I live in one of the few cities in America where you might still catch someone reading in public. It may be in a park or a Starbucks or a bench along the Hudson River, but usually it happens on the subway. Books are almost a kind of badge on the subway. It identifies you as someone who wants to be informed and has an interest in the world (it also, possibly, suggests you just want to consider yourself smart).
Often, when the person has their book open, I can’t read the cover. But sometimes I guess, and considering over a million different books have been published since 2000, I’m in the ballpark more often than not.
Bearded white thirty-year old man with plastic glasses? Hmm—I’d go with Infinite Jest.
Older white man with a dignified hair cut and an off-the-rack suit? Stephen King, Dean Koontz? Or maybe Tom Clancy or W.E.B. Griffin?
Forty-ish black female in professional attire? Alice Walker or Toni Morrison would be my first guess—but possibly one of the writers in the African wave that’s hitting the literary presses now, like Chinua Achebe? Or maybe just a romance novel, where the anonymous chiseled abs on the cover happen to be chocolate-colored?
White woman? If she has boots with straps on, I’d guess one of those slim city-girl novels with a colorful sketch of a dress with slim ankles and red heels on the cover—something in the way of The Devil Wears Prada, or the most recent title out by Candace Bushnell or Sophie Kinsella.
If the woman is dressed a little more comfortably, or she’s wearing glasses, I’d probably guess something by Virginia Woolf, likely Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.
This is reductive. And no, it’s not like my guesses are right all the time. But no one can argue that reading, for those of us who still engage in it, has become highly niche-driven. I try to read as much as I can (I like to think I’m smart—it’s a weakness). It’s impossible to read everything. But what I try to stay up on are those few books that break through niche readerships and achieve (or try to achieve, or are recognized as possibly having the ability to one day achieve) universal appeal.
I guess Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is the closest we can get, in 2011. The book received a highly unusual amount of publicity for a “literary” novel, just prior to its publication. Oprah picked it for her Book of the Month Club and called it a “masterpiece,” which I suppose healed any bad feelings left over from her and Franzen’s public exchange of pique ten years ago, when the author expressed reservations about his novel The Corrections being picked for the club. Time put Franzen on its cover under the heading ‘The Great American Novelist,’ the first time a living writer had received such an honor in a decade. Initial reviews were ecstatic. There was a backlash to those, and then a great deal of argument. Freedom hit no. 1 on the NY Times Bestseller list when it went on sale August 31st, and has not left the top 10 since.
I am not sure what the Great American Novel is. I guess it’s possible Freedom could be just that. But if is, then we probably don’t need to worry too much, going forward, about this whole Great American Novel business.
Franzen writes in an accessible, but elegant style that I find eminently suitable for our age of instant digital access. It’s long-form literature that reads well in a short-form culture. He definitely is interested in America, and keeps his eye on the big picture of where we are and where we’re headed. He is socially observant in both the macro and micro sense—he can analogize families to the global political scene, but he also has an understanding for the superficial details which form the basis for much of our behavior, like how plain girls relate to pretty ones as friends. He is well versed in pop culture, which he refers to without guilt. His plot schemes are broad, planned, and full of meaning.
The novel isn’t as fun to read as all of this makes it sound, though. The story centers around the Berglunds, a Minnesota family headed by Walter, an environmental lawyer, and his wife Patty, the daughter of a patrician East-coast couple, and a former college basketball star. Patty is not quite in love with Walter the way he’d like her to be—in college, she ran to Walter only after meeting frustration in the arms of his best friend, the musician Richard Katz. Their son Joey is precocious and frustrated, and eventually turns on them both. There is a lot of backstory, some of it narrated in first-person by Patty in a letter she writes in therapy (this section is called ‘Mistakes Were Made’), but generally we move forward in time with the Berglunds, as they work out their problems.
A classmate of mine, who’d read the first hundred pages or so, raved that the book reminded her of a good TV show about families and teens, like Freaks and Geeks or My So Called Life. My response: Really? As accessible as Franzen tries to make Freedom, it still is weighed under by the burdens of serious literature—the tone of the narrator usually reaches a sneer, mocking almost everything the characters do to find a conventional sense of happiness. Franzen engages in long, rambling asides about sex and politics and the environment which seem disconnected from the story.
What most readers respond to in Franzen, I think, is the aspect of his writing which recalled to that classmate of mine My So Called Life. He is capable, in his dialogue and description of characters’ thoughts, of being clever and thoughtful and touching all at once. But these things, of course, are not enough for a serious writer. Franzen must also exercise every other muscle in his writing appendage. The resulting hodge-podge is unwieldy and oddly static, and actually somewhat boring. I never quite knew what to think, reading it.
Franzen is ambitious. Read any interview with him, and you realize he is quite aware of the status he’s achieved. He wants to write big books that appeal to everyone. But let’s think about what big books actually have appealed to lots of people, in the past 10 years. Harry Potter and Twilight. That may be it. It’s probably grossly unfair to ask someone like Franzen to adjust to that kind of reading taste. But I don’t know—if someone is serious about breaking through to a universal audience, (Franzen never openly admits it, but I think he is) they need to think about that audience. And there is, right now, an unbreachable gulf between the Jonathan Franzens and the J.K. Rowlings of the world. If someone like Franzen wants to bridge it, they will have to take themselves a little less seriously than Franzen seems to.