Jonathan Franzen: A Defense

Don't Mistake This for a Literary Debate 
Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 1 2001 5:50 PM

Jonathan Franzen: A Defense

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

 

But Chris: Did the Partisan Review crowd quibble over seals and jacket covers? Don't mistake this for a literary debate; for that see the continuing furor over Franzen's 1996 Harper's essay on the decline of the social novel. Covergate is really about Oprah's Book Club; people have been dissing or praising it since its inception, and Franzen's red-faced dithering has made The Corrections into an unwitting referendum on the club. Some variation on the same dust-up would have occurred if Oprah had picked any chic, complex, highly praised novel. So if this is a literary debate, it's the most tiresome kind, the kind that's about everything in the universe but the book itself (which is a shame; as I'll explain in a second, some discussion of the content of the book would add worthy, important fuel to the debate, possibly elevating it to the kind of discussion you ask for). If everyone who's followed this debate had actually read The Corrections, Franzen wouldn't need Oprah's sales help.

Advertisement

And Eliza, I just don't buy the Franzen-is-a-rube line. The guy's a master of nuance, social analysis, expression, word choice. He's published three well-acclaimed novels. He's been interviewed by everyone in the universe. And the maxim he's violated is the most basic, clichéd one in the book, and about a book: He's judged one by its cover. Worse, he's judged his own book. And even worse than that, he's done so in a way that betrays his characters and makes him seem like a different Jonathan Franzen than the one who created this entrancing novel. As Laura Miller alludes to in this wisely argued Salon piece, Franzen wrote a generous, unsnobby book. In fact, his heroine, Enid, is the kind of consumer who would opt to buy the Oprah-endorsed cover over the plain one. Franzen's slow vindication of Enid is utterly moving, convincing, and there's not an ounce of condescension in it either. It's disappointing that he can't muster the same largeness of spirit in life that he does on the page—it's like seeing a priest steal or a judge lie. And a bad publicity move, of course: If Franzen had been clearheaded and sensible enough to tell readers, "Just read the book, forget what's on the outside," maybe they would listen.

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 16 2014 12:15 PM “Human Life Is Frightfully Cheap”: A 1900 Petition to Make Lynching a Federal Offense
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 8:41 PM You’re Cut, Adrian Peterson Why fantasy football owners should release the Minnesota Vikings star.