'Freedom' and the Future of Literary Fiction

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by Lorin Stein

Like Chris, I've had the lit business on my mind thanks to Freedom. Once again Franzen has kicked up a fuss over the question of taste—over what makes a novel good and who gets to decide. More interesting to me, his book shows how healthy fiction is, even as the business is in crisis.

Full disclosure: until a few months ago I worked for Franzen's publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Like many of Freedom's early readers, I feel a special attachment to the book. Technically, it seems to me a masterpiece. It is also the first novel I've read in a long time that had me sobbing over its last line. As Sam Anderson put it in his New York magazine review, Franzen's characters "hit us in the same place that our friends and neighbors and classmates and lovers do." I felt as if I was crying over people I knew.

Now, to read some of the raves surrounding Freedom, you might think Franzen got it right because he finally wrote from the heart instead of the head—because he learned to stop griping and love his creations. (They said the same of The Corrections at the time.) I disagree. We don't love Madame Bovary despite its being icily well-written. The ice is there to wreck you. And we don't love To the Lighthouse and Invisible Man because they're brilliant technical experiments. We love what the experiments discover about the world.

Of course there are plenty of other good reasons to read fiction besides discovery. Entertainment, distraction, wish fulfillment, hot sex scenes, cliffhangers, funny dialogue. I read for these things, too. (I admit I find them all in Freedom.)

But already, in the first mini-backlash against the book—or really, against the all the attention it's received—we hear it implied that fiction should restrict itself to entertainment or fade into obscurity: that critics should spend more time celebrating mass-market novels because they're what the people "actually" want. This fake populism pretends to speak for women (as if women weren't the overwhelming consumers of serious fiction, whether written by women or men). Really it's the logic of the Hollywood blockbuster machine.

Unfortunately, you find the same logic at work all over publishing today. Without a complex network of local bookstores and local reviewers, more and more houses see the blockbuster as their only viable business plan. They spend vast amounts signing up and promoting books that seem written to spec. That model is great if you're publishing mysteries, or vampire books, or chick lit, or books about Founding Fathers. A good formula, well executed, can be a beautiful (and profitable) thing.

But for literary fiction, the fiction of discovery, formulas are death. In my 12 years at FSG, we saw publishers lose millions every season trying to corner the market on the Big New (preferably Young) Literary Sensation. Meanwhile really tricky, idiosyncratic writers—Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson, Elif Batuman, Richard Price, Sam Lipsyte, Roberto Bolano, James Wood, Hans Keilson—confounded even the most charitable expectations of the chains, and went through one printing after another. Now Franzen seems poised to do the same thing on a much, much bigger scale.

I name these particular authors, all published by FSG, only because I was there when it happened: I know for a fact no magic was involved. The books succeeded because critics kept yelling eureka (and because some resilient booksellers, like that clerk at Cluster of Grapes, kept putting them in customers' hands).These books may never have cornered any market. That wasn't the point. They found the readers who needed them. Each became a few thousand people's favorite book.

The critics, from the New York Times Book Review to Esquire, hail Freedom as a throwback to the former greatness of the novel. What makes it former? Just how great does a novel have to be, just how many great novels does a contemporary author have to write, before we admit that the lameness of the publishing business has failed to snuff the spark of greatness, or turn serious readers off? We're living in the era, not just of Franzen and the others named above, but of tested, still blooming talents like Mary Gaitskill, Norman Rush, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, Claire Messud—the list goes on. They might be too old for the New Yorker's "20 Under 40", but (as three months at The Paris Review has already proven to my satisfaction) there's no shortage of brilliant writers coming up behind them.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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