The Foppishness of Praise-By-Attack in Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away

Farther Away
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux  April 2012
336 pages / $26  Buy from Amazon


There’s a tendency in writing about fiction to praise one novel by attacking others, assuming that, if these other novels are bad, the novel under consideration must be good. This approach is seen with unsurprising frequency in Jonathan Franzen’s 2012 collection Farther Away.  Assessing the stories and novels of Alice Munro, Paula Fox, Christina Stead, and James Purdy, Franzen is categorically unable to praise the writers he cherishes without insulting somebody else.

Eustace Chisholm and the Works, a novel by Purdy published in 1967, is, according to Franzen, “so good that almost any novel you read immediately after it will seem at least a little posturing, or dishonest, or self-admiring, in comparison.” Franzen goes on to say that Eustace Chisholm is better than the sentimental and rhetorically manipulative Catcher in the Rye, superior to the works of Richard Yates, which are haunted by self-pity, and more legit than Saul Bellow, who seems “wordy and academic and show-offy if you read him directly after Eustace Chisholm.” While dissing Purdy’s contemporaries might be fun, it doesn’t tell us much about Eustace Chisholm, nor does it let the novel succeed on its own merits.

A book isn’t good because other books are bad. A book is good in and of itself. Franzen’s claim that the novel you read after Eustace Chisholm will seem “dishonest, or self-admiring, in comparison” is silly. What if, after reading Eustace Chisholm, you read Mary Gaitskill or Modern Baptists? Novels don’t become worse when compared to other novels. Knocking Salinger, Yates, and Bellow is a bully’s way of building up Purdy. This approach of praise-by-attack turns literature into a game of one-up-manship, of petty competition between authors, as though art could be organized using a college basketball bracket system:

Who’s top dog—

Emma Bovary vs. Anna Karenina?

Alice Munro vs. Thomas Pynchon?

James Purdy vs. Paula Fox?

Complimenting one author by criticizing others reduces intelligent discussion about books to a juvenile competition where everybody roots for their favorites and dismisses the other guys as a matter of course, leading to statements like: Raymond Carver is fine, but with her collections from the ’90s Alice Munro really slamdunked in his face!

Franzen’s praise-by-attack approach is seen in his introduction to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which “operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes Revolutionary Road look like Everybody Loves Raymond,” and in his laudation of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, which struck Franzen as “plainly superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, or Saul Bellow.” Here the comparison to other writers is even less helpful than in Franzen’s assessment of Eustace Chisholm. All we get is the fact that Desperate Characters is better than the works of these other novelists. Franzen doesn’t bother explaining why.

While it can be helpful to compare writers’ various approaches to style, sentence structure, and subject matter, it’s immature to play such favorites. Most of us aren’t like Franzen or like Nabokov, who could so easily qualify his tastes, ranking the classic Russian writers with a letter grading system. There’s no need for such rankings. Literature isn’t like biology where a classification system is required for understanding. This approach of extreme categorization, of better-than’s and put-downs allows for showboating and snarky entertainment, which is an okay time—that stinger about Everybody Loves Raymond is hilarious!—but it doesn’t provide much insight or tell us what makes an author unique.

What we like in one author is not what we like in another. If, for instance, your favorite writers are Hemingway, Henry James, and Michel Houellebecq, you’re going to love these writers each for different reasons. This is true regardless of whom your favorite writers are. Perhaps you fancy the postwar realists like Bellow, Yates, Salinger, and Updike. Maybe you prefer the strange, subtle stories of Lydia Davis or Deborah Eisenberg. Maybe you like Alice Munro and Thomas Pynchon. Whoever you like, it’s because that writer communicates something to you no one else can. A critic should try to discuss this.

Sure of course you can set authors up against each other, saying, “Well in a one-versus-one showdown Saul Bellow has written better books, but Philip Roth is the greater novelist.” Except it’s foolish. There’s no benefit to this kind of squabbling. If you think John Updike is bad, it’s not because John Updike is worse than James Purdy. It’s because you think John Updike is just bad.

Franzen’s approach, with its cutting remarks and immediate dismissals, feels like criticism. It isn’t. It just forces the reader to make a non-existent choice: Who’s better at examining life, James Purdy or Saul Bellow, Paula Fox or Philip Roth? You don’t have to choose. There’s no need to think of books in this way.

The greater challenge is explaining what makes a work of art original. It’s difficult to put into words. Still, we should try to take each book as it comes, judge it by its own merits or faults, avoid proclivities toward grand claims or silly rankings, and not rely, at least not too much, on petty jabs and snide asides. Conveying the majesty of great books is a challenge, one that can’t be shrugged off.


Alex Kalamaroff is 25 years old. He lives in Cambridge and works for Boston Public Schools.

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  1. jane lane

      praise by attack is a crime in sweden

  2. frrrrrank

      In my RSS I read “Jonathan Franzen Farrar” as “Jonathan Safran Foer”.

  3. marcolin71

      Jeez, I knew about The Man Who Loved Children, but now also Eustace Chisholm and the Works? How dares that bore Franzen like two of my favorite novels

  4. Trey

      $26… why…

  5. Richard Grayson

      This post is more perceptive and intelligent than any of the posts here by X, Y, and Z. Thanks for saying this.

  6. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Seriously. I really liked Miranda Mellis’s response to this kinda nonsense, when she answered Chris Higgs’ question about whether “experimental” writing requires an evaluation criteria: “What if instead of “criteria for evaluation” (is that corporate speak?)
      we turn to ye olde garden metaphor? What if rather than using gold and
      copper as our metaphoric representations of gradations of value, we used
      seeds in all their various potentials? In “The Succession of Forest
      Trees” Thoreau writes that seeds are “Perfect alchemists I keep who can
      transmute substances without end, and thus the corner of my garden is an
      inexhaustible treasure-chest. Here you can dig, not gold, but the value which gold merely represents.”
      If you wanted to compare hypothetical literary experiments,
      metaphorized as ‘seeds’, you would do so based on what the seeds
      encoded. If you wanted something that grew fast right away for
      commercial purposes, you’d mono-crop GMO seeds; what are the problems
      with that? Certain seeds require long periods of darkness before they
      can germinate. There the metaphor is, whatever you’re trying to make
      will require patience and darkness to metabolize, so while it may end up
      at the market, that’s not going to be market-driven.” (source:

  7. deadgod

      Cases of Its abuse don’t invalidate the usefulness of comparison with other books as an evaluative method. Comparison being a zero-sum game is the reader’s assumption only when the reader assumes so explicitly, not simply by virtue of comparison itself.

      There is no book “in and of itself”, nor are books experienced – except the very first one one ever reads – exclusively of other books.

      Eustace Chisholm and the Works is here quoted or said to have been said by Franzen to have succeeded on the “merits” of lack of pretense, honesty, humility (or self-neutrality), judicious emotional perspective, integrity, a stiff upper lip, economy of expression, plain speaking, and lack of ineffective ornament. These virtues are all predicated by plain comparison.

      Franzen’s level of enthusiasm might be unsustainable, but, by itself, that doesn’t rule out the possibility – the reality – of alternate enthusiasms.

      Franzen does talk about his reactions to books in ways other than by comparison.

      Franzenfreude: more fun than accurate.

  8. Charles Dodd White

      IN A SHALLOW GRAVE is also a fantastic, strange novel. Purdy is underrated. I want to read IN THE HOUSE OF THE SOLITARY MAGGOT next.

  9. Wallace Barker

      Yet, comparing literary works seems like an indispensable critical tool. Thin line between making a useful comparison and engaging in a literary cage match.

  10. Taylor Napolsky

      that was witty