Myers: 1 Oprah: O

On Monday, I blogged about the need for praise when it comes to the arts.  But that’s not to say we don’t also need people willing to tear things into a million pieces when they deserve it.  Someone’s got to tell the emperor that his butt’s hanging out.

B.R. Myers of the Atlantic brilliantly does the necessary this week in taking apart Jonathan Franzen’s wildly praised new novel Freedom, the book Oprah Winfrey called “a masterpiece.”

Now let me say right off:  I have only read enough of Jonathan Franzen to know I don’t want to read more of Jonathan Franzen, which is not a lot.  I find his subjects dull, his prose puerile and his insights shallow.  But since Myers went to the trouble of reading most of the book, let him tell it:

Language vies with content to be as ugly as possible. Richard’s love for Walter is described as follows: “These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow.” Meanwhile, the author’s attempts at humor descend to the sort of puerility that Americans tolerate only when reading a so-called literary novel. A documentary about bitterns is to be called Bitternness; the pun is repeated a few times for good measure. A man with his face in a woman’s private parts can “feel one of the cats clambering onto his feet, seeking attention. Pussy, pussy.” The imagery ranges from merely passable to lazily half baked: “Gene … stirred the cauldrons like a Viking oarsman.” No doubt the author’s fans will welcome this writing because hey, it’s so much like modern America itself. If only Franzen were less aware of how much badness he can get away with.

Why was Freedom written? The prologue raises expectations for a socially engaged, or at least social, narrative that are left unmet. Too much of it takes place in high school, college, or suburbia; how odd that a kind of fiction allegedly made necessary by America’s unique vitality always returns to the places that change the least. Franzen clearly has little interest in the world of work. (The same applies, incidentally, to whoever edited the novel.)

Read the whole thing here.  Really:  do.

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  • Elizabeth

    Somebody’s envious. Poor Klavan!

  • firstHat

    Elizabeth, are you suggesting that Andrew Klavan would want (is “envious” of) the attack Franzen has drawn from Myers? Do you think he wants to be loved by Oprah and hated by Myers? Very strange thing to be envious of, isn’t it (in either case)? Either way, your comment is a very strange non sequitur as a supposed response to this post.

    Thank you Mr. Klavan for pointing to an entertaining read that went beyond a simple serving of snark cake and instead offered a well-supported critique. I think there is a great deal of difference between the two.

  • Ellen

    Very interesting and thoughtful review. I tried to read Mr. Franzen’s first book, but could not get interested at all. I couldn’t care about the characters. So I opened Bleak House by Dickens and all was well.

  • Nora Charles

    I feel the same way about Australian author Tim Winton.

    Sadly his impenetratable prose is foisted upon poor unsuspecting high school students who would be better, far better, off reading the classics.

  • Benjamin

    For anybody interested: A very good take on Oprah’s obsession with filth:

    http://therawness.com/precious-review-part-2-oprahs-fixation/

    Read it, if you have a few minutes. Very revealing.