Franzen, take 2

Yesterday the BBC ran a story suggesting that Jonathan Franzen warned U.S. writers not to talk about politics. This kind of chastisement gets me all het up, as regular readers of this site may have noticed. (See also: What next? Make some fucking noise.)

Since I mentioned the article yesterday, a couple of friends gingerly observed — “um, Maud, could you stop brandishing that hot poker for a minute?” — that the actual Franzen quotations provided are more measured than the BBC story suggests. The always reasonable George Murray says:

I think the quote may be out of context . . . At least in this article, it seems more like he’s bemoaning the state of the author as public intellectual than pulling a Neal Pollack.

On rereading, I see what George and my other friends mean.

I continue to take issue with the idea that a writer who’d otherwise wish to speak out should be silent for fear of “look[ing] like an ass.” So this part of what I said yesterday still stands:

Look, it’s fine if a novelist doesn’t want to take a political position. Franzen should feel free to be silent if that suits him.

But this kind of blase, out-of-hand dismissal of all writers’ political convictions and discourse is idiotic and dangerous — not to mention contravened by the course of history. And it’s hypocritical where, as here, the author has written satirical fiction of political significance within the last couple of years.

If a writer’s political comments — Susan Sontag’s comments about the war, for instance — strike you as problematic, naive, didactic, or otherwise objectionable, then by all means disagree, if you want. Or not.

But don’t suggest that other writers should be silent about politics, particularly not if you’re a white, middle-aged man and prominent author and have made political statements of your own.

Anyway, it’s true that Franzen, contrary to the implication of the BBC story, and unlike Neal Pollack, didn’t exactly tell other writers to shut up or “warn” them not to speak. And a friend listened to the broadcast on which the quote was aired and said Franzen made no further statements there. But his characterization of vocal, politically engaged writers as asses still galls me.

On a related note, a reader writes:

The thing that has struck me about [Franzen’s] public persona is its (perhaps unintentional) comic quality. Each time he opens his mouth in public he becomes like a character from a French farce — the fellow who always fucks things up and yet never seems to understand that is what he is doing.

“Why is everyone so angry? All I said was . . .” And then he says it again, Madame So-and So faints, the other characters shout at him angrily and the audience howls with laugher.

His problem is that he hasn’t seemed to have found that audience.


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