Does the world need a Great American Novelist?

Jonathan Franzen

I’ve never seen anything like the hype leading up to Jonathan Franzen’s recent novel, ‘Freedom,’ which came out in the States in August and the UK in September. Franzen was on the cover of Time magazine. He featured in many many articles, and rumours circulated that his novel would rescue the book industry from an otherwise imminent demise. The furore really bothered me. I wanted to make up my own mind about ‘Freedom,’ especially as I hadn’t much liked Franzen’s previous, much-praised work. ‘The Corrections’ wasn’t bad — had I not expected it to be a work of genius, I would probably have enjoyed it (notwithstanding its whining male protagonist) — but instead my experience of reading it was one of page-by-page disappointment.

Thus, despite the hype, and indeed because of it, I expected ‘Freedom’ to fall flat as well. Paradoxically, though, it exceeded my expectations and I gave it a glowing review in the Irish Independent. A week later, I happened to have a conversation with a bookdealer in a Brooklyn bar who was part way through the novel. He was disliking it intensely because of Franzen’s patronizing relationship with his characters — they were, he said, the type of people the author would never speak to in real life but wrote about so that his novel would be about ordinary Americans. My new friend’s assessment picked up on an uneasiness I had felt towards the book but had failed to fully identify. There is an odd disjunct between the intellectual author and his suburban characters, especially Patty who, we’re repeatedly told, is really interesting even though she is a sporty girl.

I then began Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses,’ and rethought my assessment of ‘Freedom’ entirely. It’s not that ‘Freedom’ isn’t good — it will indeed be the book of the year — but it is not ‘great’ in the way that Rushdie’s work is: putting the two writers side by side, Franzen is simply no match for Rushdie’s imagination or his brilliant fluid prose.

The notion of a Great American Novel is not the only label to attach itself to certain works of contemporary fiction. When Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ came out, and Monica Ali’s ‘Brick Lane,’ both writers, and their novels, fell into categories — cool, urban, ethnic, British and female — that in retrospect perfectly suited the nineties zeitgeist.

Still, this one is particularly problematic. Those labels engaged with content or reflected social truths. To state that a book defines a continent, however, is like putting it into a big empty box and trying to make it fit. And an arrogance lurks therein, for who decides who is worthy to be a Great American Novelist (aside from Time magazine)? An excellent article in Slate noted a gender bias in the books to which the New York Times gives especially warm reviews. I can’t think of a woman, dead or alive, who qualifies for this Great American honour.

Emma Donoghue, signing books -- a brilliant writer, just not Great or American

I put my complaint to Denis Donoghue, an eminent professor of English and American literature at NYU, when I cornered him at a literary event in New York last week. ‘It’s a very American sentiment, that in every generation there ought to be a major American writer,’ he suggested, not necessarily agreeing with me. ‘Faulkner was the last indisputable large-scale writer in that sense. I don’t think Hemingway fits the bill.’

We were at a reading given by Professor Donoghue’s daughter Emma, a talented writer in her own right, whose novel ‘Room’ is up for the Booker prize. It, too, has been surrounded by hype, most of which, happily, has dwelt on the book’s difficult subject matter and compelling style.

The book industry is indeed in trouble, and it may be that the days when critics had the luxury to determine a novel’s greatness decades after its publication are gone. Hype sells. But I am glad that Greatness does not prey on Europe’s literary psyche in quite the same way that it does America’s. I’m sure the weight of the label is hard for a writer to live up to, but it’s uncomfortable for a reader to grapple with too.

Update: Huh! In acknowledgement of some of these issues, Franzen has not been nominated for the National Book Award, which is odd given his novel’s explicit engagement with the subject of post-modern America. See Salon’s take on that here.

4 Responses to “Does the world need a Great American Novelist?”
  1. brian says:

    We each have the inherent right to determine for ourselves which books rise to the level of “great” vs. those that do not. Some may consider Ulysses great, while others may be in heaven when spending an evening in a nice comfy chair, with a glass of wine and anything by PG Wodehouse.

    Btw, there’s no disputing Faulkner’s street cred, but to exclude Hemingway from the list of “Great American Novelists” is silly…A Sun Also Rises and Farewell to Arms are both easily on the list of the 100 greatest novels of all time…seems pretty impressive, so what does a fella need to do in order to get a little respect at NYU?

    But the exercise of discussing the appropriate qualifications for great vs. otherwise is (at times) entertaining, nonetheless.

  2. Frieda says:

    Thanks Brian! My basic point is that our perceptions of greatness should come from engagement and enjoyment of the literature itself, and not from an externally-imposed categorization…

    I was surprised Donoghue excluded Hemingway, who I thought was the GAM par excellence; but perhaps he was being whimsical.

  3. EKSwitaj says:

    Having grown up in Seattle and lived mostly on the West Coast before moving on to other countries (I’m currently in Belfast, so in some ways I’m the inverse of you), I have to point out that this obsession with greatness isn’t so much a US thing as a New York (or maybe East Coast) thing. The West has its own traditions and heroes of course, but the obsession with being The Great American anything just doesn’t enter into it. Maybe because we know that we’re too far from The Establishment to play that game.

  4. Frieda says:

    Fascinating comment, Elizabeth! And yes, I am perceiving this through a New York bubble, and the bubble of an East-coast media based in NY (I’m almost sounding like Sarah Palin now). And it does feel artificial to me. I’m really interested in your point that the Great American novel may not be an American idea at all; and that the west has its own, different preoccupations.

    I’ve never lived in Belfast — I hope it’s treating you well.

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