The Franzen Kerfuffle and the Question of the ‘Serious Reader’

Rachel Deahl -- August 24th, 2010

Amid drama about the impending dissolution of the chains and Seth Godin’s news that he’s self-publishing, I’ve been happily following the literary establishment’s gushing over Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, and in turn, the complaints about what the gushing over Freedom says about literature, publishing, and the state of reading.

At first the bad news about the good reviews, brought up by Jodi Picoult, was that it proved the NYT only likes white dudes from Brooklyn. The Atlantic jumped into the fray with two pieces–Chris Jackson’s more even-handed lamentation that, probably, we don’t read as much fiction by women for myriad reasons, despite a wealth of it being available.

Now Lorin Stein has semi-slammed the publishing industry for not being able to get more serious authors into the Franzen stratosphere. Stein, who used to work for FSG (and PW) and is now an editor at The Paris Review, wrote: “Just how great does a novel have to be, just how many great novels does a contemporary author have to write, before we admit that the lameness of the publishing business has failed to snuff the spark of greatness, or turn serious readers off?”

That question has already caused something of a backlash on Twitter. Jason Pinter (who used to be an editor, then wrote full-time, and is now agent-ing) tweeted: “My issues with Lorin Stein’s article in The Atlantic–no issues w/ standing up for literary fiction, just his dismissal of everything else.” Pinter (@jasonpinter) then followed with six ways in which he disagreed with Stein. (Pinter’s #4 is: ‘Nobody is asking for ‘mass market novels’ to be celebrated, only that critics seem to almost willfully ignore most popular fiction.’)

I’m inclined to agree with Pinter.

To me, the questions raised by the kerfuffle over Franzen’s reviews gets at something I’ve long watched with relish, covering this business. Within the industry there’s a feeling that anything that gets anyone reading is good, yet, filled as publishing is with people who love books, people who think books are important, people who think they’re not simply churning out popular entertainment but also high culture, there’s an intense jealousy about what becomes popular. Lots of great, important books are published frequently, yet precious few of the people who write them get the opportunity to turn down Oprah or grace the cover of Time Magazine. Is that bullshit? Maybe. Is it life? Yes.

The deeper question is about the supposed “serious reader” that Stein is talking about. I’ve long thought about this question. I grew up in a household with two teachers: my father taught high school English and my mother taught middle school art. My father would often talk about his theories on reading, his fascination and frustration with what makes one child relish books and another indifferent. And he often referred to my mother as the “serious reader” in the household. My father (like me) reads slowly. And his tastes, like mine, veer towards “literature”–literary fiction, serious non-fiction, etc. My mother tends to read in the Oprah mold–bookclub selections, supposed “women’s fiction,” runaway bestsellers. (My mother, as it happens, adores Jodi Picoult and, I would venture, doesn’t know who Jonathan Franzen is.)

On a monetary level, my mother is, in my family, the more important consumer for the publishing industry. She buys more books. And, despite her proclivity for what some high-minded literary types might deem crap–she begged me to get her a copy of The Secret–I think she would enjoy Franzen’s new novel. And, since he’s on the cover of Time, there’s a greater chance her friends will start talking about Freedom and a greater chance she’ll want to read it. (Outside of Oprah, the biggest reason she wants to read a book is because “people are talking about it.”)

My mother doesn’t read the New York Times Book Review and, despite her daughter’s occupation, doesn’t pay much attention to  the squabbles of the New York intellectual literary establishment. She does read. I would argue she reads seriously. I don’t believe the publishing industry is “lame” because it hasn’t been able to get her to read more writers like Franzen. I believe the publishing industry, at its core, is accomplishing its job by making sure there is always a book in her hand. The fact that she doesn’t read more “important” novels is, well, a much more complex issue altogether.

9 thoughts on “The Franzen Kerfuffle and the Question of the ‘Serious Reader’

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  3. Calvin Reid

    Pitting the writers and readers of so-called literary fiction against the writers and readers of so-called commercial literature is a suckers game that doesn’t help anyone or do much to help the cause of reading. You see this strange drama played out in the African American book community in these odd attacks on street lit readers and writers by so-called literary novelists and their supporters.

    The book industry’s job is to make sure there is a wide diversity of books that appeal to all kinds of reading tastes. And yes the industry had better pay close attention to the digital revolution and how that has changed publishing for the better. Let a thousand different readers read a thousand different books and if somehow we manage to get a little cross-over, all the better.

  4. clay

    “Just how great does a novel have to be, just how many great novels does a contemporary author have to write, before we admit that the lameness of the publishing business has failed to snuff the spark of greatness, or turn serious readers off?”
    My sentiments exactly they blew it with DFW… maybe this Franzen business is catch up. Glad that I didn’t need to be told what is cool.

    “My mother doesn’t read the New York Times Book Review”
    Yes, well mine does and so do I. More people really ought to.

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  6. Linda Ziskind

    Excuse me for saying so, but I don’t think any of you have it quite right. You’re all focusing on the wrong thing. Seth Godin isn’t self publishing. He’s recognized something that the publishing industry is deliberately blinding itself to. It’s not about what, it’s about how. Come on, don’t you think publishers would rather publish great writing rather than mass market crap? But even the mass market crap isn’t making the money it used to. The publishing industry is just grasping at straws to stay alive.

    Did that the whole years-long death march of the recording industry go entirely unnoticed by the publishing world? While the record companies were busy trying to incarcerate every 15 year old music downloader, a technology hardware company was reinventing the entire delivery system, and eating their lunch in the process. Ring a bell?

    Look carefully at what Seth is doing, because this is your future. People still read, just like people still listen to music. But technology has made dramatic changes to how and where words and music are delivered, and to the control people have in acquiring them. And there’s no going back.

  7. Mark Barrett

    Many years ago I had the good fortune to take a workshop with Rush Hills, former fiction editor at Esquire. He made the point that while a lot of people talk about the Golden Age of fiction, and of the short story in particular (esoteric pun intended), there was no Golden Age.

    For every person who was reading Hemingway or Faulkner, ten thousand or more were reading the Saturday Evening Post, and other publications that featured serialized stories aimed at the mass market.

    The current discussions taking place around Franzen have always taken place. They are cocktail party chatter important only to the people who decide to pick up a foil in the literary world of gossip, ego, vanity and power. The words will change nothing. But some people will be left bleeding, and others will have drawn blood.

  8. Jason Pinter

    Having published five mass market novels, I can assure you that I am not dismissive of them. My point was that you do not need to substitute criticism of commercial fiction for criticism of commercial fiction, but in an ideal world there can be robust discussion of both.

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