Amid all the hoopla about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections I had somehow overlooked it. I managed to catch the gist of Franzen’s falling-out with Oprah (when she picked The Corrections for her book club, he made the mistake of telling Terry Gross that he was surprised she’d be interested in a “literary” writer like him, triggering a Hell-hath-no-fury response and possibly losing him a few million bucks in royalties). I’d also heard that the story was about three grown siblings and their trouble with their aging parents, a subject which didn’t make me break any speed limits rushing out to buy the book.
What I’d failed to hear was that the book is funny. Even the infamous Fresh Air interview is too earnest to get across how accessible the book is through humor. It was only when I noticed that a hilarious short story from a recent Granta was really an excerpt from the novel — oh, that Jonathan Franzen! — that I realized my error. The blurbs should say, “an intergenerational novel of a dysfunctional Midwestern family, as written by the staff of the Onion.”
In the September 30, 2002 New Yorker, by the way, Franzen addresses at length the question of difficulty and accessibility in fiction, as illustrated by his hate mail for The Corrections and his love-hate relationship with the work of William Gaddis.
It turns out that I subscribe to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience. In one model, which was championed by Flaubert, the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it. We can call this the Status model…
In the opposing model, a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience. Writing thus entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group, whether the group consists of Finnegans Wake enthusiasts of fans of Barbara Cartland… A novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust. This is the Contract model… My mother would have liked it.
Franzen’s secret is that, however much he may be called an elitist, inside he believes in the Contract model. But as a reader and a writer he knows that the best reading experience, the one which most fulfills the Contract, is not necessarily the easiest; the ideal is to be accessible and “difficult”.
Finally, I love the cover of Franzen’s new collection of essays, How to Be Alone, which as intended I first saw sitting on the New Releases table of my local Barnes & Noble, as though in a self-referential Escher print.