Jonathan Franzen has been named the Great American novelist by Time Magazine.
It isn’t so much that Franzen is or isn’t a good writer – but rather the question of who represents the American experience, and what critics make that determination.
So let’s look at the phrases that have been used to justify the effusive levels of praise being directed at Franzen. Tanenhaus, for example, says that Franzen’s book was great because it spoke to “our shared millennial life.” Grossman, the Time critic, admires the way Franzen “remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel.” Even the Brits agree that Franzen has tapped into some kind of shared experience psyche: the Guardian called The Corrections “a report from the frontline of American culture.”
It seems a fair question, in that context, to ask: “What’s this ‘we,’ white man?”
“The collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn…like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job…There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? … And was it true you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts okay politically? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood…Was it impossible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning?”
That’s a scene from a certain type of life. Some of us can relate to none of the above statement, some can relate to pieces, and some can relate to all of it. But more importantly, evaluating literature is a complex process, and one that has historically devalued the works from many different communities. It is in this environment that Franzen’s Freedom is pushed forward as “The Great American Novel” and it is this environment that pushes back, asking “which America?”