For Franzen Haters

September 22, 2010 | 6

Do you hate Jonathan Franzen (and/or contemporary literature generally)?  Then you’ll love B.R. Myers‘ take on him at The Atlantic.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.

6 comments:

  1. You can, of course, hate Franzen and love contemporary literary fiction (or vice versa). Maybe not if you’re B.R. Myers, but there are others of us who manage just fine hating the one and not the other.

  2. I didn’t mean to imply that the two hates necessarily go together, though they often do–and decidedly do for Myers. His strong dislike of Franzen is very much part of his larger argument about the profound moral, intellectual, and stylistic failings of contemporary literature.

    Thanks for reading, Emily

  3. Not to lapse into the banal parlance of our times, but, as Emily says, it’s the critic here who makes it an either-or thing.

    I had a strong reaction to this review, and the quotations selected by the reviewer managed to make me embarrassed about liking the book, so I guess it was a success.

    That said, it was the snottiest fucking review I’ve ever read.

    For more crude parlance, see “haterade.”

  4. I’m actually quite fond of Myers–a fondness that has not won me many intellectual compatriots. I like his snottiness, though I would call it confidence in his argument, and I think his Reader’s Manifesto and his related pieces, like this one, constitute one of the most striking and convincing theses out there about where literature is and where it’s heading. You can hate him or disagree, but you can’t deny that the man makes a strong, well-reasoned case.

    Of course, I also like Jonathan Swift, who made similar arguments about the “modern” writing of his time and its intellectual and moral bereft-ness. Myers’ takes up the Swiftian arguments again, arguments Alexander Pope made too (and more snottily–maybe Myers’ is more of a Pope). Whatever you think of this intellectual position (one more recently associated with the likes of William F. Buckley in God and Man at Yale), there is something bracing in being asked to see the decline of civilization and human moral intelligence in the nature of our novels–in what we read. It gives a lot of credit to literature even as it disparages particular examples of the form.

  5. Thanks for your response, which was much better-stated than mine. My reaction to the review was visceral, which, as I said in my previous comment, is in a sense a measure of its success. In the context of Myers’ s review, Franzen’s prose comes off as pretty epically bad, which makes people (me) feel defensive about our tastes (again, successful review).

    What I disliked the most was what I think was a rather cheap use of a sacrificial goat (Franzen) in pursuit of a wholesale disparagement of the vernacular, a criticism which willfully and almost comically disregards the well-known complaints leveled against some the classics Myers would have us read (which, ahem, is what some of us read most of the goddamned time). Now, Franzen may be no Dante, but Dante was another heterodox advocate of the vernacular. And vulgarity? Sterne? Joyce? Isn’t literature always, according to the grouches, going down the proverbial shitter?

    Dissent is good, though. And umbrage is good. I think Patty Berglund might say that it’s just really great, that she’s really into the fact that we are all talking about books.

  6. I wish people wouldn’t focus on Myers’s critique of vernacular writing, but I also wish Myers hadn’t made that particular critique: it’s by far the weakest part of his argument. Myers loves Joyce. Presumably he’s read the “Molly” chapter of Ulysses and made his piece with it, and besides it’s such an obvious way to get your whole (mostly valid) point discredited. Saying “Fuck” is the least of Franzen’s problems, and I think he delineates the rest of them pretty well.

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