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.
MORE ON BOOKS:
Chris Jackson: All the Sad Young Literary Women
Heather Horn: Before the Kindle, Another Reading Revolution
Jessica Murphy: Mainstream and Meaningful: An Interview With Jonathan Franzen
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.)