In Issue Four of Kill Your Darlings (published this Friday), Caroline Hamilton writes about Jonathan Franzen’s cultural ambivalence. Read an exclusive pre-publication extract from the essay here.
By the time of its arrival, the book titled Freedom was, ironically enough, weighted with baggage. Ten days before its official US release, media organisations reported that President Barack Obama had been spotted with a copy of the novel while on summer holiday at Martha’s Vineyard. These reports led to a frenzy of internet commentary as booksellers and eager readers asserted their right to buy a book which hadn’t yet been released. Their indignation was exacerbated when the New York Times published not one but two glowing, early reviews, praising the novel’s ‘limning prose’ and declaring it a ‘masterpiece of American fiction’. Not to be outdone, Time magazine named Jonathan Franzen the ‘Great American Novelist’ and made him the first writer in ten years to grace their cover. Tiring of these plaudits, the best-selling author Jodi Picoult set Twitter aflutter by noting the New York Times’ preference for ‘white male literary darlings’. Fellow chick-litter Jennifer Weiner followed suit, coining the hashtag ‘#Franzenfreude’ to describe the experience of ‘taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen’. When, at last, Freedom was released, it entered the New York Times’ best-seller list at number one.
Fame is both a blessing and a curse. This is especially true for the author of literary fiction, a genre with a peculiar capacity to turn market failure into evidence of artistic credibility. ‘Nobody is rich enough to pay us,’ Flaubert once quipped, inaugurating the long artistic tradition of ‘keepin’ it real’. Like other writers of his period, Flaubert sought to distinguish his literary output from that of his competitors by claiming he worked without concern for the marketplace. His was a kind of literary aristocracy that – in word, if not in deed – paid no heed to the existence of an audience. The reality, as true today as it was then, is that novelists not only want to earn a living but, by the very nature of their art, need an audience on the other side of the story.