Thursday, November 26, 2015

Reading Jonathan Franzen, a Sort-Of Review of The Corrections

I'm always incredibly late to the party.

This year (2015) I finally read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a book that came out in 2001 and immediately took the Literary world by storm.

I didn't wait 14 years to read the book because I hadn't heard of it. I was aware of it. Books that are as successful and highly praised as The Corrections are difficult to ignore.

In fact, I thought about The Corrections a little too much for a book I intended never to read. I picked it up countless times at book stores and libraries, fingering the pages, eyes roaming the cover, thinking "Maybe? No." Before putting it back down.

I just couldn't bring myself to read it. Why? Because of 2 things I had read about the book and its author: (1) The Corrections is a literary masterpiece, and (2) Jonathan Franzen is a pompous windbag.

I have no idea if Mr. Franzen is as much of a douchebag as twitter asserts. Just for fun, I suggest you google "why the internet hates Jonathan Franzen" and read some of the articles that come up.

What follows is a review of sorts. It's not so much a review of The Corrections itself as it is a review of my experience of reading a Jonathan Franzen novel. (Oh yes, I'm that self-involved.) In list form, because lists.

(1) The cover of The Corrections is a case study in the culture war between literary fiction and genre fiction.

You might think that the book's cover art is fairly simple and innocuous, but you would be wrong. The picture is of an American family sitting down to what is presumably a holiday meal. The family is white and probably at least middle class, as evidenced by the Sunday best that the two young boys you can see are reluctantly wearing.

(I'm comfortable assuming that this is a holiday meal because of the gorgeous turkey that is proudly presented by the matriarch of the depicted family. Turkeys are understood as the cultural centerpiece of American holiday meals, despite the fact that not every family chooses to have one.)

Book covers are designed to entice readers to buy the book. In order to do so, they attempt to create a feeling of kinship between the readers and the book, as well as the book's author. The symbolism used in the cover art, therefore, is not accidental.

JONATHAN FRANZEN is emblazoned across the top third of the cover, in larger typeface than The Corrections. The picture of the family-at-holiday-mealtime takes up less than 25% of the cover space, and is pushed down to the bottom of the cover.

Between the title of the novel and the picture is a blurb from the New York Review of Books:

"You will laugh, wince, groan, weep, leave the table and maybe the country, promise to never go home again, and be reminded of why you read serious fiction in the first place."

Where to begin?
Setting the author's name in larger typeface than the book title suggests that the author is a larger draw than the book itself, and thus more important. So, from the outset the reader is being told that Jonathan Franzen is a Super Important Dude.

Mr. Franzen's  name is so large on the cover that it dwarfs the picture beneath it. But that's not all. The position of his name in relation to the picture, as well as the size of his name in relation to the picture, are both meaningful and problematic:  unless you're white, middle class, and exclusively read literary fiction, in which case this cover just reinforces your pre-existing world views.

But I'm not talking to those people.

This cover associates Jonathan Franzen, as an author and public figure, with the middle class, middle class culture, and middle class ideals. But, since his name lords it over the rest of the cover art, it also elevates him above those very people and ideals. He is both of the privileged class and better than the privileged class, and from his vaunted position, he is qualified to judge the rest of the people in it.

The blurb from the New York Review of Books serves to assure the reader that he/she has a place at the holiday table. He/she is being told explicitly that "yes. You are one of us." The reader is acknowledged to have a background similar to those in the picture (and, presumably, to that of Jonathan Franzen himself). The holiday meal depicted on the cover is referred to as Home. This book, therefore, is being presented as a shared experience.

But it's not just The Corrections that is being shared. Also implied as shared between the readers of the novel and the book's author is the middle class American experience, and all that that includes: material comfort, stability, an above-average education that includes college, parents that probably don't love each other but probably also don't beat you, and boredom.

Oh, and Serious Fiction. Mr. Franzen writes Serious Fiction and his readers and cohorts exclusively read it.

There are others, of course, who aren't invited to Mr. Franzen's shared literary experience. Those who are too poor, maybe, or too uneducated, to read Serious Fiction. Who are they? Readers of genre fiction, of course. And I am one of those people.

Hence my long-time reluctance to pick up and actually read The Corrections.

(2) I absolutely fucking loved The Corrections

I so hate to admit this, after having so thoroughly dissected the book's disgustingly elitist cover art. But it's true. It will likely end up on my end-of-year top ten list.

(3) I will likely read Mr. Franzen's newest and even more controversial novel Purity. 

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