I'll admit that I enjoyed The Corrections more so than this book, but I thought this was a very good novel. I'm confused as to why there is such a discrepancy between reactions to novels by Jonathan Franzen. Both this novel and The Corrections received almost universal acclaim from critics, and, judging from reviews on this site, heavily polarize readers. I personally think these novels deserve the acclaim they receive, and wish that another deserving novel (Infinite Jest by Franzen's late friend David Foster Wallace) had received the same highly positive reviews and awards. So, why do Franzen's books polarize readers so? Is it a visceral reaction to the amount of hype they receive? Is there something about his writing that is particularly aversive to the general reading audience? There are plenty of writers who are much more challenging than Franzen who do not receive such mixed reactions. I just wonder what it is about Franzen that does this. Any thoughts? Please just to keep the discussion intelligent and objective; I tend to ignore any reviews that complain about it being boring, and et cetera.
I think a book, if it triggers anger or any other type of emotion, or postive emotion, loved the book, characters, etc, that it classifies as a good book because the author has somehow triggered these emotions in the reader. I've only just started the book, a few pages, so I can't comment any more but it is interesting how there is a even balance of some hating the book and those loving it!
Haynes - yesterday I read a review in the Atlantic that attacks Freedom (and the corrections) on several points.
1) Franzen is a poor writer. In support of this, the author criticizes what he regards as a poor use of vocabulary to define the world of the book, tangled syntax, and pop phrasing that cheapens the story. He also is critical of Patty's autobiography inserted into the story and Franzen's turgid prose.
2) Uninteresting characters (ok, he uses the banned word extensive in describing the characters).
3) An uninteresting story. Rhetorically he turns Tolstoy on Franzen (and other unnamed contemporary authors) when he alludes to T's comment on happy and unhappy families by offering that every unhappy family is not worth writing about.
I think that fairly well covers it: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/10/smaller-than-life/8212/1.
Realizing that there is no such thing as unanimity when it comes to how a reader sees a novel, I can see his points, although that's not the way I see Freedom.
I think a great many people fail to separate the text from the author, also. In Franzen's case, that's unfortunate. I understand from several eyewitness accounts that Franzen not embarrassing himself, or anyone else, as he did in promoting The Corrections.
Personally, Franzen's latest two novels match up well with what I look for in a book, but I can see many of his critics' points.
I have read the review in the Atlantic. I disagreed with this article on a number of points, which is no surprise since it is by B.R. Myers, a critic with whom I have heavily disagreed in the past. He has heavily disparaged Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo; I think most readers of contemporary literary fiction will agree that this denotes sub par judgment. I don't understand these populist leaning critics like this. Do they think that all literature should be extremely accessible, contain a briskly moving plot, and pose no challenge? Do most people no longer be challenged by literature, something which can be very rewarding if one is a patient reader. If this was the consensus in the past, we may not have novels by writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.
B - I have no problem giving Myers credit for bringing up reasonable criticisms of Freedom, although I don't agree with them.
An underlying reason that I didn't bring up before, but I think comes into play is the underlying message in Freedom, and that is that it doesn't exist as is popularly perceived. It seems to me that the freedom in Freedom is rooted in the philosopher David Hume's musings. Hume's metaphor to describe the lack of cause and effect can be found on p.218 in Richard's brilliant description of the iPod nation. That passage describes a fragmented world lacking a center. Hume's metaphor - this time pinball instead of billiards - crops up again on p.318 when Walter feels like a pinball knocked around in a universe of dissociated individuals. Walter cites "no controlling narrative," and feels like "a purely reactive pinball in a game."
I haven't finished yet, and as usual reserve the right to be wrong, but Freedom is describing the root of uncertainty that we are facing today. If there is no cause and effect, then good deeds do not reap good results, and the same can be said for bad. Randomness, not cause and effect rule, and even readers who can't re-cognize that I suspect sense it at some level and be uncomfortable with the uncertainty posed by Freedom.
I would agree with the comparison to David Hume. The anxiety caused by freedom in the book does illustrate the anxiety caused by lacking some sort of center or life narrative. This may be an obvious comparison, but it brings to mind the notions of existentialism brought up by Sartre and Camus. For Sartre, complete freedom is a burden because one must create meaning and control for one's self.
Honestly? Having read the last few negative reviews stating that the premise of Freedom is that freedom is bad, I think some readers are put off by Franzen's unabashed left-leaning politics. From open discussion of drug use, to the Iraq war, to the environment, his positions are very clearly stated. I imagine a lot of readers disagree and their views perhaps diminished (or totally wiped out) their enjoyment of this book. I happen to agree with his politics but I do wonder how I would feel about this book had his positions on the war or the environment been different.
Well, first off the bat, I'd hesitate to speculate on Franzen's political views based on this book. The characters on the "liberal" (heh, in a right central political spectrum where there really is no left to speak of it's difficult to think of liberals) side of the spectrum don't come off particularly well either. If Franzen has written a political novel, and I don't think he has, he's shooting out the windows on both sides of main street.
Not sure about any existential influence, although that may be due to my nearly complete ignorance of them. I tried reading them many decades ago, but got nowhere with their thinking. But "self" may be the protagonist of this novel. On p.192, Richard is questing to relocate the self he misplaced. Walter is blind to Patty's self because he so wants to see good in a person after coming from his dysfunctional family. Patty can only find herself on a basketball court. Joey is on a quest to belong (find a parking space for his self?). His girlfriend Connie is looking for her self in Joey. Even in a world where GPSes are so available, it's hard to find self through all the fibbing.
BHaynes wrote: "[B.R. Myers] has heavily disparaged Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo; I think most readers of contemporary literary fiction will agree that this denotes sub par judgment."
Oh, I'm sorry--I must have missed the memo informing the reading public that if we are critical of Popular Authors X and Y, our judgment is "sub-par."
You also managed (unsurprisingly) to completely miss Myers's point, which is that classical authors like Woolf have very little in common with contemporary writers like DeLillo and McCarthy--where Woolf wrote with pathos, McCarthy writes with bathos, and so on. Further, the literati's insistence on the ineffable brilliance of writers like DeLillo et al serves to alienate readers from literary fiction en masse, including the likes of classic modernists like Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner (all of whom Myers venerates).
(I think Myers's grievance is with postmodernist literature as a whole; he clearly prefers modernist.)
But, please, don't let me interrupt your litany of unsupported generalizations.
Well, Lane, I did. Maybe it's because I'm half blind, but I didn't see it that way. But I will leave it to you and Leah to be the final judges of snark. Frankly, I was looking forward to exchanging some thoughts and perception about a book, not getting caught in the middle of a pissing war between people with the emotional maturity of a sixth grader.
Haynes: "He [Myers] has heavily disparaged Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo; I think most readers of contemporary literary fiction will agree that this denotes sub par judgment."
Yes, the sub-par judgment claim would be true of readers who consume ONLY popular contemporary fiction. In comparison with writers of earlier literary styles and eras, today's schmucks fall short; they also fall short in comparison to lesser known contemporary writers (Dara Horn, Nathan Englander, etc). But yes, Haynes is right in a sense: if we read only the stuff that the media dumps on us, and are unaware of other works with which to compare, Delillo, et al. end up looking okay.
The reasons for which I think B.R. Myers has sub par judgment is the fact that he refuses to view most contemporary literature objectively. His criticisms often contradict each other: he has denounced Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo for being pretentious and isolating readers, while criticizing Franzen for using contemporary idioms in his writing. I will add that Joyce too used idiomatic speech of his time and place in his writing, and one certainly has to admit that many of these writers whom he reveres were somewhat pretentious as well. I admit that Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf are three of my favorite writers, and I think that they are much better writers than Jonathan Franzen overall.
I do not simply read "the stuff that the media dumps on us;" I agree that Dara Horn and Nathan Englander are underrated- I would add Marilynne Robinson and Tobias Wolff to that list. However, I certainly wouldn't refer to McCarthy, Delillo, and Franzen as "schmucks" simply because they receive attention from the media. I would also like to point out that the media did not promote Cormac McCarthy until a few years ago, and they say little about Suttree, which I would consider to be his best book. It was not my intention to be snarky or deliberately offensive; I was simply trying to have a discussion about the mixed reactions to this book, not start a message board fight.
To answer your original question: Franzen polarizes for two reasons. First, his politics. For the record, he is a somewhat radical lefty. Chip in 'The Corrections' was his foil. Since his writing is political, it will offend some and galvanize others right off the bat. I thought Franzen did a good job of skewering people of all types across the political spectrum in 'The Corrections', but I think he tipped his hand in 'Freedom'.
Second, he IS an elitist, though a self-aware and self-loathing one. Both 'The Corrections' and 'Freedom' are about smart, educated, informed white people. I've seen a number of people complain about his insistence on 25 cent words. I don't have a problem with that, but then, I fall into his target demographic.
I started this post off with a bunch of other reasons, but now these are the only two that come to mind.
Because he reduces and quite accurately describes a state of being anyone who is not clinically depressed or intelligent enough to be constantly at odds with our society cannot comprehend. This is a work of elegant genius meant to be appreciated and understood by the more affluent and sensitive portion of our populace. There is unlikely a Republican on the planet who can commiserate with the concerns of his characters, and the order of the day in this country is to further the cult of machismo, the "grin and bear it" ideology that to feel pain, express pain, or explore pain is to succumb. We are so fond of telling others how worse off they could be, well for once someone explored and presented the deep, constant pains this society inflicts on anyone with less than the feral competitive streak we now demand round the clock.
To me the book is about the sadness and resulting anger of being so powerless in this frightening world and then trying to make sense of that loss of power by defining FREEDOM as understanding and accepting that loss, being horribly depressed by it, and still moving on. The genius of the book means people are going to either love it or hate it but that means the author succeeded in writing a great novel. Sure, it is intellectuals who will love, analyze and dissect it, but for those who make it through and still hate it I imagine it will still strike a chord that will reverberate for a very long time.
Differences in taste are less obvious in books perhaps than in music or food for example. Some tastes lean toward Brittany Spears while others prefer Bocelli. Some like McDonalds while others prefer fillet mignon. Franzen strikes me as a "Pizza Hut" level author.
For those who argue that Franzen is a "radical lefty", I counter that he also skewers the liberals in Freedom. He makes Walter into a dangerous nutcase, Lalitha into a rigid doctrinaire enviro, and paints the Republican Joey as a young man with a conscience.
I'd say he is more the level of an independent restaurant that touts 'locally sourced" ingredients to make meatloaf or similar fare (with a twist!). At any rate, the customers of such a restaurant would definitely be his readers.