Aug 14, 2010

Picture on the cover

Speaking of class and status and art, and what is or is taken as art (and how): Jonathan Franzen.

AKA, Great American Novelist.

It's interesting that the Time Magazine cover article -- as abridged online, anyway -- talks about but doesn't seem to understand his "uneasiness" -- "It's hard to say exactly what makes Franzen so uncomfortable," Time says -- though really, it seems to me, Franzen's anxieties are pretty clear, and also exactly the kinds of things exacerbated by being on the cover of America's great middlebrow, middle-America, fits-on-every-coffee-table-in-sea-to-sea suburbia magazine.

Where he joins the ranks of Mario Puzo, Michael Crichton, and Garrison Keillor(!), and also Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe, and also Updike and Irving. This would seem to be two or maybe three totally different ranks of American writers, but, of course, at Time they're the same.

Which is to say they're popular, but specifically in the way that makes people feel special or superior for liking them. And they offer what feels like a "wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now" view of the world, even if that really ends up meaning telling people they're like exactly what they thought they were like all along.

Besides, of course, the possibility that this is a left-handed compliment (you're the great American writer who won't be too challenging or in any way uncomfortable for Time's audience), and besides the question of how uncomfortable it is for a Midwesterner like Franzen to be put in a position, complete with Big White Type, where you're not, anymore, an average person, you're not an average writer, and you kind of can't, with your upbringing, agree with the cover celebrating you without doing the unforgivable thing of putting yourself above other, average people and thinking you're better than them, it raises the question that actually already worries Franzen, which is who "literature" is supposed to be read by.

Can literature manage to be literature and middle class? Middlebrow? Is it supposed to be elitists -- that is to say, actually, somehow challenging, special, superior, different -- or should it be able to be read by anybody, even those 3 out of 4 Americans who can but don't read?

Does it need, like a politician, to appeal to the broadest possible commonalities and common denominators, to the 50 percent plus 1, even if that means pandering and posturing and speaking like a politician?

This isn't really a question for Time magazine, though. Franzen exactly fits Time's idea of literature. Which, really, makes him uncomfortable even though, at this point, after "last time," it's not like he's going to turn the offer down.