Just weeks after a prominent critic proclaimed American literary fiction dead, Time magazine featured a living author on its cover - for the first time in 10 years. William Skidelsky talks to Jonathan Franzen, who returns to the fray with a new book - and ecstatic reviews.
Jonathan Franzen, best known - until now - for his multi- generational epic about a midwestern family, The Corrections, which came out in the week of 9/11 and was one of the most talked about (and best-selling) novels of the last decade.
It has taken Franzen nine years to complete his follow-up, Freedom, which is about to be published in the United States. Understandably, Franzen hasn't significantly departed from the template that served him so well last time.
The novel is another multi- generational epic that microscopically examines the tensions within an outwardly successful but inwardly unhappy midwestern family. There are striking plot similarities: both books feature get-rich-quick schemes and copious extra-marital affairs. It has been suggested, in fact, that the main difference between the two is that, while the family in The Corrections had three children, the family at the centre of Freedom - the Berglunds - have just two.
Time's decision to make Franzen its cover star two weeks ago is intriguing, for reasons both obvious and less straightforward. Ever since The Corrections appeared, 50-year-old Franzen has been regarded as one of America's most important novelists, a leading member of the generation down from the "old guard" of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and John Updike that dominated US fiction from the 1950s until at least 2000.
The appearance of a new novel by him, especially after such a long absence, is a major literary event, which it is appropriate for Time to honour.
Yet at the same time it was hard to miss the awkward, almost apologetic tone of Time's coverage, as if the magazine's editors were conscious of the fact that they were doing something irregular in giving such prominence to an unashamedly highbrow writer, one who has, moreover, often been criticised in the past for being aloof, curmudgeonly and elitist. (His sniffy response when The Corrections was selected for Oprah's Book Club led to Oprah Winfrey rescinding her invitation.)
Underneath the words "Great American Novelist", Time's strapline ran: "He's not the richest or most famous. His characters don't solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future. But in his new novel, Jonathan Franzen shows us all the way we live now." It isn't hard to unpick the subtext here: "Remember, folks, there's such a thing as serious literature; it has little to do with Dan Brown or Harry Potter, and these days most of us tend to ignore it, but it's actually kind of important."
The first few paragraphs of Time's profile continued in the same vein: they described Franzen standing next to an otter-filled estuary while indulging his favourite non-literary pastime, birdwatching, near his summer home in Santa Cruz, California. "Otters," the article's author, Lev Grossman, writes, are a "legally threatened species". And in case readers don't get the point being made, he adds: "Franzen is a member of another perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist."
Anxieties about the status of the literary novel in American culture may be perennial, but in recent months they have been much to the fore.
In June, critic Lee Siegel published a broadside in the New York Observer entitled "Where have all the Mailers gone?" in which he proclaimed the novel to be "culturally irrelevant".
The golden age of American fiction, he wrote, was the decades following World War II, when new works by Bellow, Roth, John Cheever, Updike et al routinely inspired discussions of "existential urgency". These days, Siegel suggested, only non-fiction elicits anything like the same passion. Fiction has "become a museum-piece genre, most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers".
Although Siegel's over-the-top polemic prompted a number of swift attacks, it's hard to deny that at least some of what he said hit a nerve.
For there is real anxiety - on both sides of the Atlantic - about the role of literature in contemporary culture. And this is understandable, given the momentous changes of recent decades, from the escalation of new and competing forms of entertainment to the long-term decline in sales of literary fiction, to the rise of paradigm-shifting technologies such as the iPad and ebook. Siegel was merely voicing, in exaggerated form, a worry that any book-lover must have: that serious literature, and our culture's ability to appreciate it, is under threat.
All of which goes some way to explaining why the appearance of Franzen's new novel is such an important event. For if there is one English language writer today with the ambition and talent to make the literary novel seem truly meaningful again, both as a vehicle of mass entertainment and as a serious record of our times, it is him. And this is the case not simply because he's so good at what he does, but because of the type of writer that he has self-consciously turned himself into.
Franzen, it is often forgotten, took a long time to find his feet as a novelist. In the mid-90s, having published two well-received but commercially unsuccessful books, he wrote a long, agonised piece in Harper's magazine grappling with the question of what form the novel should take in an age of mass entertainment and rapid technological change. His convoluted answer was to call for a retreat from the "social novel" of previous eras.
"Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society," he wrote, "seems to me a peculiarly American delusion."
Yet if that was Franzen's view in the mid-1990s, what followed was a quite spectacular case of the preacher ignoring his own advice, because The Corrections, when it finally appeared, was very much a social novel, a report from the frontline of American culture.
Franzen's ingenious trick was to find a way to reconcile the demands of old-fashioned storytelling with the ultra-engaged, self-conscious style that had become a hallmark of his literary generation of writers, writers such as Franzen's close friend, the late David Foster Wallace, or Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon.
As many critics pointed out, The Corrections is essentially a traditional family drama, but one featuring dazzling postmodern riffs on everything from the stock market and the culture of pharmaceutical fixes to student debauchery and high-end cuisine. It represented a triumphant straddling of the highbrow and the mainstream, the traditional and the hip - and earned its author huge critical and commercial success as a result.
Will Franzen repeat the trick this time around? A few early proof copies of Freedom have been doing the rounds, and the word is that it is every bit as good as its predecessor.
The first American review appeared, in the New York magazine, and proclaimed the book "a work of total genius: a reminder both of why everyone got so excited about Franzen in the first place and of the undeniable magic - even today, in our digital end-times - of the old-timey literary novel".
Novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer, who has read it, agrees that it's a novel of real quality. "It's not for nothing that one of its characters is reading War and Peace. Franzen is the nearest we have to a contemporary Tolstoy: flesh-and-blood characters who go through deep changes while remaining true to - or should that be trying to discover - their essential selves," he says.
"But the contemporary needs stressing too. He's absolutely keyed in to the present moment both in terms of the detail and the larger historical forces that define it. In a way, he's offering a quite traditional version of storytelling. The remarkable thing is that he can maintain such a level of precision and thrill on a sentence-by-sentence basis."
Although the format remains unchanged, Franzen's concerns have moved on since The Corrections, which was very much a book about the 1990s. This time he addresses, among much else, the spread of neocon ideology, the reconstruction of Iraq and environmental desecration (there's a sub-plot involving a campaign to save a songbird called the cerulean warbler).
Whether or not the novel will do much to affect the standing of the literary novel within our culture remains, for the moment, uncertain. But what does seem a safe bet is that Freedom is going to be a massive hit.
- OBSERVERBy William Skidelsky