In his 1996 report on the state of literature, Jonathan Franzen makes a case for reading social, or “serious,” novels. What makes this essay great is how he utilizes his sentiment as a lens to view American society as a whole. When Franzen wrote this essay his first two books had been warmly received by critics, but forgotten quickly by a wider audience. Why had his books flopped commercially? And more importantly, why did this bother him?
Franzen’s imagery sets the mood by explaining a scene in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. Sophie, “a literate, childless Brooklynite”, and her husband Otto are fighting over their unhappy marriage. It ends with Otto throwing Sophie’s inkbottle against the wall, turning all his law books and Sophie’s translations into “an unreadable blot.” Franzen returns to this metaphor of dissatisfaction to illustrate similar feelings towards the future of the social novel. Another example is when he describes the institution of writing serious novels as “a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways.” He forces the reader to picture his sentiments perfectly thereby making his point much more powerful.
In his view the social novel is not given the importance it used to as a vehicle for instructing societal values. Franzen says the only way to reach an audience with a novel that condemns America’s destitute consumerism is to hide the fact you are condemning America’s destitute consumerism. His example is of Catch-22 in which, “Heller had figured out a way of outdoing the actuality, employing the illogic of modern warfare as a metaphor for the more general denaturing of American society.” To be a successful writer who dabbles in social commentary, you must hide your scathing remarks behind metaphors and similes or, in Franzen’s view, risk obscurity.
“A century ago,” he says, “The novel was the preeminent medium of social instruction. A new book by William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that today a new Pearl Jam release inspires.”
He uses examples of iconic pop culture not out of mockery, but out of desperation to be understood. He is afraid of obscurity, and the possibility that his allusions will be lost on today’s average American, thus affirming his nightmare that novelists are no longer necessary to society. This gives his essay an interesting quality. He is conscious of alienating his audience, but is determined not to be self-effacing. A balance not many authors achieve, but which he does seemingly without effort.
Franzen does not stop there. He integrates social idioms ironically to condemn American culture. “The problem for the novelist is not just that the average man or woman spends so little time F2F with his or her fellows; there is after all, a rich tradition of epistolary novels, and Robinson Crusoe’s condition approximates the solitude of today’s suburban bachelor.” To him we are all suburban bachelors lost to the dredges of 24/7 television and twitter updates, and in its vapid atmosphere we become depressed.
“You are, after all, just protoplasm, and some day you’ll be dead. The invitation to leave your depression behind, whether through medication or therapy or effort of will, seems like an invitation to turn your back on all your dark insights into the corruption and infantilism and self-delusion of the brave new McWorld.”
In other words, don’t! This depression is the cause of the great social novel. It is an indication something is wrong, and parting with that insight is criminal.
Towards the middle of the article Franzen changes tone. He makes a case that losing regional cultural identity means a loss of the social novel. He does this by challenging the assumption that a black lesbian New Yorker and a Southern Baptist Georgian would lead completely different lives.
“The likelihood is that both the New Yorker and the Georgian watch Letterman every night, both are struggling to find health insurance, both have jobs that are threatened by migration of employment overseas, both go to discount superstores to purchase Pocahontas tie-in products for their children, both are being pummeled into cynicism by commercial advertising, both play Lotto, both dream of fifteen minutes of fame, both are taking serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and both have a guilty crush on Uma Thurman.”
Franzen successfully makes a point that when you nationalize American pop-culture you risk destroying regional identity. By doing so you lose rich cultural background that inspired greats like Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan and Toni Morrison. “The world of the present is a world in which the rich lateral dramas of local manners have been replaced by a single vertical drama, the drama of regional specificity succumbing to a commercial generality.” And that single vertical drama does not make for an interesting read.
Just as important is the attitude attached to writing “serious novels.” In Franzen’s interpretation, the majority of nonreaders weighs on the consciousness of writers. Franzen defines the problem not so much as a lack of ideas but a collective defeatist attitude. Nobody is reading challenging works of fiction, so why write them? For Franzen it is the calling’s importance. “Novelists are preserving a tradition of precise, expressive language; a habit of looking past surfaces into interiors; maybe an understanding of private experience and public context as distinct but interpenetrating; maybe mystery, maybe manners.”
Franzen concludes that the “end of the world” is something to embrace because crises are the fodder of social novels. He mentions Paula Fox saw the end and represented it deftly with an inkbottle. That image in itself gives him hope. He says, “The world was ending then, it’s ending still, and I’m happy to belong to it again.”