Jonathan Franzen came of age at the same time as the internet. But he and his peers are more 19th century than 21st, says Richard Beckby Richard Beck / April 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Jonathan Franzen is the most famous and influential writer of his generation—so why can’t he stop complaining?
Farther Away By Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, £16.99)
Lightning Rods By Helen DeWitt (And Other Stories, published 1st October 2012)
Only five years ago, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides were seen as simply a group of middle-aged American novelists. In 2008, however, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. In the flood of eulogies, remembrances, and appreciations that followed, a new consensus rapidly emerged: Wallace and his peers, it was agreed, constituted an American literary generation. What Bellow, Updike, and Roth had been to America in the decades following the second world war, these writers were to America in the internet age.
It’s hard, though, to constitute a literary generation nowadays. YouTube, Twitter, blogs about cats—new entertainments come streaming over our wireless connections every day, and for the modern novelist these entertainments often have ominous undertones. “These cat photos are a little too funny,” he thinks. “How will anyone find the time to read my long book?” Wallace made entertainment itself the antagonist in his near-future dystopia, Infinite Jest. Eugenides, in his recent novel The Marriage Plot, takes postmodern literary theory as an object of suspicion: why can’t we just enjoy a good old novel with an intricate plot?
Yet it is Jonathan Franzen who has done the most to sound the alarm about the apparently idiotic times we live in. No American writer is more celebrated (Time magazine put him on the cover with the headline, “Great American Novelist”). No American writer is more powerful, either. Who else could be invited to Oprah’s “Book Club,” turn down the invitation, and then be re-invited after publishing another book? Franzen’s opinions on technology, which are no more nuanced than my grandfather’s, are reported as cultural news. His books, which appear once every five years or so, are “events” in an industry that sorely needs them.
The essays collected in Franzen’s new book, Farther Away, include appreciations of obscure novels, narrative pieces on bird-watching and environmental decline, short meditations on family, eulogies for dead friends, and even a fake, satirical interview with the State of New York. It is a diverse—or maybe the word is haphazard—set of writings. Look closely, though, and you will notice a common thread, one shared by the other members of Franzen’s generation: Jonathan Franzen never stops complaining.