In Defense of the Difficult
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
It happened on a mercifully temperate June afternoon out in front of the Brooklyn Heights outpost of Housing Works Thrift Shop. A willowy brunette with flowing, Botticelli-esque hair stood at a rickety folding table, a winsome expression on her face as she tried to lure in random passersby. It wasn’t hard. The hand-lettered “Free Cookies” sign was enough to snag most people’s attention, but what got them to stop altogether was the tri-colored “Novelade Stand” placard that sat in the middle of the table. That’s right, this young woman, Jennifer Miller, wasn’t selling raffle tickets for the local Waldorf school; she was selling her own novel, The Year of the Gadfly, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in May of this year.
People taking in the scene that day in Brooklyn giggled and broke into spontaneous grins. They skimmed Miller’s Tracy Flick-ish list of reasons “Why You’ll Love My Novel” (the first line item being “Oprah called it ‘engrossing’”), while munching on cookies. “How delightful,” one woman said to her companion as she strode past toward the promenade. And it was delightful—adorable really—like something out of a Beverly Cleary book. It was also, to my writer’s mind, deeply unnerving. Once upon a time, novelists regularly graced the cover of Time magazine and people anticipated the books of writers like John Updike and Bill Styron with the same fervor they now reserve for the Olympics. Were we now reduced to hawking our wares from street stalls, like funnel cake salesmen?
My intention here is not to mortify Miller. Like many writers, she was just trying to solve an intractable problem: How does an unknown writer garner attention for her work in an era when publishing budgets are contracting in direct proportion to the shrinking pool of readers? Writers used to worry about getting published. Period. After that, the system took over. Now, for all but the most famous, getting published is only the first step in an increasingly harrowing process of self-marketing. Writers not lucky enough to crest a particular wave of the zeitgeist are now required to spend so much time burnishing their online images (Facebook, then Twitter, then Tumblr, oh my!) they’re starting to make publicists look subtle. No, the problem here isn’t Miller, who managed somehow to make this mobile marketing effort look more fun than desperate. Nor is it writers like Emma Straub, whose natural charisma makes using these tools look easy. The problem is that when writers are forced to focus too hard on their own curb appeal they run the risk of becoming just another commodity. When likeability starts to trump substance, books and their authors are in danger of becoming sad, anemic creatures.
Farther Away, the spiritual sequel to Jonathan Franzen’s 2003 book of essays, How to be Alone, could be said to be about a lot of things—the nature of love; the “distractions and atomizations of contemporary life”; the virtues of full engagement—but it is most concerned with Americans’ growing preoccupation with “likeability.” At heart, the book is a defense of the difficult, both within ourselves and in our art. In a culture where forces like Facebook are constantly conspiring to reshape us into more marketable versions of ourselves, Franzen preaches that our salvation depends on not losing touch with the “authentic but horrible.” Those who’ve followed his career closely might say that he has more reason than most to endorse this view.
Franzen has the dubious distinction of being the lit world’s current poster child for unlikeability. First he dared reject the advances of the Queen of Daytime; then he “maligned” his friend David Foster Wallace’s memory by daring to air his imperfections in “Farther Away,” the New Yorker article from which this collection takes its name; then he committed the mortal sin of calling Edith Wharton ugly. And these are just his most noteworthy offenses. Really, the man trails faux pas behind him like toilet paper. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could make the argument that Farther Away is less a philosophical treatise than an exercise in self-defense. But that’s unfair. Franzen, unlike, say, Philip Roth, is not some solipsistic misanthrope. On the contrary, his fiction is full of the anguish of trying to connect. If Franzen is guilty of anything it’s a refusal to compromise his truth in the name of popularity. And lucky for us, because it is this very willingness to brave our bad opinion that makes his fiction so uncompromisingly alive. It’s also what qualifies him to lecture us on embracing our own flawed natures.
If you come to Farther Away already disliking Franzen, the book will provide you with some compelling reasons to continue doing so. Even I, who was fully on board with the project, got tired of being lectured on the corruptions of civic life brought on by cell phones in “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Is an “I love you” uttered during a rushed streetside heart-to-heart a little phony? Possibly. But most of us are not “Great Men of Letters” with the luxury to conduct all of our private business in a careful and deliberate manner. We have jobs and families and friends and passions to juggle—and then there’s always the shopping. Franzen’s opera box seat in life is also on evidence in essays like “The Chinese Puffin” in which he recounts his journey to China to trace the origins of a Puffin-shaped golf club warmer he received as a gift. The resulting tale is full of worthy information about China’s struggling environmental movement and evolving manufacturing practices. It even manages to be funny. Still it’s hard to relate to a man with the leisure and means to devote weeks to exploring the provenance of a stuffed animal.
Still, it’s difficult to fault him for this. Franzen can only speak with authority from his own particular perch in life and his, like all of ours, is limited. Moreover, his willingness to lay bare his entitlement and occasional arrogance does much to support the book’s underlying point. Literature’s primary mandate in Franzen’s view is to get at what’s real, and, as he says in his opening salvo, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” “There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of.”
For Franzen, art isn’t a popularity contest but a quest for truth, and vanity is always at odds with truth. The essays in Farther Away cover a lot of territory but nearly all of them circle back to this central point. In “Pain Won’t Kill You,” Franzen rails against social media because it feeds a brand of self-regard that he believes to be the enemy of the real. In virtual life, he says, “We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly. . .We like the mirror and the mirror likes us” all at the expense of the authentic. Coming from an author whose fame guarantees that he requires no introduction, let alone a Facebook page, this is a little hard to stomach. But Franzen’s message is still one worth considering, particularly for writers. How, after all, can a writer be expected to continue unearthing the dirty business of living if he’s busy going to “extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable?”
In the searching and occasionally searing “Farther Away,” Franzen’s essay about the suicide of David Foster Wallace, he suggests that it was, in fact, Wallace’s willingness to mercilessly exhume his least sociable qualities that made his fiction so powerful and resonant. “[He] gave us the worst of himself: he laid out, with an intensity of self-scrutiny worthy of comparison to Kafka and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, the extremes of his own narcissism, misogyny, compulsiveness, self-deception, dehumanizing moralism and theologizing, doubt in the possibility of love, and entrapment in the footnotes-within-footnotes self-consciousness . . . [and we] gratefully seized on each new dispatch.” Franzen goes so far as to wonder whether it was Wallace’s pathological preoccupation with his waning public stature that spurred his lethal depression. Literary pundits have faulted Franzen for trotting out and dissecting his friend’s flaws in “Farther Away,” but this piece isn’t a character assassination, it’s an investigation—an examination of the beauty and terror of loving a person, flaws and all, and it is its barbs that make it so human. This sort of stark realism is not reserved solely for Wallace, but on display throughout the book.
In Farther Away, Franzen has made it his mission to penetrate what he terms the “dense modern fog of sentimentality” to get at the ugly truths underneath. He does this not because he enjoys dwelling in the dark, but because the dark is a necessary and rich component of the human experience, one that he believes is being forced more and more underground. If you are not convinced of his point of view by the more pedantic pieces in the book, you likely will be by the treatments of some of his favorite writers. The authors he showcases in Farther Away range from Paula Fox and Frank Wedekind to Christina Stead and Dostoyevsky; each utterly singular, all gloriously difficult. Franzen’s near reverential reviews of their work serve as vivid reminders that great fiction is about much more than entertainment; it’s about bringing communion to people stranded on the island of the self—something that can only be accomplished with a faithful recounting of what it really means to be human, warts and all. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Franzen, himself, is at his most likeable when celebrating the remarkably flawed people he believes do this best.