturbing from the editor of the most prevalent literary review in Americag. To be declared a masterpiece, a book traditionally has stood the test of readership, received longterm critical evalation and gained acceptance by generations. Tannenaus' declaraton is premature at best. It only set the stage for a long, tedious and overwrought review.
I read "Corrections" when it appeared: I'd forgotten that it was publshed right before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Perhaps someone will compile an anthology of Sept. 11-eve literature; old '60s lib and reputed Barack Obama pal Bill Ayers published his self-serving memoir right before Sept. 11 as well. "Corrections" is an apt companion to Ayers' book; both are testaments to an age of self-indulgence and moral atrophy reputedly blown away with the dust of the Trade Center towers.
Looking back on "Corrections," I don't consider it "a masterpiece." I remember a swirl of impressions, a few striking characters and scenes, and the book's claustrophobic atmosphere. It had stretches of good writing, but could have benefitted from cutting and editing. I didn't think it that much different from other novels about American families; it was hardly the original, revolutionary break with the past that Tannehaus imagines.
The importance given to Time's endorsement of Franzen is also outdated, since the cultural power of the weekly newsmagazine has seriously eroded. A few decades ago, the newsmagazines played a major role in settting the cultural/political and social agenda, but now they hardly matter, especially to the younger generation.
That Franzen is receiving such heightened attention is ironic, since he claimed to disdain such acclaim when Oprah chose "Corrections" for her book club and he rejected her imprimatur. The burst of publicity has also brought protests from women novelists who see themselves as slighted in comparison.
The publication of "Freedom," at 562 pages, marks the latest revival of the big, messy novel. That there's no shortage of such books shows that literary publishing might not be in such bad shape after all. Still, "Freedom," even if it achieves best-seller status, will still be purchased and read by a small percentage of the American public. "American Idol" and football will consume most people.