I try to get away from the damn thing, but it keeps coming at me. A friend visiting announced he had finished it on the airplane — did I want a look? There were emails, blog posts, multiple reviews in the same venue. And then, on vacation, in another country and in another language, there it was, in the Viennese bookstore window where I stopped to tie my shoe: FREIHEIT von Jonathan Franzen. It appears that everyone in the world is being stalked by Jonathan Franzen right now.
My proclamation that I was not going to read Freedom was beginning to make me look like a dick. Just read it already. What’s the big deal? It’ll take a few days, and then you will be a participant in the cultural zeitgeist, the document of our era, the book that made books relevant again. (At least, the book since Twilight. Or Harry Potter. Or the last Franzen, Corrections.) After all, the Guardian called it the book of the century. Surely you have to read that.
But no. Not in Vienna, not in New York, not on the plane, not in a box with a fox whatever the fuck, no. So just shut up about it.
My refusal is not about the silly dust-up about whether women writers are being ignored. Women writers are always being ignored — Jonathan Franzen has nothing to do with that. In fact, he has championed previously obscure, wonderful female writers such as Paula Fox and Christine Stead. Certainly that conversation got very weird very fast, with critics agreeing yes, they ignore female writers, it’s harder for them, the systemic sexism grinds away at women’s ambitions, their successes, their careers. And now that we’ve all acknowledged that, let’s just go back to the way things are, shall we? By acknowledging the problem most are going to believe that’s all they need to do, and nothing will change.
My refusal is also not grounded in the absurdity of the praise. Well, OK, maybe it has something to do with that. “Best book of the century” is the statement of someone who has given up. That is an incredibly pessimistic viewpoint to have, don’t you think? That 10 years into the century, this is the best we can possibly do? Or perhaps he means the last hundred years. Maybe the guy really didn’t like Ulysses; it’s hard to tell.
This all happened before. When The Corrections was released, Franzen and the critics had same slobbering make-out session. That book also kicked up a ridiculous debate about women’s writing (as represented by Oprah’s book club) versus men’s writing. The book itself reminded me of a Spielberg production, or at least one of his “serious” films. It worked very well as a product, it hit all the right notes at exactly the right moments, but one could always feel the creator manipulating things behind the scenes. OK, now I need the viewer/reader to cry, so let’s get that swelling music going/kill off the only character portrayed with any sympathy. I cried, but I was resentful about crying, and I was suspicious about the crying. It wasn’t the spontaneous, oh my god sobbing I had in the last moments of a film like The Lives of Others. These were cultivated tears. Franzen had planned for them.
And so I checked out of Freedom. I just didn’t care. But the build-up of attention, everyone in the literary world pretending that Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time was as important as James Joyce’s appearance on the same magazine, and the debate about sexism, and the proclamations and the fuss… surely one should just get over it, read the book so that one can make an informed opinion on the matter. But I dug in my heels. Instead I read Lewis Hyde. I read Helene Cixous and some Rebecca West. I started a weird passion for Hungarian literature. I went to see where a mid-19th century Italian opera meets the contemporary Budapestian love for the weird. (In case you were thinking I am just too sophisticated for Jonathan Franzen, I also watched several episodes of the hit CW show Supernatural.)
The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.
Of course there is no such thing as a must-read book. Maybe you should read some Tolstoy, but then again maybe not, if overly long descriptions of fields don’t really do anything for you, or if you have some problems with the whole woman-has-a-desire-and-so-must-die thing. Maybe you should check out some Jane Austen, but then again, Jane Austen is pretty boring and the whole marriage-as-life thing, I mean who really cares. There is Shakespeare, but you could spend a day arguing Hamlet versus King Lear versus Julius Caesar and never have a clear winner. There are celebrity issues with the must-reads, which few people acknowledge. I noticed this when I started rooting around in Hungarian literature, and none of the writers there would be considered Musts. Is it because Hungary has never produced a Flaubert? Never created a character as compelling or universal as Emma Bovary? Or simply because politics and celebrity and chance keep some people in the shadows and other people filling the entire spotlight with their bloated corpus. One of my favorite novels is Hungarian, which started this in the first place. But without similarly passionate people sifting through a nation’s literary output, like record labels’ signing every fashionably crap band in Seattle in the wake of Nirvana, we can make assumptions about the lack of quality Hungarian literature. Or literature by women. Or literature printed by small presses or self-published or printed online.
There is no such thing as a canon — what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works. If anything, the homogeneity of the responses to Freedom proves only the homogeneity we have in people discussing books in the U.S. It would take me, I’m guessing, four days to read Freedom, four short days out of my life. But here I am, refusing out of principle. I might think the book is a work of genius, the book of the century, but I’m willing to risk that loss, because the book I don’t read in place of Freedom might also be that book. I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored.
Did Franzen write the most important book of the century? Of course not. A series of circumstances — the right gender, a progression of increased skill and style, a controversy that stoked sales, an aura of seriousness paired with an ability to capture certain things that critics and readers enjoy in their fall reading — put him where he is. He probably didn’t even write the best book of the year, as if that could even be determined. The madness created around his book will continue for the rest of the year, if not longer now that Oprah is involved again, choosing it as her next book club pick. That isn’t going to make Freedom any better, or more profound. It’s simply going to make it more difficult to avoid reading. But there’s a new season of Supernatural starting up soon, so I imagine I’ll manage it somehow. • 22 September 2010