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With Critic, Franzen Criticizes Criticism

The relation between those who create art and those who critique it is notoriously fraught, something that was evident quickly to the standing-room only crowd in Sever Hall last night that watched novelist Jonathan Franzen face English professor James Wood, who has been one of his toughest critics.

Wood, who is also a staff writer for The New Yorker, is noted for his censure of the postmodern social novel, which he termed the “contemporary American novel in its big triumphalist form” in a 2001 review of Franzen’s novel “The Corrections.”

But at the event yesterday, Wood had little but kindness for his longtime target.

“A lot of us will remember the moment of its publication because it was 2001 just around the time of 9/11,” Wood said. “It didn’t seem as if any novel could really survive that rivalry, something so massive. But of course, this novel not only survived, but enormously prospered.”

Franzen said only that he was “disappointed” with Wood’s review of “The Corrections,” but quickly took aim at critics more generally.

“The reviews tend to be repetitive and tend to be so filled with error that they’re kind of unbearable to read, even the nice ones,” Franzen said. “The most upsetting thing nowadays is the feeling that there’s no one out there responding intelligently to the text,” he said. “So few people are actually doing serious criticism. It’s so snarky, it’s so ad hominum, it’s so black and white.”

“The stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times,” he added, referring to controversial, Pulitzer-Prize winning reviewer Michiko Kakutani.

Speaking to the success of “The Corrections”—a National Book Award winner that examines how children want to correct the mistakes of their parents’ lives, and how parents live vicariously through their children—Franzen identified two types of readers: one who reads because it is the “right thing to do” and one of a more intellectual nature.

Franzen placed himself in the second category of what he termed the “resistant” or “isolated” reader.

“Some wrong turn was taken at some point between the age of eight and usually age 20, but often in junior high, where if things aren’t working out so well socially for you, for whatever reason, you spend a lot of time with books,” Franzen said. “Not surprisingly that pool of readers tends to give us most of our writers.”

Wood noted that Franzen has had a difficult time writing novels after the success of “The Corrections,” and that he has spent the past few years publishing “a lot of nonfiction a good deal less fiction.”

“A lot of people would like to know,” why this is, Wood said.

Franzen responded by noting that many writers have been in a post-Sept. 11 malaise, and that it grew so severe that at one point he considered offering up his own money in order to urge writers to break through their writer’s block.

“I actually had an idea a couple of years ago—when six or seven people I knew were all in a similar place of frustration with the novel—of sponsoring a prize, of offering $10,000 of my own money who first delivered a novel,” Franzen said.

Franzen also noted the potential obsolescence of serious fiction, saying that the purpose of the novel is not to “vividly bring home social conditions.”

“When you have the opportunity to do a documentary—to do Frontline, to do The Wire—and reach a much larger audience much quicker and you actually gain, it’s more vivid, you can go right to the body on the street in Baghdad and can have that up on the screen,” Franzen said. “I’m engaged in a lifelong struggle to produce texts that have that kind of interior depth that is not immediately apparent, that repay some kind of careful analysis without losing people who just want to follow along on the surface.”

—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached acohn@fas.harvard.edu.