Tom LeClair penned one of the major Manhattan-based reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s new big novel. (Read LeClair’s Daily Beast review here.) Now for NEW POP LIT Tom LeClair goes further in this exclusive interview.
NEW POP LIT: Yours is one of the few reviews critical of Franzen’s new novel. Why the hallelujah chorus for a writer many readers regard as an unexciting novelist?
TOM LECLAIR: If many book reviewers represent “many readers,” then it’s obvious those readers are numerous. Franzen thinks of readers as prospective friends, and he takes pains to be liked or, better yet, to be loved. He doesn’t care about giving aesthetic excitement to readers. He’s not, like Nabokov, in the bliss business. Franzen cares about being companionable. Why so many professional readers—reviewers and critics—should be suckered into going along with his “like me” program is beyond me, unless reviewers also hope to have readers as friends and accept Franzen’s middlebrow aesthetic so as not to alienate. Literary fiction is in such a defensive position now, Franzen probably looks like a bulwark to some reviewers: “Look, folks, literature still tells you what it’s like to be you.” Also, never discount the appeal of an easy lay. You don’t need to be fully awake to review the guy I’ve called “Mr. Easy.” But unlike the reviewers who knocked Moby-Dick in newspapers long gone, the critics who go along with Time’s assertion that Franzen is a “Great American Novelist” will be found out and mocked on the web in the future.
NPL: Has “Big 5” publishing adopted a Hollywood mentality, when publishers put most of their promotional effort behind a single hoped-for blockbuster? Is Purity an example of this?
TLC: I’m a pensioner. I don’t work in book biz. I live in Brooklyn but know not a single writer from the borough. All this to say I pay almost no attention to publishers’ promotional efforts. By now Franzen is such a self-promoting brand I doubt his publisher had to spend a lot on publicity. With its topicality and “deep secrets” and confessional qualities, Purity hypes itself. But there is a connection to Hollywood: the cash-machine series. Freedom and Purity are like The Corrections II and III. Franzen found himself a formal and political hobbyhorse, and the publisher can go along for the ride.
NPL: You say Purity might be a novel of “narcissistic masochism.” Isn’t most literary writing today narcissistic; i.e., obsessed with self?
TLC: Maybe so. The difference may be that Franzen is sometimes ashamed of his narcissism but goes ahead and exploits it, pulls readers into it anyway, writes again and again in ever crueler terms about his marriage as a youth. He reminds me of the character in David Foster Wallace’s story “The Depressed Person,” who feels bad about herself, feels bad about feeling bad, but still makes incredible demands for sympathy from her interlocutor. But what I most dislike about the Franzen of Purity is that he doesn’t feel badly enough about bitching out his “friend” Wallace in one of the novel’s main characters who kills himself.
NPL: For how long can Big 5 publishers pay enormous advances for select novels, given the drastic changes taking place in the publishing world?
TLC: How long can universities pay their football coaches more than their presidents? For as long as the football programs carry most or all of the other athletic programs.
NPL: Will the rise of e-books and print-on-demand publishing kill the top-heavy Manhattan-based book conglomerates?
TLC: I guess I can imagine this for non-fiction but not for literary fiction. Original e-book or print-on-demand novels or collections of stories have a hard time getting noticed, at least for now. Writers of these works, whether brought out by small publishers or self-published, will have to spend an inordinate time promoting their work on social media and at yard sales. Which is to say, they will have to become junior Franzens, seeking friends, if only a few, as readers.
NPL: Does Jonathan Franzen have the energy and personality to be the face of American literature in a hyper-competitive cultural environment?
TLC: Like the journalist Tom Aberant in Purity, Franzen is a plodder who takes years to write one of his big, plodding novels. Perhaps to some reviewers and readers, the books are like throwbacks comfortably at odds with the “hyper-competitive cultural environment.” The novels are like slow cooking in one of those old crock pots. Comfort food, little chewing required. Franzen gets a lot of flack and flame from millennials for being a fogey. He even courts this because it cements his role as the face of literature past. Reviewers of Purity mention Dickens and Trollope. I thought Poe for the novel’s obsessed characters, Melville for its bagginess, and Hawthorne for its moralism. Not that Franzen is as original as any of those three. But he is market canny and knows what to throw into the crock pot.
NPL: Is Jonathan Franzen the Jeb Bush of literature?
TLC: They do look a little alike, I guess. The similarity I would see is their sense of entitlement. Franzen feels entitled to his mass readership because—voila—he has sacrificed his early desire to be a writer like Gaddis or DeLillo and adopted the methods that appeal to that readership. This sense of entitlement explains why he’s so defensive about the complaints of women about his fiction. Why female reviewers of Purity haven’t seen through Franzen’s pimping the female protagonist Purity to appeal to women is another mystery to me. Consider that middlebrow cheerleader Liesl Schillinger whose “review” in the Barnes and Noble Review offers a maniacal plot outline without any judgment of Franzen as cultural critic or artist, an evasion that presumably keeps getting this reviewer books above her pay grade. The piece is a stunning example of critical irresponsibility.
NPL: Are Jonathan Franzen’s styles of writing and thinking fast and sharp enough for the reader of now?
TLC: Your question assumes the “reader of now” wants original perceptions and quick cutting of the kind the reader might find in film or videos. Laura Miller, late of Salon, now of Slate, probably represents quite well the “reader of now.” In her review of Purity she congratulates Franzen on having fun writing the novel and providing fun for readers. “Fast” and “sharp” are slightly threatening if “fun” is your primary purpose in reading literature.
NPL: Does Purity represent an outmoded way of approaching the novel?
TLC: I think there are no outmoded ways of approaching the novel, just writers who can’t revive certain forms that have been used for several hundred years. Formally, Purity is not purely linear. We get different perspectives from different characters. But the writing is on some kind of five-pages-a- day automatic pilot. The sections focusing on different characters all sound pretty much the same. Even Franzen admits that the sentences lack originality and pop. Colm Toibin seems pained to have to point this out in his review in the New York Times Book Review. Most other reviewers don’t seem bothered by Franzen’s stylistic slackness. In this regard, think of Richard Ford’s Bascombe books. They are as formally “outmoded” or retrograde as Franzen’s, but because Ford is not concerned about hurtling along his plot he gives his narrator perceptions and language that reward the slow-going reader. By comparison, Franzen is like a high school teacher just before the final exam: summing up and teaching and gratifying his listeners by dumbing down.
NPL: Does Franzen give the New York intellectual class what they want?
TLC: Christian Lorentzen, in the most perceptive review of Purity I’ve read (http://www.vulture.com/2015/08/jonathan-franzen-purity-public-moralist.html) says that Franzen gives the NPR listening class what they want. If the New York intellectual class is represented by The New York Review of Books, it will be interesting to see what the reviewer there has to say about Purity. I’d like to see James Wood at The New Yorker tie himself in knots trying to praise the kind of social novel he promotes while ignoring Franzen’s pedestrian sentences. Every once in a while you’ll see a reference to Bellow or DeLillo in a review of Franzen. If Bellow was the star of the New York intellectuals a generation ago, and if DeLillo is the current champion, I don’t see Franzen ever attaining their place. The information that seems to make his novels smart is never deeply sourced. But in a review in The New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus, who was the editor of the New York Times Book Review for some years, calls Franzen the “most intelligent novelist” of Tanenhaus’s generation. Reading that, I had to wonder about New York “intellectuals” and feared that Franzen will become the literary Dale Carnegie of young writers, a model of how to win friends and influence people.
NPL: You seem exercised by the Franzen phenomenon.
TLC: I spent decades in the university assigning the work of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, Powers, and Danielewski as exemplars of one kind of important novel, the novel of ideas and systems, the type of book Franzen wrote in his youth. To see him take down Gaddis as “Mr. Difficult” and then to sell out for fortune and fame—and then to be considered a great novelist in serious journals—doesn’t just exercise me. It disgusts me and makes me wonder about the future of aesthetic judgments. Gaddis used to refer to Gresham’s Law, bad money driving out good. In the case of Jonathan Franzen, the law now appears to be governing literary criticism.
Tom LeClair, professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati, is the author of two critical books, six novels, and hundreds of reviews in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, BookForum, New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, The Barnes and Noble Review, and many other nationally circulated periodicals.