Jonathan Franzen, Helping to Write American Culture’s Death Sentence

Last night I attended Mike Daisey‘s performance of his monologue How Theater Failed America at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in D.C. It’s a very smart and funny show, well worth seeing if you’re in town this week—a subtle plea to encourage younger performers and audience members (Daisey notes that the baseline age for “youth discount tickets” keeps ticking up, from 25 to 30 to 35), and a not-so-subtle attack on how machinelike the world of theater has become. Between corporate sponsorships and the largely interchangeable pool of actors and directors, Daisey argues, the idea of theater as community spaces has all but disappeared, with successful companies now relegated to doing all they can to preserve the audience it does have, and failing to engage those outside of it.

I know very little about the internal mechanisms of American theater management, so I can’t speak to how much of Daisey’s monologue is truth-telling and how much is rant. (There was certainly a strange moment of disconnect after the show, when Daisey encouraged the crowd to consider attending the rest of Woolly Mammoth’s season, while in the show proper he skewered the season-subscription model.) But if the theater world is anything like the world of arts journalism, or of publishing, or of filmmaking, or of music, Daisey’s nailed it; now that these disciplines find it increasingly difficult to pay for themselves, they risk falling into survival mode, appealing perhaps to a core community but increasingly incapable of expanding it.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Jonathan Franzen‘s recent statements to 5th Estate about the state of social novel (via the Millions and OUPblog). Franzen takes a few whacks at his youthful naivete in thinking that his writing would somehow generate social change, then explains how he’s now narrowed his ambitions:

I recognize that there’s a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways, and that my task is to reach them and to participate in the life of that segment of the population. This is what I’m writing for, for the people who want a literary experience. I’m no longer worried that nobody besides me can have that kind of experience, but I’m also not imagining that, in any conceivable twist of history, everybody will want that kind of experience. So it’s a weird and possibly selfish-seeming form of communitarianism: I’ve ceased to care much, as a writer, about people who don’t care about books.

As a long-term strategy for Jonathan Franzen, this is wise thinking—he has his fan base, and presumably it’s sizable enough for him to create a decent living for himself. As a long-term strategy for American literature, though, it’s slitting one’s own throat. What is it about this country’s literary culture that creates the feeling that it can only serve itself? The terrible pay that novelists and short-story writers can look forward to? MFA programs? The way that literature is taught in public schools? Is this a global or an American phenomenon? If people creating culture are only reaching the class of people most attuned to agree with it, why are they bothering?

Little Blogger Me doesn’t have an answer to any of those questions. But I suspect everybody in the culture business will be asking those questions a lot more often in 2009, as many of the perceived support beams of that business begin to splinter, if not collapse outright.

8 responses to “Jonathan Franzen, Helping to Write American Culture’s Death Sentence

  1. I woke up this morning thinking all these same things. I had no intention of reading this, but you caught my attention. It is good to feel not alone. These lines: “As a long-term strategy for American literature, though, it’s slitting one’s own throat. What is it about this country’s literary culture that creates the feeling that it can only serve itself?” speak to that. Thanks. We will figure a way out,

  2. Pingback: The Circle Jerk of Art « But I Could Be Wrong

  3. Ms. Anawalt,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’ll be keeping up on the NAJP to see more about how you’re working on that way out. I’ve been in arts journalism for a dozen years, and I still believe it plays a very important role for readers, and I’m frustrated to see it erode as much as it has. (I pay the most attention to book criticism, but the cuts hit everywhere, as you know.) So many conversations about financing arts journalism seem to unfairly move into ROI discussions—that if book publishers don’t advertise, we can’t justify book sections. (If that logic applied to the A section we’d have even less international coverage than we already have.) Part of the solution, I think, involves making it clear to readers/listeners/Facebookers what role the arts play in creating more stable, smarter, more tolerant communities, but I’m not sure how to successfully accomplish that.

  4. “(There was certainly a strange moment of disconnect after the show, when Daisey encouraged the crowd to consider attending the rest of Woolly Mammoth’s season, while in the show proper he skewered the season-subscription model.)”

    To be clear, what I skewer is the lack of connection between one production and the next. Woolly, which is working with a modified company production model, doesn’t hew to that tradition and I believe their work deserves attention, which is why I ask them to consider returning to see their other shows. I’m not actually against subscriptions if I think there’s an actual unifying artistic motive that generates actual continuity.

    • Thank you for the clarification, Mike. I should be clear myself that I wasn’t trying to play “gotcha” with you in that parenthetical—you were certainly speaking passionately about Woolly Mammoth, not giving a boilerplate promotion of the theater. The moment just spoke, to me, of how complicated this environment can be.

  5. artandliterature

    Hey, Mark —
    I know you’ve seen this by now, but in response to the comments above about the small portion of the population who care about books in literature, there’s an interesting report just out from the NEA, finding that reading is actually (and surprisingly) on the rise! Good news? Well, it’s a small percentage point, but…..

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/11/AR2009011102337.html

  6. DC theater maven

    I saw the show @ Woolly last night along with an overlong but reasonably interesting panel discussion, and am also in the midst of reading The Corrections for the sixth time.

    Daisey, since you read this — what did you think of the panel last night? Frankly I think Michael Kahn scored some astute points off of you, and I’m wondering what you took away from the panel, if anything.

  7. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t conceptualize the panel that way–so I don’t know what “points” were “scored”, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I thought it was a reasonable starting place for discussion.

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