When did reading ‘Freedom’ become compulsory?

This all happened before. When The Corrections was released, Franzen and the critics had same slobbering make-out session. That book also kicked up a ridiculous debate about women’s writing (as represented by Oprah’s book club) versus men’s writing. The book itself reminded me of a Spielberg production, or at least one of his “serious” films. It worked very well as a product, it hit all the right notes at exactly the right moments, but one could always feel the creator manipulating things behind the scenes. OK, now I need the viewer/reader to cry, so let’s get that swelling music going/kill off the only character portrayed with any sympathy. I cried, but I was resentful about crying, and I was suspicious about the crying. It wasn’t the spontaneous, oh my god sobbing I had in the last moments of a film like The Lives of Others. These were cultivated tears. Franzen had planned for them.

And so I checked out of Freedom. I just didn’t care. But the build-up of attention, everyone in the literary world pretending that Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time was as important as James Joyce’s appearance on the same magazine, and the debate about sexism, and the proclamations and the fuss… surely one should just get over it, read the book so that one can make an informed opinion on the matter. But I dug in my heels. Instead I read Lewis Hyde. I read Helene Cixous and some Rebecca West. I started a weird passion for Hungarian literature. I went to see where a mid-19th century Italian opera meets the contemporary Budapestian love for the weird. (In case you were thinking I am just too sophisticated for Jonathan Franzen, I also watched several episodes of the hit CW show Supernatural.)

The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.

 

So, I haven’t read ‘The Corrections’ yet. Given that I only bought a copy of it in about February, I’ve spent as long deciding whether or not I want to read it as Franzen has writing his next novel. I think I only really decided that I wanted to read it because I knew that David Foster Wallace, whose work I *adore*, and Franzen were friends, and Wallace liked Franzen’s work. So I finally bought it. And I read the opening chapter on the tram home, and then I put it aside while I finished whatever it was I was reading at the time. And it’s still there, aside, not being read. I’ll get around to it eventually. Maybe I’ll take it on my next holiday, as I got a small-sized edition, and it’s a decent length book. I want to like it, I think, but that doesn’t mean I will. A bit of me suspects I might have the same reaction to Crispin – since I have that reaction to most Spielberg films.

Franzen clearly works hard and knows what he’s doing – but I sort of love the spark of genius that works hard, but doesn’t quite know what it’s doing or can’t quite explain it, that thing that makes the autobiographies of genius sports people so dull (yes, read Wallace’s essay, ‘How Tracey Austin broke my heart’ for an explanation of that). We’ll see. But I’m not buying into ‘Freedom’ till I’ve read ‘The Corrections’ and decided, one way or the other. And not until I’ve seen the new season of Supernatural, too. 

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