It’s been a bad week for good faith in the Penny Press. Bad enough Us Weekly ran a picture of Joe Jonas apparently preparing to kiss a girl (even the National Enquirer would’ve scrupled at that), worse still that National Geographic should so conspicuously lend its imprimatur to a glorified tomb-raider, but worst of all – at least from our bookish point of view here at Stevereads – is the full-blown orb-and-scepter coronation Sam Tanenhaus bestows on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom in The New York Times Book Review.

The iniquity isn’t that Tanenhaus liked the book – because despite appearances, he keeps his personal reactions entirely to himself in the course of a very long, glowing review. No, if he liked the book and wrote it a love-letter this long and gushing, I could live with that. I’d be disgusted, but I wouldn’t be nearly as disgusted as I am by what Tanenhaus decided to do instead.

This huge encomium (titled “Peace and War,” as if there weren’t already enough travesties going out to Westchester County this week) isn’t the result of Tanenhaus really liking Freedom – it’s the result of Tanenhaus’ entirely political decision that The New York Times Book Review (of which he’s the editor) should really like Jonathan Franzen. This isn’t high-minded literary debate; it’s the cat-fighting that precedes a small-town high school class president election. Oprah Winfrey started things by stepping waaaay outside her comfort zone to nominate Franzen’s last unreadably awful doorstop, The Corrections, for her happy, embracing Book Club. Franzen played the ‘inchoate integrity’ card for all it was worth, and the American public gobbled it up (The Corrections surely contends with Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker as the most-bought unread book of the last fifty years). Just last week, Time magazine nominated Franzen as the best novelist since Jesus Christ. Tanenhaus spotted a wave and hopped on his board.

The man’s an excellent writer (those of you who haven’t read his biography of Whittaker Chambers are urged in all sincerity to drop everything and do so), and that makes it all the more sadly easy to tell when he’s not even present for his own review. Pretty much as soon as his first sentence, “Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, ‘Freedom,’ like his previous one, ‘The Corrections,’ is a masterpiece of American fiction,” it’s obvious this is going to be one of those times. All the hallmarks of boilerplate are here, and good boilerplate it is, too – but it bears almost no relation to what Tanenhaus says (or how he says it) when he’s genuinely saying what he thought about a book. Instead, it’s virtually bent double under the anxiety of the Reviewer’s Remorse.

The Reviewer’s Remorse goes something like this: I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, and I like to think I run my blog/literary review/library desk/major publishing industry taste-maker with the same amount of independent thinking. But I don’t want to be one of those critics who hated Book X when it first came out and now looks like a jackass because it’s gone on to become an enshrined piece of the canon. I’ll do anything, literally anything, to avoid that.

Even a casual glance at history should amply demonstrate the absolute futility of the Reviewer’s Remorse. Names that were venerated a hundred, fifty, or even twenty-five years ago are today nearly-forgotten footnotes. Yes, quickie laugh-getters of the “Rotten Reviews” variety routinely collect all the initial negative notices of now-respected novels like Pride & Prejudice (dissed by a Bronte sister, no less!) or Joyce’s Ulysses (famously panned by Virginia Woolf). And yes, such reviews spark a certain frisson – but it’s a fraudulent one: it stems from the vague idea that in literature there’s a presiding true genius that will out.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The howling irony of Reviewer’s Remorse is that it directly inverts the power-structure: critics don’t just stand around taking guesses (some lucky, some not) at what the true greats of the literary canon are going to be in twenty-five, fifty, and a hundred years – they determine it. They always have, and they should.

But only the honest critics, and this review of Freedom is deeply, blandly dishonest. An honest critic couldn’t write “Assaultive sex reverberates through ‘Freedom,’ and why not? Sex is the most insistent of the ‘personal liberties,’ and for Franzen the most equalizing. One is at a loss to think of another male American writer so at ease with – that is, so genuinely curious about – the economy of female desire: the pull and tug of attraction and revulsion, the self-canceling wants.”

Do you know what Tanenhaus means by insistent personal liberties? Why he creates the odious euphemism “assaultive sex” when he’s talking about rape? What he means when he calls sex the “most equalizing” personal liberty, when that very notion flies in the face of 17,000 years of human experience? Why he equates comfort with curiosity? Why he uses the synonyms ‘pull’ and ‘tug’ in parallel with the antonyms ‘attraction’ and ‘revulsion’? What on Earth a ‘self-canceling want’ is? No? Neither do I. And neither does he. The point of this kind of prose isn’t to say anything – it’s to sound like you’re saying something. It’s the smart kid in the back of the class using lazy-clever short cuts to get his homework done. And the assignment here is to make sure The New York Times Book Review experiences no Reviewer Remorse when it comes to Jonathan Franzen.

Fundamentally, this is the way a reviewer writes when he doesn’t believe what he’s writing. And in this case it’s appropriate enough, because in Freedom Franzen has written a nearly 600-page novel in which he doesn’t believe a single godforsaken word. Every particle of the book’s grotesquely self-indulgent length is pure artifice, pure hypocrisy, pure lie. Franzen started out with the idea of mocking certain things – most especially the specific kind of mindlessly opinionated and entitled suburbanites with whom he spends his every waking minute and whose ranks he himself long ago joined, if indeed he was ever outside them to begin with – but he found he actually liked them instead, viewed them as genuine civilizing forces (just for clarification: you and I, no matter who we are? We’re the ones who need civilizing). But rather than abandon the envisioned evisceration, he thought to turn it elaborately, I’m-smarter-than-you-can-even-see faux-satirical, pretending to hate the thing he loves in order to torture it a little. Call it assaultive fiction. And even that quasi-plan fell apart completely, probably after endless nights spent drinking and endless mid-mornings spent speed-writing to make page counts. What’s left – what gets published to unprecedented fanfare this week and collects a National Book Award (at least) in a few months – is nothing at all, a rote exercise in verbiage.

It might be fitting that a book whose own author doesn’t care about it at all would generate essays from reviewers who don’t care about their own verdicts at all, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. When Sam Tanenhaus isn’t resorting to Reviewer Remorse hedge-betting blather, he’s a first-rate writer, and I prize first-rate writers: I’ve always wished I were one, and I consider them incredibly thin on the ground. So naturally, after trudging through Tanenhaus lines like “Franzen’s world-historical preoccupations also shape, though less delicately, his big account of the home front – the seething national peace that counterpoises the foreign war,” I went in search of some sort of corrective, somebody actually talking about Freedom.

In addition to Tanenhaus, the field of American literary reviews also sports two other first-rate critics of the current fictive zeitgeist, both also named Sam: there’s Sam Anderson, who writes for New York magazine, and there’s Sam Sacks, who’s the editor of Open Letters Monthly and yet reviewed the new Franzen for The Wall Street Journal (one can only assume they pay better, although it’s hard to believe they could match the droit de siegneur). These two never let me down; Anderson is funnier than Sacks (this isn’t difficult – the spinning ceiling-fan above my head is also funnier than Sacks), but Sacks has an oddly magisterial probity that no critic currently writing can quite match. Between them, they almost always manage to say everything that needs saying about any present-day male novelist (needless to say, they’re both flailingly helpless when reviewing women – but then, I don’t notice Jill Lepore or Nancy Franklin stepping forward to review Franzen either).

Except this time, alas. Like Tanenhaus, like most of the best critics, Anderson and Sacks are also afflicted with Reviewer Remorse – Franzen must bring it out in reviewers, what with his ostentatiously domestic purview and the odd, Howard Hughesian stretch of time between The Corrections and this new book (a stretch of time Trollope and Dickens would have disdained; a stretch of time not warranted by anything at all actually in the novel; a stretch of time that is almost always, in my experience with writers, caused by alcohol). Like Tanenhaus, neither of these other Sams wants to believe that Freedom could simply be bad, even though, like Tanenhaus, they experienced not one moment of personal pleasure while reading it (hugely significant that both Anderson and Sacks call the book addictive, with all the word connotes of involuntary and even degrading participation). In this context Anderson’s rather reaching invocation of David Foster Wallace can be seen as the desperate hail-mary side-step of somebody who knows he’s backing the wrong horse and is too invested (or under orders) to admit it. And that’s nothing compared to what Sacks does in the Journal – for a writer as reverential of his sources as Sacks is to drag Milton into a review of Jonathan effing Franzen (Sacks also quotes William Blake, gawd help us all, just to make sure nobody gets out alive) … well, no matter what else it is, it’s certainly a cry for help.

And this is just the beginning, of course. If The New York Times Book Review is comparing Franzen to Tolstoy this week, next week The Sacramento Bee will be comparing him to the author of the Book of Genesis. It’s depressing, not only because the book itself is such a completely cynical waste of time but also because of what the coronation says about the American literary landscape. Franzen costs Farrar, Straus & Giroux the rough equivalent of twenty-five talented authors who’ve never feuded with Oprah, and this makes two novels in a row in which he’s done absolutely nothing to compensate for that loss. Is the republic of letters really so hard up for good writers that it needs to go down on its knees to this lazy charlatan? On what meat doth this Franzen feed, that he hath grown so great?

  • DOUG

    Mr. Donoghue,
    Your essay strikes me as a very sophisticated , well written summary of your real feelings on this subject matter.
    Its like hearing from a friend saying refreshingly,
    ” you know what ? I’m tired of this bullshit .. and here’s why!”.
    As usual, from you, damn good and incisive, (and amusing).

  • David

    Thank you so much for this remarkable piece of writing: funny, clever, and illuminating. I don’t know how we define “first-rate writer” but you are certainly a damned good one. Like many people I have been watching Franzen’s coronation in amazement. In Britain, the book is still some weeks from publication and newspapers are drooling over it as if the second coming were at hand — and it’s all so coercive: as if powerful forces were at work to compel us to worship Franzen, no matter what. I’ve read his three previous novels. All of them to me seemed interesting in parts but deeply boring and pretentious in others. I found “Strong Motion” the most entertaining, though it’s essentially an eco-thriller, and a rather silly one, with “literary” flourishes (and the scene told from the point of view of a raccoon, with which so many people are impressed, isn’t a patch on the dog’s-eye sequence in “Anna Karenina”). “The Twenty-Seventh City” is thin and unconvincing, deeply dull for interminable stretches. “The Corrections” is vastly overblown and in places actively repulsive. Its legendary status is bewildering. God spare us from Great American Novelists and their Great American Novels.

  • Pingback: Reading Franzen’s Freedom » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism()

  • Josh

    Turns out J-Franz is not getting another National Book Award. And the NBA committee is getting many angry emails from Franzoids, who think he should get it every time he publishes a book, on accounta he’s Our Greatest Living Author.

© 2007-2019, Steve Donoghue