Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NO FOOTNOTES NEEDED: My literary esthetic

     I’m about a third of the way through Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom. It’s an admirable book: witty, even eloquent at times; well observed; psychologically acute; nicely plotted; full of vivid, fully realized, interesting characters.  I’m enjoying this book. It deserves the rather exuberant praise it’s received. Anyone who’s written a book has my respect, and Franzen has given us a much-better-than-usual book, so he has my respect, doubled.
     Nevertheless (you saw that “nevertheless” coming, didn’t you, or at least a “but”)—nevertheless,  I am reading Freedom with just a bit of preemptive regret, because I know that, for all its virtues, it is a novel that will not withstand the Test of Time.* Fifty years from now, no one will be reading it except 1) minor anthropologists, sociologists, and historians who want to learn about the U.S. middle-class mindset in the year 2010, and 2) the occasional grad student who is struggling to find a PhD topic. The novel will, as the years progress, have an ever-dwindling audience. A hundred years from now, it will be forgotten altogether. Why? Because it is a novel too much of the here and now and not enough of the everywhere and always.  A Chinese reader who knows English even today would find its cultural allusions culturally elusive. It lacks, as they say, universality.
      I’m always a bit saddened when a novel I like anchors itself to a particular time and place—and therefore prevents itself from sailing off into the distant future and visiting many distant lands. Many elements can anchor a novel in this sad way. In Franzen’s case, one of them is his reliance on brand names and current cultural references. He has a long passage about iPods and MP3 players, for example, and mentions the brand name of a particular kind of outdoor decking (Trex) an unholy number of times (well, three or four times). He refers to celebrities like Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop continually.  If you want a book that takes the brand-name references to even more of an extreme, see Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which seems to rest on a foundation of New York Times advertisements. What this means is that fifty years from now, no one will be able to read either of those books without footnotes.
      Other elements that can ground a book on the reef of one time and one place are short-lived slang phrases (“23-skiddoo,” anyone? “Whatever.”), heavy emphasis on short-lived contemporary technology (please, no cassette players or Priuses in the Great American Novel),  long descriptions of current fashion (fedoras, capri pants) and references to other contemporary writers (J.K. Rowling, just maybe, but not Tom Clancy).
      The greatest writers require almost no cultural footnotes. Their books’ worlds are pretty much self-contained. All you may need to know is some basic history (for Faulkner, that there had been a U.S. Civil War, for example) or some basic vocabulary (for Melville, perhaps what a harpoon is). The only contemporary celebrities in the Iliad are the characters themselves, who exist fully on the page. (Bob Dylan does not exist fully on Franzen’s pages. E.L. Doctorow has tried occasionally to resurrect real historical figures on the page; it rarely works.) Melville’s otherwise perfect short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” has only one failing for me: its reference to John Jacob Astor in its early pages. Who the hell was John Jacob Astor? (I actually know the answer because I was a bloody American Lit specialist once upon a time, and I had to look him up; now the story usually comes with, yes, footnotes.) John Updike’s Rabbit novels will likewise fail the Test of Time, I fear, if only because the word “Toyota” plays such a big role in them.
      A hundred years from now, what reader will know Toyota, any more than we would know the brand name of a hansom cab in a Dickens novel?
      Dickens never bothered telling us the brand names of his hansom cabs (did he?), and if he did, it wasn’t because those names would have been as important to his novels as Toyota is to Updike or Apple is to Franzen.
      In sum: To the extent that you need footnotes to appreciate  a book, it fails The Test of Time.
      I would go even further: To the extent that a book requires footnotes, it is also an esthetic failure.
      A book should be, to the extent any book can be, self-contained. Of course, the writer will be limited by the vocabulary, and the science, and the other discoveries open to him in his time—but the great writers overcome these limitations. The world of a great book should exist within the book itself. Otherwise, that book is nothing but, as my Columbia professors used to call each book (to my horror), “a cultural artifact.” That is, it is something for historians and anthropologists to exhume, dust off, and examine. Sorry, gentlemen, but I think Huckleberry Finn is more than a shard of pottery.
      I take this argument against footnotes quite far. It is really an argument against outside-the-text literary allusions of any kind. In graduate school, I once made the claim in an American Lit seminar that Moby Dick would be the same book if Ahab were called “Harry” instead of “Ahab.” Our professor, a wonderful then-new teacher named Sacvan Bercovitch, did not bounce me bleeding from the room. Instead, for two hours he let the class chew over the questions of 1) whether the allusion to the Ahab who was a king in the Old Testamtent was important to one’s understanding of the novel, 2) what role external cultural context plays in any work of literature,  and 3) what the role of the literary critic should be—as a delver only inside the text or as an examiner of the influence culture and history exert on a text from the outside, and vice versa. 
       I was too ignorant to know it at the time, but in that seminar that day we were playing out the whole “New Criticism” vs. “Historicist Criticism” argument. Mr. Bercovitch later went on to a spectacular career as a teacher at Columbia and Harvard; he has been called perhaps the world’s greatest “historicist” American lit scholar (look him up on Wikipedia). Columbia’s English Department was a historicist school back then,  but I was more a New Critic, I suppose. (I actually think I was something else altogether.) The professors at Columbia treated me good-naturedly, though. In my PhD orals, one of my examiners said to me, after another discussion about the proper role of criticism, “You’re going to burn in hell with Northrup Frye.” That cracked the room up. I had no idea what he was talking about.
       But this remains a central principle of my literary esthetic: a great work of literature requires no looking outside the text itself. This, of course, means I have serious reservations about some “great” works like, well, just about all of T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s poetry, the novels of John Dos Passos, and most contemporary American novels like Franzen’s. But I still have wide shelves of books that do satisfy my esthetic demands, even contemporary books, such as Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett) and The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) and Corelli’s Mandolin (Louis de Bernieres) and Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry). At their best, all my favorite writers—Faulkner, Melville,  Borges, Garcia Marquez—create  worlds that seem to exist, whole, within their pages.
       No footnotes required.
*So here’s a footnote, anyway! For an interesting discussion of the Test of Time and its implications for literary works, see Law and Literature, by Richard Posner, Chapter One.


  1. Freedom is a wonderfully well-written novel, full of vivid and memorable characters; and, sorry Ed, I don't have any problem with a story that's written for its own time and place and is willing to bring that cultural atmosphere to life by furnishing the story with the stuff of its time, like iPod players and video games––as long as they're only the furnishings and not the foundation. But I think you're exactly right in saying that Freedom is largely about our American the middle class mindset––and that's one of my biggest problems with the novel. Central to this story is a critique of consumerism and our potentially deadly insistence on ignoring obvious and ongoing environmental disasters, all of which, in the view of the central character, Walter, stem from the core problem of exploding population growth. Yet the novel embraces the very middle class values that are at the heart of the problem. (Spoiler alert if you haven't finished the book yet!) When Patty and Walter reunite––which happens through a bit of obvious authorial manipulation, in my view––Patty finds happiness as the good middle-class mom, baking cookies for the neighbors and being faithful to her good husband. That's all fine. I happen to like lots of middle class values. But the story seems to be fully aware of the way those middle class consumerist values are destroying the environment and leading us headlong into tragedy, while simultaneously embracing and condemning them. It's a conundrum. Still (and though I have several other problems with the novel) I immensely enjoyed the read, largely for the wonderfully evoked characterizations.

    Lord of Misrule is, I think, a better novel, and I've been singing its virtues to all who will listen lately.

    And on a insider note, Ed--what did you think of Franzen stealing Katie's Cerulean Warbler subject matter? I found myself thinking about Katie throughout the whole story.

  2. To Ed F.: Agreed that *Freedom* is a fine read, and it's certainly legit for a novel to focus on the here and now. I just prefer, given my limited reading time, to give my attention to books that devote themselves to the everywhere and forever. Just received our copy of *Lord of Misrule*, which we bought on your recommendation. I look forward to reading it. Did you hear of Katie's recent good news about her book? And yes, it's almost as if Franzen had read hers before he wrote his. Anyway, thanks for writing a comment on my rather naked blog!
    --Ed W.