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.


  1. Don't forget Robert Lowell, the last poet on the cover of Time (circa 1964) or that Franzen is also on the cover of Vogue this month. If Franzen doesn't want this sort of treatment, he shouldn't be publishing with the big trade houses....

  2. As a Midwesterner, Franzen has never struck me as a Midwesterner. He's from the borderlands of St. Louis which to my mind has always been Southern (Missouri Compromise and all). Dave Frank and I have made the argument that the Midwest is identical to the original Northwest Territories and I stand by this. The egalitarian constitutional order of the Territories, the Great Lakes, and the rust belt loom large here. St. Louis has too much of the west in it.

    More importantly Franzen's anxiety is one that is fueled by the sort of striving one doesn't find in the Midwest. He lives in Manhattan and writes for the New Yorker. He refuses to appear on a show that was begun in and still continues to be filmed in Chicago, hosted by a woman who while having roots in the south was raised in the Midwest (As so many African Americans of her age were). Yet he concedes to being on the cover of time and Vogue. The difference here is strictly geographic.

    He regrets St. Louis failure to become the center of American culture while any real Midwesterner knows that we already always were the center. Aspirations are localized. Kids from the Upper Peninsula dream of Grand Rapids. Kids from Grand Rapids dream of Chicago and Detroit. Kids in Chicago and Detroit dream of going back home, or stay forever. The east and west coasts are off the radar to the deeply culturally rooted. They're just too alien.

    Franzen's tensions I think are entirely of the high-brow/middle-brow kind. Just as easily the distinction between the O.C. and San Francisco. Or New York and Long Island. He fools the coasters into thinking that it's just a folksy Midwestern anxiety (We are a worrying people). We, however, know better.

  3. Ron,

    I can think of a number of current American novelists who publish with major publishing houses who wouldn't fit with Time's idea of literature.

    No poets, though.


    Franzen himself identifies himself as a Midwesterner, and has cited that as the reason for this (middlebrow/highbrow, to go on Oprah's show or not) anxiety. I, personally, find the Midwestern vs. Midwestern debates exceedingly silly, and, having no reason to think it's a slick trick or some sort of ruse on Franzen's part, will let him self-identify.

    Also, more than one of your Grand Rapids friends has dreamed of moving to an East Coast city.

  4. When I was growing up in Berkeley in the 1950s, it seemed obvious that the midwest was everything between Reno & Chicago. Now, living outside of Philly, it's everything between Pittsburgh & Chicago. Never been to St. Louis, tho I'm old enough to have seen both Enos Slaughter & Stan Musial play.

  5. Silliman, I know you don't want to get into an sociological discussion of "what the Midwest is," but having lived West of St. Louis in Missouri I can say from experience that St. Louis is pretty darned Midwestern. Especially compared to Tulsa or even Kansas City. Also, another point in St. Louis' favor: the immediate Illinois-side suburbs of St. Louis— the places right across the river like Belleville, O'Fallon, Alton, Fairview Heights, etc.— have lots of dilapidated factories, across from which lie corn fields. Right int he middle of the city. Like, across from the mall I went to. Giant cornfield. It's actually like walking into the middle of an Uncle Tupelo song.

    So, the point is: If he wants to self-identify as such I say he is well-justified in doing so. (I'll note that I think I have a broader definition of the Midwest as do Dan and Dave— my mom's family grew up on the Iowa side of the Omaha metro area so I always figured Omaha was the westernmost fringes of the Midwest. I'll draw you a google map and we can fight over it.)