Sunday, August 22, 2010

We link ..

... you decide: Jonathan Franzen vs. Richard Stark: Which Writer Really “Knows” the World?

Fom Ed's reply to a comment:
In deciding which novelist “knows” more about the world, here are things to look for: how much can you picture the respective operations, which writer is more specific, which writer holds the reader’s hand more, which writer is more interested in the world that he is writing about?



  1. If as sometimes seems to be the case, people inhabit worlds different from each—making a worldview into a world—neither of these passages is more realistic than the other, from my viewpoint, and both of them fail to "realistically' describe my world and the people in it. How are we to judge which is more realistic, despite Ed's suggestion on how to do so, when neither experience nor imagination connect the writing to our own lives? I find I care for neither passage particularly much.

  2. Frank: Thanks for the link.

    Art: It's purely a subjective test, of course. And it's good to see at least one person willing to choose neither. The point here is to address whether literature succeeds in permitting the reader to "know" a world, taking what I thought to be a rather preposterous (and frankly irresponsible) observation by Sam Tanenhaus to its natural level. (If you read his review, you'll see that he applauds Franzen for "knowing" that freshmen are called "first years," and that this flimsy justification is one of the reasons he calls FREEDOM a masterpiece.)

    But beyond this framing, it's an interesting litmus test on what novels can do. I'm genuinely curious. What novel(s) do you feel realistically depicts your world?

  3. Hi Ed, thanks for the additional thoughts. I did think that Tanenhaus was pretty wildly off-base. So that part of the exercise I did get.

    The interesting aspect of the question, which I thought about later, is that sometimes more stylized prose actually seems more realistic, and that "realistic" prose often seems either bland or unreal.

    I'm thinking of stylists like Raymond Chandler, who even though his writing is stylized, in novels such as "Farewell, My Lovely" seems very realistic, especially in terms of character and dialogue. Granted, Chandler was often weak on plot; but plot is also the most non-real aspect of most novels. In the stylized vs. "realistic" category, "Moby Dick" also stands out; I find Melville to be generally far more realistic than Dickens, for example.

    Real life, as Virginia Woolf asserted, is not orderly in arrangement, but often random and full of synchronicities. For that matter, I find Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" to one of the more realistic novels I've ever read. So is E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India." (I spent the first half of my childhood in India, and few Euro-American writers have ever gotten India as "real" as Forster.) Jim Harrison's writing is also resonant with my world.

    But to be completely honest, I find most "mainstream literary fiction" to be quite unreal to me. I find more poetry that depicts my world than I do novels.

  4. Art: You may be interested in this Boston Phoenix article on Franzenmania, which I think spells out the problem.

    "But the upshot is that Freedom has been coopted by an embattled critic class who're busy foisting something from which they've sucked all the joy onto a public they don't seem to respect. No wonder people don't read novels."

  5. Thanks, Ed! (And thanks to Frank as well for the same link!)

    I agree that this article does a good job spelling out the problem. This paragraph really stood out for me:

    "If you are a literate human who lives on planet Earth, you probably have an opinion about Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections," Sam Anderson wrote in reviewing Freedom for New York magazine. In that one sentence, Anderson pinpoints the fraught relationship the mainstream book critic has with his audience. Will those of us who don't have an opinion about The Corrections hang our heads in shame? Will we rush out to the local library? Will we crumple our magazine in anger and toss it at the dental receptionist's head? Or will we sigh, relieved that we're not among the self-satisfied?

    LOL I guess I'm not a literate human, because I have no opinion. My temptation is to sigh in relief, as indicated, that I'm not among the self-satisfied.