Sunday, September 12, 2010

Obama and Franzen sittin’ in a tree

When President Obama was “spotted” on Martha’s Vineyard (as if he had not planned to be seen) with Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, hearts in the republic of letters were set aflutter. The association, after all, was mutually beneficial. Obama benefitted from the prestige of “literary fiction,” while Franzen experienced the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of being brushed with the wings of power. The President does not even have to read the book for the benefits to pile up. And let’s be honest, he probably won’t wade all the way across Franzen’s 500-page novelistic expanse. Obama has admitted that he is has little time for anything more than SportsCenter.

Why Franzen’s Freedom, though? The official story is that a local book­seller “gave” the President an advance copy. What would Obama have done if handed a copy of Sh*t My Dad Says instead? Tony Blair’s memoir would have created too many unflattering comparisons. Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad might have been just as prestigious—and Obama would have been boosting a writer who needs and actually deserves it—but no one has heard of the book, and the President might have seemed “out of the mainstream” if he carried it to the beach so that everyone could see it.

The truth is that Freedom was a perfectly safe choice. Already the second hottest-selling book on Amazon, Franzen’s novel is neither experimental nor a minority taste. And it won’t challenge the President’s political preconceptions. It is the sort of big fat socially relevant novel that was wildly popular in the ’fifties. It belongs to the same company as The Wall or Anatomy of a Murder or Advise and Consent. It is an utterly middle­brow novel whose reputation for “seriousness” is the result of a successful marketing campaign.


A. J. said...

This reminds me of how Ronald Reagan also "found" Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October in the White House, a clever publicity stunt that made Clancy a bestselling author.

I suspect that Franzen's publisher had a hand in this.

danup said...

To be honest I kind of admire Franzen for almost single-handedly keeping that middlebrow window open, though I'm not a fan of his work. I'd rather be arguing whether or not someone's buying the right novel with literary pretensions than why nobody's buying any at all.

D. G. Myers said...

The middlebrow novel has its place in the culture, don’t get me wrong. But Freedom is not cut out for the pick-me-up in cultural status that Obama is looking for.

Tim Chambers said...

Dr. Myers,

Your words regarding the President and Franzen's novel are beneath a man of your intellect. It is certain that Obama was not looking for a pickup in cultural status. His mother was a distinguished cultural anthropologist, and he is the product of three elite schools. He is the very antithesis of the anti-intellectual slob you so much admired as President. He is not a man to lean (like a drunk) on a podium when speaking at solemn state functions or to smirk at serious questions posed by real reporters. Obama has intelligence, dignity and authenticity, qualities his predecessor definitely lacked.

D. G. Myers said...

I agree that President Obama is adept at cultivating the image of cultivation.

Tim Chambers said...

Spoken like a true Republican, Sir, or shall I dare say Dixiecrat. I wonder though, as a lowly Professor of Literature, what exactly is in it for you if the corporate Plutocracy, so ably represented by your party, makes paupers out of the rest of us. Thirty years of downward social mobility and rising poverty levels speaks volumes about their trickle down policies.

Shelley said...

I agree with the post. Boost where it's needed! We'll be grateful for it.

Tim Chambers said...

Didn't like that last one, eh? Had to moderate it out. Hit too close to home, did I? Made you realize you're just a pawn in the game of divide and rule. It's amazing the lies we tell ourselves to avoid looking into the dark. Hell, I wrote a novel about it.

D. G. Myers said...

Didn't like that last one, eh? Had to moderate it out.

Nope. I was just busy with other projects. I am always happy to let partisan hacks indulge their craving for mindless sloganeering.

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

I find it richly and satisfying ironic (certainly deliberately so) that you should apply to Mr. Franzen his most dreaded epithet--middle-brow. The charmed word that alienated Franzen from Oprah who catered to that dread middle-brow class.



D. G. Myers said...


I do so in full consciousness of the fact that I myself have been accused of a taste “so blandly middlebrow and safe as to make one's throat dry up.”

Franzen’s literary ambition is what Dwight Macdonald called the One Big Audience. That’s really what Obama’s reading of Freedom signifies.

The trouble, as Macdonald said, is that “the less differentiated the audience, the less chance there is of something original and lively creeping in. . . .”

The novel that is designed to appeal to the large undifferentiated reading public is what I mean by middlebrow.