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[53] How To Be Alone – Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection – How To Be Alone – validates my pet peeve about how serious works of fiction (usually classics and literary fiction) should be shelved separately from the audience-friendly fluffs at the bookstore. Provocatively funny and insightful, the book cuts to the truth about how fiction can only retain its cultural vitality so long as it can bring readers meaningful message about what it means to live in the world of the present. It exposes the unfortunate compromise of literary depth that only substantive works of fiction can bring about with such superficiality that has deprived one of imagination.

The essay collection reaffirms Franzen’s prerogative to engage in social criticism, however intensely he strives to free himself of the social responsibility as a novelist and writes fiction that fun to write and unnecessarily audience-friendly. Franzen may have ranged in subject matter from sex-advice industry, to the undead letters that rose up in every corner of Chicago, to cigarette’s invasion of nasal privacy. The local particulars of each of these essays matter Franzen less than the underlying theme that he audaciously gives voice to a silent majority of sufferers in the erosion of civil life and private dignity.

Franzen advocates a more subtle level of privacy: a mental privacy attainable only from the self-immersion in substantive works of fiction. He pinpoints that reading teaches one to be alone and the rapt absorption in a novel best assimilates a state of meditation in which one reflects on the meanings of things. Owing to the unpredictable nature of substantive works of fiction that one can perceive different insights with each reading. Italo Calvino articulates a similar perspective in If on A Winter’s Night a Traveler/Uses of Literature: reading serious literature at different stage of life stimulates thinking and impinges on the embedded circumstances and a memory in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them. Such unpredictability separates substantive works of fiction from best-selling chart fluffs, distinguishes the Penguin Classics from feel-good chick lit, expels the babel of televised book clubs from the pantheon of literary connoisseurship.

Franzen raises the alarm that for every reader who dies today, a viewer is born – the final tipping of the balance that first started in the last decade. The ubiquitous access to media technology compounds the estrangement from spoken and written language. On average people spend more time surfing the internet and watching television than reading a work of fiction. He mourns the eclipse of cultural authority that literature once possessed; and he rues the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of a text becomes difficult to sustain.

Franzen subscribes to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience: status and contract. A “status” novel exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it and the author of which disdains cheap compromise and stays true to an artistic, arthistorical vision. Such a novel resists casual reading and merits sustained study. A “contract” novel represents a compact between writer and reader and provides a discourse of pleasure and connection.

Exactly how much less serious fiction/literature matters to the mass culture than it did when books like Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Master and Margarita, Ulysses (the list goes on and on) were published is difficult to judge. But the level of appreciation and the state of meditation derived from these classics have no doubt diminished. The most salient evidence is the type of mindless and dreadful feedback televised book club members submitted about their not getting through even half of Anna Karenina.

How to Be Alone demonstrates a nuanced mind at work in a paradoxical realm: Franzen’s persistence to preserve privacy in a crowd, to steer clear of the noise of mass culture, while maintaining the channel that allows him to imbue news to the mass culture. To be alone, afterall, is to be able to defend and sanctify serious literature.

6 Responses

  1. Sounds like an interesting book for someone who had a bad brush with “The Old Man and the Sea” at 17.

    I believe there’s hope. Most of the young people who come into our bookstore buy paperback classics, which surprised me.

  2. I’m very happy to hear that Jef. Classics (or anything published under Penguins or Modern Library) seem to have an ominous presence that scare people away! I’m glad young people are still digging the classics.

  3. I’m not sure from your review if Franzen is conflating “status” literature with “serious” literature (I haven’t read How to Be Alone), but if so, I think this is a mistake. Many works of “serious” literature are quite enjoyable, and intentionally so – Dickens, Camus, and of course Shakespeare were all popular in their time (and now).

    I don’t think I buy into the division of literature into “serious” and “not-serious” anyway, not least because it appears to devalue humor and pleasure.

    Oh, and to echo a commenter on your previous post, Who’s J?

  4. Ming,
    Don’t you see that there is a probleming with shelving Danielle Steele and Dostoevsksy under the same section? lol

    Maybe there should be a section that devotes to the classics. The City Lights Bookstore here in SF separates European literature from the rest of the genre. Bookstores in Singapore and HK have a whole Penguin/Modern Library Classics section.

    I don’t think serious/not serious is a good criterion, because take, for example, Kundera, most of his works are very funny and enjoyable to read and yet they are considered classics. What do you think?

    J is the special some I’ve been seeing for a month now. 🙂

  5. Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  6. Matt,

    I don’t see a problem with shelving Steele and Dostoevsky in the same section. It’s not hard to tell the two apart. Also, perhaps this would introduce some Steele readers to Dostoevsky and vice versa. Cross-pollination galore! 🙂

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