Late summer; we’re out to dinner on St Mark’s, some former squat or head shop or shooting gallery gentrified into a ritzy Chinese restaurant. One of our friends is a musician, his musical career roughly analogous to my literary one, meaning we’re making beautiful things that reach very small audiences, neither of us anywhere near being able to make a living from our art even though we work on it absolutely all the time (and of course we’re both insanely talented and very handsome and certain to conquer the world).
Halfway through dinner he leans across the table and aims a fork in my direction. “I need to ask you a serious question. What do you think of Jonathan Franzen?”
I laugh because JF is ubiquitous that week or month, and our friends and parents all want to talk about him, and so every writer has had to think about what they think of him. And because it IS a serious question. Because art is serious, it’s life and it’s death, and artists take it very seriously. And sometimes we get a little bit mad about the big success stories.
My friend continues. “I ask because he’s on the cover of Time and everybody makes such a huge deal out of him, but I just feel absolutely no impulse to pick up anything by him.”
Which is pretty much exactly how I feel. I’ve only read some of his essays, in How To Be Alone, which a friend gave me as a gift, and which left me utterly unchanged and left my head in a matter of weeks.
“I get the sense that it’s really just middle class white people and their problems and their dysfunctions,” he continues. “And I just have zero interest in that.”
I tell him the truth, which is that I have no idea if this is accurate, but it’s absolutely my sense of Jonathan Franzen. Like a lot of the “literary fiction” (meaning, I guess, non-genre?), I see it in the bookstore and roll my eyes, thinking, do I really need to be told, again, how soul-killing suburban life can be? How put-upon the Heterosexual American Caucasoid male is?
[Aside: because I know he has billions of devoted fans and because I get enough nastiness in my life already I want to repeat that I have no real experience of reading the man - I'm owning my ignorance. Everyone has stuff that leaves them totally cold - lots of folks feel totally turned off by science fiction, and I can only pity them for all the awesome sh*t they're missing out on. So by all means, Franzenfans, pity me]
So then it’s my turn to lean across the table and ask a serious question. “What do you think of the Hold Steady?”
Now *he* laughed. “They don’t do much for me. They sound like so many other things.”
I asked because they seem analogous to Franzen - a BFD (Big Frakking Deal) to tons of people; eerily familiar, comforting but fresh, doing what they do really well.
I actually don’t think very much of this can be chalked up to jealousy. Maybe a teeny bit of resentment, the same as any artist who feels like they’re making something wonderful and toiling in obscurity and resents very popular work. Most fans of either one probably won’t think the equation of Jonathan Franzen and the Hold Steady is a pejorative. I’m sure both of them worked very hard to get where they are.