Franzen’s Status

Posted by @ 8:01 am on March 8th, 2012

This follows Roxane’s Tuesday post, and Jami Attenberg’s initial observation/criticism of something she heard Franzen say. Their defense of Twitter/Facebook/etc. is of course right: small press writers and publishers need those tools to promote themselves and their works. But I’m less convinced that Franzen has “lost perspective,” as Attenberg puts it, or “doesn’t understand what Twitter is for,” as Roxane claims. Instead, I think Franzen is making a deeper, more disturbing criticism—the latest salvo in a decade-long attack on certain writers, certain kinds of fiction, and ultimately, a certain construction of art itself.

To grasp all of that, let’s look more closely at a different part of his complaint:

[Twitter is] like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’…It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.

Um—huh? What do lipograms have to do with social networking? And how are they irresponsible?

To understand what Franzen’s getting at here, we need to exhume his ten-year-old attack on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult” (which is relevant again, anyway, with Dalkey Archive Press having recently reprinted The Recognitions and J R). There, Franzen took Gaddis to task for being too much of a “Status” writer. What’s that, you ask? In Franzen’s purview, it’s a writer who operates under the assumption that

the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it. […] It invites a discourse of genius and art-historical importance.

Opposing that (Franzen continues) is the “Contract model,” in which

a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience. Writing thus entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group, whether the group consists of “Finnegans Wake” enthusiasts or fans of Barbara Cartland. Every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust. […] The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection.

There are numerous problems with Franzen’s two-model account, which has been dissected and criticized extensively elsewhere. (Here, e.g.) For starters, Franzen implies that writers and readers of difficult fiction aren’t pursuing pleasure, but cultural capital. (Franzen confesses that he himself once did that, and everyone must be like him, no?) He also subtly (subconsciously?) assigns “fathers” to the Status side, “mothers” to the Contract—yeesh.

Returning to that novel lacking a P. It’s easy to see why Franzen would file lipograms, and presumably all constraint-based writing, under the dreaded Status heading. When Georges Perec sat down to write La disparition, he didn’t do so because it would be easy! And his constraint—to write a novel without using the letter E—was a rule that couldn’t be broken, regardless of whatever that Perec might have wanted to do: make the writing funny or sad, thrilling or boring, plausible or implausible. It entailed its own artistic logic that trumped everything else. (The missing E was his dominant, that which could not be sacrificed lest the text lose its integrity.)

In Franzen’s eyes, this is pure Status fiction—the novel as a means of showing off. We can practically see his eyes narrowing in suspicion: it’s nothing but a stunt! From here we can rehash the reasons why some folks today don’t take, say, Tao Lin seriously: as Joshua Cohen characterized it (wrongly, I’d argue) “the writing is beside the point.” (Well, let’s set that one aside for another time.)

Of course, Franzen’s putdown disregards the fact that it’s difficult (ha ha) to imagine a more mischievous, more generous, more fun-loving novelist than Georges Perec. Sure, Gilbert Adair’s mid-90s translation of La d (A Void) is pretty rocky, but Perec wasn’t a showy, “look at me” kind of guy. (And so what if he was?) He genuinely loved puzzles, which are—fun! Although, admittedly, they’re sometimes hard to solve … (Incidentally, I’ve heard that the Oulipo have a secret constraint that governs all their works: “Be charming.” And what is that if not an explicit acknowledgement of the Reader?)

But I think Franzen understands all this—that some people love difficult, challenging things. I think that’s precisely what unnerves him. He reminds me of nothing so much as the fellow who’s so concerned that others are constantly pulling one over on him—telling jokes designed to go right over his head—that he resolves to abandon the conversation entirely: “I’m not going to play your mean, tricky games! I’m heading home, to read something comforting!”

Thus, it makes sense that Franzen would pooh-pooh social networking. He understands exactly what it is, and what people often use if for—and he severely disapproves. It’s obvious in his quote that he is Not Happy with this new technology—hence his calling Facebook “sort of dumb.” (That’s what you are, silly, if you enjoy it!) Hence, too, his extremely loaded acknowledgement that “it’s a free country,” which is obvious code for “while you may be free right now to be doing these things—you shouldn’t be doing them!”

I mean, c’mon—Franzen can’t be blind to the myriad ways in which social media has assuredly helped his publisher make him a Great American Novelist. And here you and I are, discussing the guy once again. Take that, independent lit! (Independent from what?) No, what I think dismays Franzen about social networking is its potential for constant performance, for constant broadcasting of status—which is, in the case of Twitter, a super-constraint-based performance! 140 characters or less—why, it’s the New Oulipo! (I would have called it “the noulipo,” if that name weren’t already taken.)

But Franzen is pretty clever, and knows well to mask his social anxieties as “looking out for others”:

People I care about are readers…particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.

The man’s first rule of writing is: “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” You’ve got to do nice, not play tricks on one another. Focus-test your novels, revising any sentences that folks don’t get right away. Cut some slack, use synonyms for the more impracticable harder words. Ask what readers want to read.

Does Snow White resemble the Snow White you remember? Yes ( ) No ( )

In the further development of the story, would you like more emotion ( ) or less emotion? ( )

Do you feel that the creation of new modes of hysteria is a viable undertaking for the artist of today? Yes ( ) No ( )

Would you like a war? Yes ( ) No ( )

Has the work, for you, a metaphysical dimension? Yes ( ) No ( )

What is it? (twenty-five words or less)

Do you stand up when you read? Lie down? ( ) Sit? ( )

In your opinion, should human beings have more shoulders? ( ) Two sets of shoulders? ( ) Three? ( )

Young authors take note: extensive demographic research presumably lurks behind Franzen’s rules. “Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly”—that’s what most appeals to readers ages 18–34. (He and James Wood should form a club.)

For anyone who finds these criticisms unfair, rest assured that this is the telos of Franzen’s logic. Remember, it’s the Status writer who believes that “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.” Folks didn’t buy or like The Recognitions in 1955? That doesn’t mean it wasn’t great. But from the POV of the Contract, a book’s greatness can be measured by how many copies it sells, or fails to sell. The logic of the Contract is the logic of capitalismnot art. Sure, Franzen pokes fun at this view—

Taken to its free-market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation. If the local symphony plays too much twentieth-century music, you cancel your subscription. You’re the consumer; you rule.

—but he also endorses it. Worrisome. (This endorsement frees Franzen up to confess that he’s never finished Moby-Dick, The Man Without Qualities, Mason & Dixon, Don Quixote, Remembrance of Things Past, Doctor Faustus, Naked Lunch, The Golden Bowl, and The Golden Notebook—despite the fact that those books are all really enjoyable.) (OK, I haven’t read The Golden Notebook—yet!)

This would be funnier if Franzen’s “free-market extreme” were, you know, more imaginary. But that bit about harsh student evaluations? I’ve seen that happen. And most large presses don’t feel any need to keep difficult classics in print. The damn things don’t sell—the hell with them! But don’t cry for those teachers or authors: they were being “irresponsible.” (Beware you disrespectful Twitter users! You’ll get yours, too!)

Here’s something I don’t fully understand, though—Franzen’s current use of “serious.” (“People I care about are readers…particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people.”) In “Mr. Difficult,” it was the Status crowd who commanded that term:

It wasn’t until the nineties, after I’d wasted a year on the screenplay, that I tried to rekindle my collegiate excitement about really hard books. I needed proof that I was a serious Artist […] and “The Recognitions” was perfect for the task. Reading the whole thing would also confer bragging rights. If somebody asked me if I’d read “The Sot-Weed Factor,” I could shoot back, No, but have you read “The Recognitions”? And blow smoke from the muzzle of my gun.

“Serious” there was a thinly-disguised synonym for “fake” (or “hip,” or “cool”)—so it makes sense that Franzen would want to reclaim if for his Contract peeps. Today, it apparently means genuine. Your status should be apparent from what you do, from what you read and what you make—which should be sincere expressions of yourself, not pretensions:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God
has given you one face, and you make yourselves
another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and
nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness
your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath
made me mad.

The more I poke at this, the more it reshapes itself into what might be the most central debate in the literary arts since at least 2000: “What, if anything, is now genuine?” (See, e.g., the New Sincerity.) Which makes perfect sense, given the way in which the Internet is increasingly colonizing our lives. What if the journal that just accepted my story is secretly a middle-aged, pedophilic, sentient robotic cat?

Beyond this, I have to say (I am honestly compelled to confess) that I was struck by how the conclusion of Roxane’s post echoed Franzen: “do what you like” (my emphasis), “keep it real.” Mind you, I’m not attacking Roxane (or the New Sincerity)—and I absolutely don’t want to accuse either of pursuing the same odious end as the market-driven “J F.” But I doubt that Roxane’s rhetoric, while admirable, will do much to rescue us from the Franzens of this world.

OK, time to wrap this up—before I started writing, I set an arbitrary 1969-word limit (the year Perec published La disparition). Here’s what I see Franzen as having “genuinely” said:

I say, we will have no more publishing:
those that are published already, all but one, shall
remain in print; the rest shall keep as they are. To a
bookstore, go.

[I’m assuming, of course, that Jami Attenberg’s transcription is accurate. So are you.]

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