In browsing through Jonathan Franzen's new book of essays, Farther Away, it's occurred to me how different my way of thinking is from his. Utterly different ways of viewing literature. Different world views, even though we're from the same generation and even, roughly, the same part of the country.
Franzen's view is extremely interior. Which is why he enjoys writers of the personal and the interior like Alice Munro and David Foster Wallace. I find both of them virtually unreadable. Franzen will discuss society and the world, as he does-- not too well in my opinion-- in Freedom. But he views the outer world through the prism of the domestic and the interior.
This is the same way he views himself as a writer, and by extension other writers. I see Jonathan Franzen and other system writers as hamsters kept in a cage. They never question the cage itself. I'm not sure they see it. They don't see themselves as writers within the context of society. Everything for them is a given.
An example of this is the attitude toward David Foster Wallace. He's not seen as a product of our mad postmodern society. It's accepted that he was depressed, just because he was, and he didn't take his meds and if we have problems we should all take our meds and we never for a minute look at society; we don't glimpse at the cage. But DFW was mentally stressed and maybe we could possibly perhaps very gently ask why he was mentally stressed. Could it possibly have anything to do with how far he plunged himself into mass electronic media? His television viewing, as evidenced by some of his early essays, was so mammoth and intense it could be called legendary. He not only watched the nonstop stream of video garbage, he studied the garbage minutely. Hundreds and thousands of hours of it. All of that went into his brain. At the same time he was creating massive amounts of intense self-absorbed writing. Try reading one of his endless instant-by-instant novels and think about the hyper-aware brain creating it. A brain on fire. Can we think his writer lifestyle had no effect? I recently completed a much smaller novel, one not consumed in self and minutia, and yet found myself at night unable to sleep as the pieces of narrative and sentences circulated again and again through my brain. Why have so many writers self-medicated? David Foster Wallace was a creature of society and can be understood only within the context of society and lifestyle and within postmodern philosophy-- which I consider unsatisfying madness-- and through the postmodern style of thinking and writing. From Jonathan Franzen we get none of this.
The larger question is whether Franzen's own style of thinking and writing-- or Alice Munro's-- is the path down which contemporary American literature should be heading.