f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of “Why Bother?” - Times Have Changed

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, July 25, 2005

Day 1 of “Why Bother?” - Times Have Changed

“Why Bother?”, also known somewhat colloquially as “The Harper’s Essay”, is not a rant. It’s closer in tone to a lament, though that doesn’t quite capture it either. Yet another way to look at it is as a transcript of Jonathan Franzen’s “dark night of the soul” from a few years back. And if the thought of listening to a handsome, hip, intelligent, talented writer’s self-doubts sounds gag-inducing, you are unlikely to feel much mercy or sympathy for Mr. Franzen and his book-chic eyeglasses.

A few things to remember though.

1. This was written before The Corrections so Franzen was, at that point, a generally ignored mid-list author trying to figure out his place in the world. And the novel's place too, particularly the thoughtful "social" novel. The essay is made mildly ironic by all that followed, but that context is important. If he was writing it AFTER The Corrections, it would be insufferable.

2. Ultimately, the essay's title gets resolution. It's not "Why Bother?" as in its time to throw in the towel, but a determined effort to place his desire to write within some definable social context that would make sense. After all, he turned from this essay to write perhaps the most acclaimed novel of 2001.

3. Jonathan Franzen is so mortally invested in notions of literary fiction, popular, popular literary fiction, etc. that he ended up ticking off Oprah...at her most powerful. And got himself uninvited from her show. These are not idle concepts to him.

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I'm going to cherry-pick points from the essay. It's worth reading if you can find a copy, but going through it fully seems unhelpful.

First, we need to be aware that Franzen's concern is about not "literary" fiction but the "social novel." The two are often equated, but the social novels primary goal is cultural engagement--a novel that would challenge, instruct, inform, and, hopefully, energize readers to action or protest. Think Dickens' Hard Times. Or Heller's Catch-22.

Whether we like it or not, the days of the novel being culture's primary tool for social activism are long gone. TV, film, and now the Internet have superseded it. Novelists are like elephants, however--long in memory and short on ability to make sharp turns. We don't like to cede territory, especially to "low" arts like film and TV.

Franzen's point is that's it not a matter of whether one form is better than the other. It's a matter of simple technology and the speed at which our culture works now. Unless he's a prophet, the novelist has no chance to stand on equal ground as a filmmaker, whose images are instantly ready for dispersal. Or even a TV show who employs not just a single writer but teams and scads of researchers We are outdated on topical issues.

Which means the "social" novel must turn to its other operating realm. For this Franzen points to Flannery O'Connor and her suggestion that the novel is intended to "embody mystery through manners." It is, in other words, a dissection of "life and how we try to live it." Even here, however, Franzen sees our modern world stealing ground from novelists. "Mystery," those great unknowns in our life, are filled in by consumerism that suggests every need can be filled. And "manners," our interaction with each other, is increasingly diminished as we retreat further away from each other into our own private Idahos.

The novels that tend to sell spectacularly offer mostly entertainment...or if they do tackle a particular issue, address it from only one POV (ie The DaVinci Code correlative). Answers are given. No mysteries are raised.

And the handsome, talented, intelligent, hip writer is left alone is his SoHo loft, pondering what to do next. A single tear, perhaps, staining the lens of his $750 glasses.

Tomorrow we'll start looking at how Franzen stopped moping about and wrote that most elusive of beasts: a literary bestseller.
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Go to Day 2 of our discussion of "Why Bother?"