meyoung’s disclaimer from the review of Freedom
Tricia thinks I’m a literary snob. But I say:
Reading Pride and Prejudice is a different experience from reading a Danielle Steel novel. That bald statement is not literary snobbery, and there is a reason the former is analyzed in high school English classes and the latter is not. Both can be very entertaining, but a literary discussion about a Danielle Steel novel will be relatively much shorter.
Years before The Corrections was published I had read an essay Franzen wrote that, if memory serves, talked about the death of the literary novel and concluded with a self challenge to write the new great American novel. I don’t think he was saying that contemporary fiction had no novels, just that the good ol’ chronologically plot-driven, character-intense, family-centric novel was history. (Upon Googling, the article was from Harper’s Magazine in 1996. You have to be a subscriber to have access to their online archives; they don’t even let libraries make them available online, so I couldn’t confirm my memory of the essay’s contents.)
When The Corrections came out I read it purely because of that essay. I thought it was a good, not great, chronologically plot-driven, character-intense, family-centric novel. Then the Oprah thing happened. I sided with Franzen. His point, as I perceived it, was that he wanted to have a particular type of discussion of his book, one that was closer to the academic form of literary criticism than not, or maybe more accurately, he didn’t want to have a particular type of discussion that went along the lines of “I really felt for Enid Lambert because she was a wife and mother just trying to hold it together….” And if that’s what he really felt, if the latter type of discussion was something he really didn’t want to partake in, then going on Oprah would have been merely to sell more books. Not doing something merely to sell more books then supports an artistic motivation of simply wanting to write a great novel.
But I do recognize that, while my initial point by itself isn’t pretentious, it certainly is a start. Assuming my theory behind Franzen’s motives are true, it doesn’t necessarily justify his assumption that Oprah’s audience doesn’t (or can’t) appreciate literary criticism. So was he being true to himself and a snob when he turned down Oprah? Undoubtedly. But turning down the opportunity to have a surefire number one bestseller seemed more principled than affected, so I applauded him.
When Tricia forwarded me an article saying Franzen would go on Oprah in connection with Freedom, I was about a third of the way into the book. My immediate reaction was that the world has no more heroes (until I remembered Captain Sully which cheered me up but didn’t lessen my disappointment of Franzen – like he has anything to prove to me, but who has hasn’t occasionally taken a celebrity action personally at some time or another?) and yes, it may have colored my opinion of Freedom.
Tricia’s thoughts on the disclaimer and literary snobbery
Oh I love meyoung, I really do. Although she is not the friend I have had by my side the longest, she is undoubtedly my best friend (husband aside). She stars in this role, in no small part, because of the knock-down, drag-outs we can have about issues like this and still love each other afterwards.
meyoung is a literary snob. Not because she recognizes that reading Pride and Prejudice is a different experience than reading Danielle Steel (even I wouldn’t try to argue against that), but because she sees no inherent value in reading Danielle Steel. (At least this is how I have always interpreted her position). On principle, meyoung has avoided reading books selected by Oprah for her book club (meyoung is not the only one of my friends who aspires to this curious censorship. So when an Oprah book club selection is picked for the book club I have been running for 5 years, I generally try to keep that information on the down-low). Refusal to read a book simply because it has been deemed quality by an undeniably smart celebrity seems absurd to me. Additionally, I have an intense aversion to the idea that some types of literature are too intellectual to be read and appreciated by any literate individual with an average IQ.
I also take issue with meyoung’s contention that Franzen was being true to his art by refusing to go on Oprah to discuss The Corrections. Sure, art is subjective, but if Franzen’s artistic motivation was merely to write a great novel, Franzen should have shown it to a couple of acknowledged literary critics and never published the work.
In my worldview, an artist should want to share their work with the world. True art should be able to touch people in innumerable ways on innumerable levels and be appreciated by a wide cross-section of society. More than 7 million people watch the Oprah Winfrey show everyday (according to WikiAnswers) and I find it hard to believe that a true artist would shun the opportunity to not only garner such attention for their work, but to learn and discuss how it has affected people and changed the way they view their world. Honestly, I cannot fathom a reason for Franzen refusing to go on Oprah that casts him in a positive light. I see no other way to interpret it than as a declaration that the response of the general public was not worthy of Franzen’s attention. I think that is dismissive and the absolute definition of snobbery. During this time of declining readership, I think Franzen had a duty to go on the show and promote not only his book, but also reading as a worthy endeavor. meyoung holding Franzen in high esteem for not helping to bring his novel to a larger audience and losing respect for him for later agreeing to do so makes me sad. I want to bring the love of reading that I have to everyone. Whether it is the entertaining, yet still well written, mass market murder mystery or a literary epic such as Steinbeck’s East of Eden (also an Oprah pick), and I really wish more people felt this way.
So readers, what say you? Yes, some may argue the Franzen issue has been discussed to death but in many ways I think it is simply a current example of how literature is viewed by different parts of society. So talk to us about literary snobbery, literature as art, or other bookish thoughts you have around the idea of the great american novel and who it is aimed at.