Interviews October 2001

Mainstream and Meaningful

Mainstream and Meaningful

Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, discovers that, when it comes to fiction, "serious" doesn't have to mean "marginal" or "boring"
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The Corrections

The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus & Giroux
528 pages, $26.00

"The institution of writing and reading serious novels," wrote Jonathan Franzen in a 1996 Harper's cover story, "is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways. Ringing the depressed inner city of serious work are prosperous clonal suburbs of mass entertainments: techno and legal thrillers, novels of sex and vampires, of murder and mysticism." Franzen, whose first two novels had received relatively little attention, argued that in an era when computer-savvy readers were increasingly distracted by new forms of technology and media, and readers had come to doubt the capacity of fiction to address significant social issues, his dream of writing a serious novel that could "matter to the mainstream" had become seemingly impossible.

Five years later, however, it seems that Franzen has overcome his despair over both the state of fiction and his own prospects as a novelist. After relinquishing his hope of writing the next Catch-22 and renewing his faith in serious readers, he was able to start writing productively again, and eventually to publish, last month, his third novel, The Corrections. If we are to believe the nearly unanimous chorus of literary reviewers, Franzen has at last achieved his goal: The Corrections has indeed tapped the vein of the mainstream—movie rights and all—without sacrificing social content.

The novel follows the neurotic interactions of the Lambert family—two adults and three grown children—and chronicles the tumult that ensues when the mother insists that she wants everyone home for Christmas. One son has to escape Lithuania where he's been running an Internet scam, another must choose between spending the holiday with his parents or with his own wife and children (who refuse to go with him), and the daughter must own up to the destruction her sexual confusion has wreaked upon her career. The resulting conversations and miscommunications are sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious. Each character, each relationship, and even the family's Midwestern hometown of St. Jude, are clearly in need of some change—and perhaps correction.

Jonathan Franzen grew up in a suburb outside of St. Louis. After graduating from Swarthmore in 1981 he won a Fulbright Scholarship and studied at the Free University of Berlin. His first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), received the Whiting Award. Strong Motion, his second novel, was published in 1992. Franzen writes for The New Yorker and lives in New York City.

We spoke over the telephone on September 6.

—Jessica Murphy

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen   

In your 1996 Harper's article, "Perchance to Dream," you wrote, "When I got out of college in 1981, I hadn't heard the news about the death of the social novel." How do you define the social novel? And how is it faring twenty years later?

I think Philip Roth's declaration in 1961 of the death of the social novel was accurate. There is no place anymore for social realism à la Germinal or Frank Norris or Dreiser, whatever Tom Wolfe might say. Other media simply do social realism much better. I was aware of that. I wasn't imagining the social novel as muckraking fiction, or exposé fiction. What I had in mind in 1981, as I said in the article, was a book like Catch-22, which cut deeply enough into the country's consciousness to create its own dictionary entry. The book was more than just a story—it was also about where we were as a country, asking big questions about war and pacifism. The idea that you could actually reach a large audience while engaging with questions that were interesting to society seemed alive to me in 1981. I think that's what I meant by a social novel—one that is engaged with society, both in its reception and in its preoccupations.

Do you think it's possible for a novelist to reach a large audience today with so much information and so many other types of media at our fingertips? In your essay you said that "television has killed the novel of social reportage." Is there a literary antidote to the television screen?

The idea that the novelist somehow has a responsibility to take on and combat television is something I probably would have found much more attractive in my twenties. My feeling is that the best way to combat TV is not by attacking it head on—not by producing fiction that explicitly exposes TV's negative aspects and causes the scales to fall from the viewer's eyes, producing a conversion to fiction on the spot. It's really much more about—book by book—trying to produce fiction that is so compelling that one would want to read fiction rather than watch TV. If enough writers do that then I think the medium can continue to exist as a plausible alternative to television, particularly as TV continues to exhaust itself.

Didn't writing a manifesto that lamented the state of American fiction put certain pressure on you to deliver?

I don't think it was a prescriptive article. It was not—if you compare it to the obvious touchstone—Tom Wolfe's manifesto of ten years earlier. He was really calling for a certain kind of fiction, which he then delivered in the form of Bonfire of the Vanities. My article asks, Why bother to write at all? And answers with some reasons.

I was saying, let's remember who really reads books and what they read for. The serious readers aren't reading for instruction or for journalistic content. My piece was about the scaling back of expectation.

It did put some pressure on me, although nothing like the pressure I already felt simply because it was taking me so long to get a third book out. The piece raised the question, Who is he to be speaking on behalf of all novelists in this way? It had already been four full years since I'd last published a book, and I had two novels to my name—neither of which had particularly made my career. So, there was some pressure to show people that I really was the person to be writing that piece.

Did you happen to read B. R. Myers's "A Reader's Manifesto" in the July/ August issue of The Atlantic in which he argued that contemporary literary fiction is pretentious? What did you think of that piece?

Myers seems to think that things were different in the past. But I don't think that's true. Look at the Pulitzer Prize winners in the fifties. A certain kind of pretentious, heavy, pseudo-literary writing has been being rewarded for a very long time. So my feeling is that there's some truth to his argument, but it was ever thus.

Many critics are saying that The Corrections is the next social novel. Would you agree?

No. I want to curl up and take a nap when I hear the phrase "social novel." So I would never want to apply that term to my book, because I wouldn't want you to think of it as a snore.

It's not.

Well, thank you. It's a novel and it does some of the things that a novel can do. And one of the cool things that I think a novel can do is connect the personal and the more broadly cultural and social. So it is social in that sense.

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