Today, an act of rebellion. I'm going to break a rule. It's a rule I set for myself, so maybe that means I'm not really rebelling at all. Can you be The Man trying to keep yourself down? Is it Fighting the Power if the Power is you? These are questions for a philosopher. Or perhaps, with a little rhyming and a generous dose of anapestic tetrameter, Dr. Seuss. ("I asked I and myself and I even asked me -- if you're oppressing yourself, how oppressed could you be?")
The rule I'm going to break is this: Don't criticize a fellow writer unless you're going to do it properly -- behind his or her back at a convention, preferably while drunk. In the age of Google Alerts, any on-the-record nastiness is sure to be discovered sooner or later, and I have no desire to make life harder for a fellow scribe. That's what critics and the accountants who calculate royalties are for.
An aside: I just realized I could use Google Alerts for good. Let's direct some good vibes to the deserving.
We now return you to our previously scheduled negativity.
I figure it's okay for me to criticize this particular writer, because (A) he's endured much worse than what I'm about to dish out, (B) he wouldn't give a crap what someone like me thought of him and (C) he's the last guy in the world who should be Googling himself anyway. According to him, it's not a zombie apocalypse we should be worried about. It's the Internet that's going to turn us all into drooling, mindlessly consuming monsters. To which I say: Don't sweat it, dude. TV did that already. You should stay focused on your number-one concern -- the suffering of f-ed up upper-middle-class white folks.
Cheap shot! Sorry! I haven't read enough Jonathan Franzen to say something like that. And hey -- someone's gotta write about f-ed up upper-middle-class white folks. It's not like 20,000 MFA students (and all their teachers) are writing about them this very moment, right?
Oh, it's Jonathan Franzen I've been thinking of, BTW. You know, the guy who jumped up and down on Oprah's couch ranting about how her viewers were bourgeois pigs and he was in love love love!!! with Katie Holmes. Or was that James Frey?
Anyway, Franzen is America's greatest novelist (according to Time Magazine and, if I'm not mistaken, Cat Fancy and Juggs, as well). Yet I don't have the slightest desire to pick up a doorstop like Freedom and read it. Those doors won't keep themselves open, darn it! Plus, I read a short story of Franzen's in The New Yorker once, and it didn't do the one thing I ask of miserabilist art: TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW. If your message is "Life can suck," you've failed the test. The message I got from Franzen's story was "Boy, some of those 1 percenters sure are dysfunctional." Which isn't "Life can suck," but it's not much better.
(Cheap Shot Mea Culpa #2: I don't think Franzen actually writes about 1 percenters. For the record, they're probably more like 3.764 percenters.)
I started thinking about Franzen recently after reading a couple of great blog posts by my pal Sophie Littlefield. Sophie was spanking NPR lit critic Alan Cheuse for...well, being all lit crit. (Sophie wasn't literally spanking him on her blog, of course. The spanking's on YouTube.) You can read what she wrote here and here. It speaks for itself -- and very well, too.
Sophie astutely picks up on the condescension and catering to snobbishness in Cheuse's review of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. This is "a beach book you won't mind being seen with this summer," Cheuse says. Because screw enjoyment -- what's really important about a book is how people will perceive us if we're caught reading it.
(Cheap Shot Mea Culpa #3: If I were reading, say, Spock Must Die! in a Starbucks, I would be tempted to wrap it in an issue of The Economist.)
Bottom line: It's all about taste. Critics and fans of "contemporary literature" (and let's please not start trying to figure out what that is) tend to admire writers of downbeat, plotless navel-gazery, such as Franzen. This won't always be the case because, on the macro level, tastes change. On the micro level -- me -- tastes don't shift as much over time (though I'm not as likely to read Spock Must Die! as I once was.) So....
The critics will tell you that plot's déclassé.
But I don't fret about what they have to say.
Just read what you want and go your own way.
Cuz the day will come, friend, when even Franzen's passé.