The Facile Trick

B.R. Myersdismissal of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom in the Atlantic is strange—not least Myers’ complaint that the novel’s coarse language does some kind of disservice not just to the book to but to literature. (If the casual use of the word “fucking” in a novel offends Myers so, by reading contemporary living fiction he’s doomed to be constantly offended.*) But his oddest complaint is that Franzen litters his prose with brand names to please the market:

Franzen uses facile tricks to tart up the story as a total account of American life: the main news events of the past quarter century each get a nod in the appropriate chapter. Brands are identified whenever possible; we go from Parliament butts in the first chapter to Glad-wrapped cookies in the last. Countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked, in the most minimal sense of the term. When Joey and a girl fly to Argentina, Pirates of the Caribbean is playing on the seat backs in front of them. Facile, yes, but Franzen knows his market. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.)

Franzen’s use of brand names is a literary strategy, sure—a way to give the novel an extra touch of precision and verisimilitude, and if Myers thinks he goes a little overboard with the cultural references, I won’t disagree. (Franzen rarely passes on an opportunity to smirkingly mock the authority of the New York Times, or the self-satisfaction of NPR listeners.) But that’s not a craven marketing strategy to gain readers. How could it be? A reader who’s pleased by references to Parliaments and Pirates of the Caribbean won’t find their bliss until they’re deep into the novel anyway, and if that’s the bliss they’re looking for there are shorter, more comforting novels to read. (If Myers is right, perhaps publishers have been putting the wrong stickers on their covers for years. Instead of “Winner of the National Book Award” or “Oprah’s Book Club,” there should be stickers saying, “Mentions Lady Gaga” or “Droll reference to Car Talk on page 428!”) Franzen likes those “trivial particulars” because he wants to say (not wholly successfully) that they’re not so trivial, and if those references fail to create a portrait of modern life that has “real relevance” (whatever that is), it’s not because the author cynically chasing sales.

* And this from the same critic who made his name criticizing literary prose.

19 responses to “The Facile Trick

  1. Good Lord. Well after reading his diatribe on contemporary writers, is it any shock the guy panned Freedom? It seems to me he has more a problem with contemporary fiction in general than with “literary” writing. He’s the equivalent of the senile old man muttering “They don’t make ’em like they used to” on his back porch. As such – and verified by the Franzen review – Myers seems incapable of the objectivity fundamentally required of his profession.

    Based on the review it seems Myers picked up the novel looking for reasons he could say it sucked. Oops, I mean….”was clearly not a novel written before 1950.”

  2. Hi,

    It doesn’t seem like he’s offended by so-called coarse language. What he’s reacting to is that the way he uses it is ineffective, and his reliance on it is damning of the whole work.

    “The language a writer uses to create a world is that world”

    A sentiment shared by many lovers of literary prose… Gass comes to mind.

    Reader’s Manifesto wasn’t so much an attack on literary prose as an attack on opaque badly written prose that is deemed literary. Myers seems to do better when he’s directing his ire at critics rather than the general reading public. When he’s criticizing contemporary readers, as in the Franzen review, he sounds like an ass, and even his valid points lose weight (which I think happens with this instance of criticizing the brand-name dropping).

    Really like the blog.

    -Longtime lurker

    • @DC I was perhaps a bit glib up there: I recognize that Myers isn’t just being a prude who’s easily offended by swears. But he is equating coarser words and colloquial writing (“fucking,” “sucked,” “very into”) for some kind of diminished degree of attention on Franzen’s part to his own characters. Myers suggests he’s smearing some kind of “reassuring vulgarity” in the novel in the same way a middle-aged guy might use teen slang, but I’m not buying it. Whatever the novel’s flaws, I don’t think the problem is that Franzen fails to construct deep characterizations of his characters. At least at first—Walter in particular grows more unconvincing as the novel moves along. But Walter doesn’t disintegrate because Franzen used too many colloquialisms. And it’s been a while since I read “A Reader’s Manifesto” start-to-finish (and I never read the expanded book), but Myers argued at least in part for the intellectual worth of genre fiction, calling out Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones” in particular—and King knows from “fucking.”

      • Not to get too drawn into defending Myers, I’m not sure he’s equating coarser language with a diminished degree of attention on Franzen’s part towards his own characters. I think, just from what he writes in that second paragraph, that Myers is simply saying that if you describe characters in mundane terms, they are inevitably going to be mundane, which sort of sets a low bar for the reader’s expectations. Not having read the book, I can’t really comment on whether this is true or not for Freedom, but in a general way, I think I agree with the sentiment. Whether in any specific case this idea holds true (Jacob Van Gunten, say), is debatable.

        And while Myers did make a case for King’s fiction, I think, if memory serves, it was in terms of entertainment, whereas his criticism of so-called literary fiction was also centered on entertainment value, coupled with, as he had it, opaque, meaningless prose that served no purpose than to be a flag for plaudits.

        Again, I don’t want to defend him overmuch as he certainly has an axe to grind of some kind, but I think that his criticism, in this and other instances, does serve as a reminder and a warning for critics caught in the reviewing moment that perhaps they are missing the forest for the trees, and when they praise or overpraise, seemingly in unison, a book like Freedom, it might be wise to rethink what, exactly, the fuss is about.

        Attacking authors or the general readership, on the other hand, and impugning their motives is adolescent and unhelpful.

        Thanks for the response.

  3. Someone should ask B.R. Meyers how we are supposed to find the classics of tomorrow if we’re all too busy reading books that are already classics.

  4. Hank, I think his belief is that there’s no such thing as a classic of tomorrow.

  5. Yeah, the only solution is to stop publishing new books.

  6. So let me get this straight. You can’t use “fucking” as a gerund, you can’t capture the brand names littering the world around us (I’m not a Franzen fan, but FREEDOM is hardly as injurious in its name dropping as Bret Easton Ellis), and you can’t write a first-person perspective who is “stupid.” (By that latter standard, we may as well throw THE SOUND AND THE FURY into the bonfire.) This is typical B.R. Myers BS, the testament of a desperate contrarian who could probably use a good fuck.

  7. Meyers has a very narrow and simplistic conception of fiction. His comment about DeLillo is especially obtuse:

    “But if Freedom is middlebrow, it is so in the sacrosanct Don DeLillo tradition, which our critical establishment considers central to literature today.”

    I have no idea what he’s talking about, and I’m not sure he does either. The point he misses is that every work has to shape its esthetic to meet the demands of its material, not that I’m convinced Franzen has successfully done this.

  8. Myers is a kill joy. It’s disheartening that such a terrible critic, who seems to take no joy in reading, whatsoever, has such a great gig at The Atlantic, when critics who actually enjoy reading contemporary fiction don’t get the chance.

  9. rgg, what follows the DeLillo sentence you cite in the review makes perfect sense to me: “The apparent logic is that the novel can lure Americans away from their media and entertainment buffet only by becoming more ‘social,’ broader in scope, more up-to-date in focus. . . . the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family ‘typical’ enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society he can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.” Agree or not about whether that writing strategy deserves to be impugned, that’s a pretty straightforward description of certain contemporary novels. Haven’t read Freedom yet, but from what I’ve read (aside from Myers), I’m not optimistic.

    And…. it features an indie band named Walnut Surprise? That actually does sound like a rapidly aging man trying to sound with it (or satirical, more likely) and failing.

    • Myers was doomed to be disappointed from the start with Freedom, just by dint of the fact that it has any ambition to be a “social novel,” an ambition Franzen doesn’t deny. We can argue about how successful Franzen is on that front, but what bothers me about Myers’ assessment is his notion that this was all cannily engineered for better financial gain on Franzen’s and publishers’ part. Freedom’s a bestseller, but there are certainly easier ways to make money and “lure Americans away from their media and entertainment buffet” than writing a 600-page novel that’s critical of the lifestyle of its target market.

      “Walnut Surprise” doesn’t bother me—all band names sound dumb until they’re attached to musicians with talent. I can’t think of a more groan-worthy band name than the Beatles. (One thing Franzen does pretty well is come up with reasonable-sounding song lyrics, something a lot of writers bungle.)

  10. That’s interesting, about the song lyrics. And I agree with you that referencing brand names isn’t for financial gain. That’s a silly argument.

    I think the Beatles is much less terrible than Walnut Surprise, but Smashing Pumpkins . . . now we’re talking.

    • Have to disagree with you folks about Franzen’s song lyrics — largely because, well, I listened to numerous bands and went to a lot of shows during that time period (still do from time to time) and it’s very clear that Franzen has not. The lyrics in question are as bad as Tom Wolfe desperately offering rap lyrics in A MAN IN FULL. (And, yes, no self-respecting band of that type would call themselves Walnut Surprise.) But hey, for all we know, the lyrics are as “unreliable” as Patty’s journal. One thing Myers’s terrible essay HAS done is make me realize that I don’t entirely despise FREEDOM for its narrative, but its competitive worldview (which Sam Sacks addressed in the WSJ), which is an extremely limited and unlived portrayal of the more variegated human world I live in.

  11. I took a brief look at Atlantic’s online archives, and so far as I can tell he’s roundly panned every work of so-called literary fiction he’s reviewed. He reserves a special contempt from “literary” works that are critically adored or, worse, that sell. The very idea of Freedom probably made his blood boil.

    Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Safran Foer – all terrible. In regards to Foer, he makes the classic critical blunder of spending half his review trashing the author’s previous book.

    Some of his pull quotes are pretty groan-inducing, and I have my own thoughts on those writers, but still – this guy is predisposed to abhor modern lit fiction. Why is he reviewing modern lit fiction? It’s like having Chuck Norris review chick lit.

  12. Myers again:

    “ONE OPENS A new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads.”

    Myers could make the same complaint about Dickens’ characters, and probably would have had he been around at the time. The point he misses is that any time a writer steps back to see a larger picture, characters recede into the background. Even heroic types will appear small. There are reasons why novelists work with the characters they do: the interest is not in individuals but what they might represent.

    Again, Myers is just being obtuse and most of his esthetic claims are empty posturing and pointless muscle flexing. Or maybe his real objection is with our culture itself, for all its warts. But this is the stuff writers have to work with now, and novels today can only come from some kind of maneuvering in and around it.

    • Except the difference here would be that Dickens was a former journalist and court reporter, went out of his way to document the poor, and had a great ear for vernacular (so great, in fact, that it salvages OLIVER TWIST from its contrived plot). Franzen’s myopic worldview is really the biggest problem here and I wish that some critic would have the stones to tackle that at length, while simultaneously acknowledging Franzen’s skill for gripping narrative. (Is Ben Marcus ready for Round 2?)

  13. EC —

    No argument. I’m criticizing Myers, not Franzen.

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