Jonathan Franzen: A Defense

Don't Mistake This for a Literary Debate 
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Nov. 1 2001 5:50 PM

Jonathan Franzen: A Defense

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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.

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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.