Thursday, February 13, 2014

Jonathan Franzen on Overrated Books

This interesting short clip has ruffled a few people's feathers, but Franzen has a point about a type of British writing that has become a genre in itself:

I would hesitate to describe many books as overrated. I would happily stick my neck out for Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but most of the books I dislike are for reasons that I often can't fathom myself.

I find those chunky, macho 'Great American Novel' candidates as unreadable as the effete sub-Iris Murdoch stories that are populated with characters called Rupert, Gertrude and Axel.

I also struggle to appreciate those 'lyrical' novels by Commonwealth writers that specialise in lengthy descriptions of fruit and grandparents.

On the other hand, give me a novel in translation by a Hungarian author or a recent winner of the Prix Goncourt and I'm an avid reader. I don't know why.

Perhaps it's just harder to spot the cliches when you're reading a foreign novel, but I wonder if there's something else too.


Canadian Chickadee said...

As an American, two things: First, Jonathan Franzen is a pompous jerk. His high opinion of himself and the value of his work "The Corrections" led him to turn down an offer to be one of Oprah Winfrey's book club selections, a group which included Nobel Prize winners like Toni Morrison. He considers himself to be a "literary novelist" -- I've found that the term usually refers to someone whose work is so arcane as to be unreadable.

As for British novelists, both present and past, I find most of them very good. The only British author whose fame is, in my opinion, undeserved is Hillary Mantel -- the woman never met an unclear antecedent that she didn't love, and I find her books exasperating in the extreme. I have no trouble with her subject matter -- it's her handling of the subject that grates.

George said...

I would find it hard to say that E.M. Forster is not a novelist. I dislike the novels I've read, but I would have a hard time coming up with a useful definition of "novel" that excluded them. To know whether Greene is overrated, I'd have to know how he's rated, and I don't.

At some point, Forster's work must have crossed the Atlantic just fine: the American critic Lionel Trilling wrote a book on him, and Trilling's opinions carried a lot of weight in his day. I think that it is a healthy sign if Forster is less admired here.

The Corrections is clever, and strikes me as perfectly suited to Oprah's book club. There are a few insights, nothing blinding, and everyone (unless maybe the older brother) learns to be a little bit nicer--what could be more Ophrah? It is not in the least difficult reading, though the length meant that I hurried to finish it for a neighborhood book club.

Whether Franzen is pompous or not, I do think he could have shaved. Oh, and spoken lounder

ombhurbhuva said...

Brighton Rock is an excellent book and they made a great film out of it. Ditto for Howard's End and Passage to India. Donna Tartt's Goldfinch stole my Christmas.
She's overrated without a doubt.

Tim Footman said...

Your line about "lengthy descriptions of fruits and grandparents" is more memorable than anything by Franzen I've ever read.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Gosh - you really don't like him. Like Rushdie, he doesn't come across well in interviews, but I understood that it wasn't arrogance that led to the Oprah Book Club debacle, but a fear that he would lose male readers if the covers were branded with the Oprah logo.

Re: Hillary Mantel - I have a problem reading historical fiction and abandoned the only novel of hers that I attempted. My loss, I'm sure.

George - Greene's a confusing case. He didn't make any claims for himself, but his ostensibly middlebrow novels frequently exceed expectations. Our Man in Havana is like an Eric Ambler story that has been rewritten by Evelyn Waugh.

Re: Forster, why is it a healthy sign if he is less admired in the US?

I also enjoyed The Corrections. I wouldn't say that it was any more perceptive than an Anne Tyler novel, so I don't quite understand the 'Great American Novel' hysteria that surrounded its publication. But it was engagaing, witty and perceptive.

ombhurbhuva - Those Merchant Ivory films are a sort of middle class porn and I find them slightly annoying. But the film of Brighton Rock is a corker.

I can't say I've been tempted to read either of Donna Tartt's later novels. The Secret History was enjoyable, but hardly great literature.

Tim - If only I had written 'fruits' instead of 'fruit'.

Thomas at My Porch said...

Franzen is a prick of the highest order. Talk about someone who believes his own hype. I've never heard him open his mouth without wanting to physically shut it again for him.

I need to correct Canadian Chickadee. He didn't turn down Oprah, he accepted--and all of the hundreds of thousands of copies that he sold thanks to her--but then was so trash talking her book club in an interview that she uninvited him. And why should he worry about losing his male audience? Oprah's stamp at the time sold more books than any male fan base he may have had. Would it really be so awful to have female fans?

And for him to rattle off Forster and Greene as being overrated. Is he serious? Yes, it can be a matter of taste, but I don't know how anyone could say they don't deserve their places on their respective pedestals.

I've read other Greene novels and liked them, but I recently discovered The End of the Affair which Franzen singles out. It is a brilliant novel.

And I so agree with you about the giant macho great American novel.

Annie said...

Jonathan Franzen, TL;DR, as the kids say these days.

Does he have a go at Graham Greene? The utter gall!

Anything described as lyrical makes me think it will be overrated...

Steerforth said...

Thomas - I didn't realise that Franzen aroused such strong feelings! I noticed that Oprah generously invited him back when Freedom was published.

One of my problems with those macho GAMs is that in order to prove their 'everyman' credentials, they keep droning on about baseball, or something similar. As someone who loathes all sport, I don't want to know. I stopped reading Underworld as soon as the New York Giants made an appearance.

Annie - Your blog post link was spot on. The Dijon was absurd, but also the name - Mary Bella! I can't read that sort of precious nonsense without wanting to play a Chas and Dave record.

When I used to meet publishers' reps and look through the list of forthcoming titles, the word 'lyrical' was a huge help, as it saved me the effort of having to waste time reading the whole blurb. When it came to short stories, the rep would turn the page without even trying to sell the book.

George said...

A healthy sign: I think it is a healthy sign that Forster's stock has fallen, because I think that his novels are not that good, and that it was the weaker parts that pleased critics such as Trilling. My longer argument you will find at

Great American Novels: Calvin Trillin once proposed that Americans who are not a) WASP and b) male tend to be less boring because nobody's been telling them that they can grow up to be president. Novels that set out to be the GAM do tend to be worth avoiding. Maybe the Supreme Court could rule that Great American Novelist is a "Title of Nobility" under the meaning of Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution, ergo unconstitutional, and so save a lot of novelists from folly.

Lyrical: I am of two minds about that. I think that Marilynne Robinson's prose might be so described, yet I think her a very good writer. Definitely it can be overdone.

Merchant and Ivory: As far as I know, I've seen only "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", which spend a couple hours demonstrating that Juliette Binohe looks marvelous in lingerie, and that Communism is Bad. I think I could have figured out both propositions on my own. Anyway, Harvey Weinstein's empire has taken up the torch, and we won't run out of the sort of movies they made.

Steerforth said...

Thanks George - I've read the post and now understand what you mean.

I think the Supreme Court idea is an excellent one, although Paul Ryan might insist on making an exception for his beloved Ayn Rand.

I read a great American novel six weeks ago - Stoner. It didn't mention baseball once and only took a day to read, but I'm still thinking about it.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I've still not read Jonathan Franzen - it's the 'big American novel' cliche for me that puts me off, that's probably why The Goldfinch will sit on my shelf for ages too.

However I'd defend Graham Greene to the ends of the earth, and his novels improve upon re-reading for me. They are also a really good length - not drawn out at all, and that's something that many of these writers of thick books could learn from

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I'm reading some very thick books at the moment - Trollope's Palliser novels - but because they're so entertaining the length isn't intimidating. On the other hand I've spent up to two weeks struggling with short novels where every page feels like an ordeal.

I think Greene's strength is that he had the measure of himself and aimed to write a perfect Graham Greene novel rather than strive to be something he wasn't.

Pam said...

Isn't it really just personal preference? For instance, I love books that "drone on" about baseball. I also enjoy Trollope, Hillary Mantel and Marilynne Robinson. Stoner was a wonderful novel. Why not just enjoy reading what you enjoy reading and be nice about it?

Roget said...

What always amuses me is not the tendency of American writers to have large opinions, but that they are invariably expressed - as here - with a full tank of preening self-regard. I'd be genuinely interested to know exactly why Franzen derides Forster and Greene so completely, but of course he doesn't give us that. "Just take it from me, kids", he seems to be saying.
Maybe this kind of silly arrogance stems from the whole American Dream/Great American Novel tangle all these people get themselves into. I don't think anybody in these islands ever broke sweat trying to write the Great British Novel. He or she would be laughed off court at the merest hint of such vaingloriousness. Our writers and their stories are richer and better for its absence. And though we've had our fair share of notable "pricks" and "pompous jerks" a la Franzen, I think I'm right, Steerforth, in saying that we haven't yet offered up a single novel about bloody rounders.
One other point. Hilary Mantel is, I believe, a truly great novelist and even at this stage we haven't yet seen the best of her. Ain't it weird how opinions differ...?

Steerforth said...

Pam - Of course it's all about personal preference. But it would take all the fun out of it if we were always completely reasonable and measured in our pronouncements.

If someone critcises an author I love, I'm delighted because I'm genuinely fascinated by the way we can respond in such different ways to a novel or work or art. For me, passion is the important thing and that can either be for or against.

Roget - I suppose the nearest Britain gets to it is the 'London novel', where someone attempts to define the zeitgeist with a predictable list of characters (the media person, the illegal immigrant, the banker etc) and adds a bit of Dickensian polish. John Lanchester tried this in Capital but didn't pull it off. Neither did Blake Morrison.

The one London novel I really liked was Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds, as I actually cared what happened to the characters.

I suppose the drive to write a GAM is borne out of the desire to make sense of such a multifaceted, dynamic nation that is in a perpetual state of flux (the sport thing always feels like a self-conscious attempt by the author to an everyman). Britain, by contrast, had a strong sense of identity, a stagnant economy and a diminishing role in the world, so a GBN would be absurd.

I'll give Hillary Mantel another go. As I don't like historical novels, it will have to be Eight Months on Ghazza Street.

Roget said...

Well Steerforth, I so disagree with several of your points here that I think I'll go away and write an angst-ridden book about it.
Meanwhile, I forgot to say that I too loved the "fruit and grandparents" sally. Accurate and true.

Steerforth said...

Well, I rattle these half-baked ideas off without spending too long thinking about them. I believe Jack Kerouac used the same technique, to greater effect.

Annie said...

'we haven't yet offered up a single novel about bloody rounders'

haha, excellent!

Can recommend Hilary Mantel's 'Beyond Black' if you want to read something truly dark and scary.

I loved Amanda Craig's A Vicious Circle. Properly Dickensian.

Debra said...

I'll send you the most recent Goncourt if you send me "Born Free". Much modern French.. "fiction" sounds like medical reports to me.
I listened to Jonathan Franzen's... sound bites in lieu of literary criticism. It's true that Franzen is not Lionel Trilling, and even less Matthew Arnold, but to be fair, do any of you think that the world we now live in could produce another Lionel Trilling, or Matthew Arnold ? (I like Ian MacEwan's "Saturday" for his somewhat subtle transposition of "Dover Beach" onto modern England. Arnold's poem is as timely today as it was when it was written but I fear that we are much less... interesting as characters than our ancestors were. And I'm not setting myself outside this judgment.)
Franzen talks a lot like me. I see no self agrandizement in him, particularly. Think about it... some media person has asked him, what HE, as a novelist thinks, and he answers the questions. He doesn't even resort to a large vocabulary. There is no "jargon" in these sound bites (which, incidentally are not very interesting in my opinion.) He.. IS a novelist. He even manages to put meat and potatoes on the table doing it, which is something not a lot of us can afford to do right now. At least on the basis of what I see in these sound bites, I don't see how he is putting himself on a pedestal. Maybe elsewhere ? I don't know.
I am honestly mystified why so many people decree that others have high opinions of themselves, and on what basis. The logic of this escapes me.
Is there something terribly... wrong with having a high opinion of oneself ? Does it automatically imply that one has a.. low ? opinion of others ?
Not in my world, at any rate.
I do however, agree with somebody on this blog that there is an ocean of difference between the Old World and the New.
Too bad the Old World spends so much time kowtowing to the New, and feeling inferior...
Oh dear.. I seem to be feeling quite contrary these days. Sorry.

Steerforth said...

Annie - Yes, the rounders comment was very good. I Googled to see if there actually was a novel that featured the game - you never know - but drew a blank.

I'm a big fan of Amanda Craig and hope that she's working on another novel.

Debra - Don't worry about being contrary - it would be dull if we there was a bland consensus. I enjoyed Franzen's candour, even if I didn't entirely agree with him.

James Chester said...

Thomas's link sent me over here today. I watched the clip.... I usually argue that one should never listen to artists (of any kind) talk about their art. They seldom, if ever, have anything interesting to say about it. Readers should be the ones we go to when we want to talk about books; writers not so much.

As for Franzen, all I have to say is that one month after Freedom came out in hardback, I saw four copies at my local Friends of the Library book sale for two dollars each. Let's wait around 30 years and see who's still in print.

zmkc said...

There are some terrible Hungarian novels about, but the Banffy trilogy (They Were Counted, They Were something else I've forgotten and They Were Found Wanting [biblical quote I have a vague idea]) about Transylvanian aristocratic life before the First World War is good in any language, I reckon. Hopelessly romantic, but that's part of what makes it so great.

Steerforth said...

James - I agree. I also fail to see why people are so desperate to meet authors. I've met quite a few over the years and the majority of encounters have been disappointing. I'd rather know them through their writing.

Zoe - Thanks for the recommendation. A mere 99p on Amazon, I see (Kindle version). I must read it.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Franzen on overrated books. Now there's some irony.