The Best Medicine Tastes the Worst
Imagine. You have a weeklong vacation ahead of you, you walk over to your bookshelf, dozens of books that you hoarded over the last couple years stare back at you, some you’ve read, many you haven’t. You have narrowed your choices down to three. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: you were never assigned it in high school, many people you consider smart refer to it, and you have at one point felt like less of an American for not having read it. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: you have heard about the movie, several friends on Facebook have mentioned their severe addiction, and you know it won’t ask too much of you while you lounge on the couch. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: one or two of your friends have recommended it in passing, it looks awfully thick, and you have only heard of the author because of his squabble with Oprah a decade ago. We know for certain that Grapes of Wrath is difficult, but we also know for certain that we are supposed to “get something out of it.” We have a premonition that Freedom will be difficult, at least more so than The Hunger Games, and the dust jacket seems to hint at a chance of depression. And yet, some of us do select Grapes of Wrath and others of us do select Freedom. It’s only that more of us select The Hunger Games. But isn’t it remarkable that anyone would choose Freedom? It lacks the cultural cache of Steinbeck and the promise for entertainment of Collins. When did reading become something other than an activity that should exist exclusively for entertainment? Why do we think that the best medicine tastes the worst?
In Franzen’s seminal 1996 essay “Why Bother?” he quite desperately attempts to reassert the cultural authority that the novel should have in an age when more and more people are putting down their books and picking up their television remotes. If we are to buy into Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s argument in The Anxiety of Obsolescence, by reading Franzen we are buying into a constructed discourse of obsolescence, one that convinces us that we are going against a mass culture and resuscitating something precious and essential from a terrible societal plague of technological consumerism. According to Fitzpatrick, this discourse is exclusively forwarded by (white, male, heterosexual) novelists in order to create a protected space for them to continue writing the novels that they have always written against a feminized, non-white television audience. I believe that we can understand this argument in a different way if we broaden the scope of our examination from the individual novelist.
In A Novel Marketplace Evan Brier develops a body of evidence that shows the multimedia publishing conglomerates and agencies seek out authors not based on merit but on a perceived disinterestedness in money and disdain for mass culture (Paul Bowles of The Sheltering Sky was given a sizable advancement without having ever written a novel, and then asked to return the money when the novel did not satisfy the publisher). If we, instead, examine how it behooves an entire industry, how a constellation of publishers and agents thrive on a literary market created largely on the basis of such a discourse, then we the perceived elitism or maliciousness of such an argument as the one made by Jonathan Franzen in “Why Bother?” Fitzpatrick is right to insert Franzen into a much longer line of discourse that asserts the bliss of reading [Barthes] aesthetically pleasing language in “serious fiction” [Franzen], one that was constructed in the marketplace of postwar fiction in order to promote the import of a literary genre. However, by framing Franzen’s argument as simply one made out of fear of a non-white feminized television audience, we diminish the possibility that much of what he is saying is still true in spite of its double-use as a marketable ploy. While it is remarkable that anyone would choose to read Freedom over The Hunger Games while on a vacation, it would be preferable (opinion of mine that has been constructed by the publishing world but I’m sticking to it) that more people read the former, or, God forbid, read both.
My choice of Freedom as the novel around which to base this conversation was made exclusively based on the fact that it was written by Jonathan Franzen. In actuality, Freedom is not emblematic of the “art-novel” [McGurl] to which much of this discourse should actually be based around. That there are two bins in which to place works of fiction as high-art or low-art would be a silly and counterproductive enterprise. But if we understand the discourse on “serious fiction” as one that, based in part on its difficulty, requires of the reader active participation in order to gain fuller understanding of not only the text but the human experience, then Freedom strangely is not an optimal example. The prose of Franzen harkens back to a nineteenth century realism that presents a story in a straightforward way. The discourse on serious fiction was founded in an era of “art-novels” that attempted to buck exactly that trend and disrupt the ways in which we receive a narrative. Nonetheless, Franzen is the cultural icon of this discourse in contemporary fiction, and so serves as a tolerable example of serious fiction and a superb example of the discourse of aloneness in creating a literary market.