Sentences — May 21, 2008, 3:33 pm

An Egg in Return, Part II: “There’s no proving it”

A few weeks ago, as I wrote in my most recent post, Jonathan Franzen was speaking with James Wood at Harvard. I asked Franzen what role, if any, reviews and criticism of his work—by Wood, by anyone—had played in his own reading and writing. He replied:

James’s review [of The Corrections]: I read it in a hotel room in Austin, Texas. And I’d been looking forward to it. He’s my favorite critic, had been my favorite critic for a number of years…So I thought, this is going to be good…He seemed almost in his reviews to have been calling for the kind of fiction that I had been interested in writing. This is by way of saying that perhaps I had over-high expectations. And I was a little disappointed in it.

As my editor says: “Writers never forget a slight.” But [turning to Wood] I’m here, aren’t I? [Audience laughter.] I basically I wanted you to appreciate all the things I liked about the book and you only appreciated some of them, and I couldn’t help being sore, and felt there was perhaps more attention on the earlier work than I would have liked.

Franzen continued, in a more general vein:

I take [criticism] very much to heart. When someone says you’re a bad person—and that’s been the tenor of some of the reviews, particularly of The Discomfort Zone—I actually stop and for some weeks or months think about the possibility that I really am a bad person. And so it’s disabling, and my first response is to pour forth invective. But then a bad feeling settles in and I think: Well, yes, God, I’ve really suspected this stuff about myself—I’m really not good and I’m not a good writer either. Which is why I take care not to read reviews. You don’t want to get those phrases in your head.

I think the worst phenomenon, the most upsetting thing nowadays, is the feeling that there’s no one out there responding intelligently to the text. That’s why I so value so what James does, and why I had unrealistically high expectations of your review of The Corrections, because so few people are doing real criticism. It’s so snarky, its so black-and-white…It’s discouraging. And so I think an absence of criticism, and the absence of intellectual content to the criticism, is the worst problem I have, the one I feel most keenly.

A pause; I asked if I might follow up. “Why then,” I asked, “is it that the back pages of the New York Review of Books are filled with non-fiction writers responding to the indignities heaped upon them by critics who [they believe to have] missed their argument, but fiction writers don’t feel the same liberty to respond to their critics and say: ‘You’ve missed it.’ Is it beneath the dignity of art to respond to your accuser?”

“You can actually dispute facts,” Franzen said, “but you can’t dispute taste. That’s the sorry condition of the artist. There’s no proving it.”

Franzen’s response, varied though it is in focus, revolves around the matter of appreciation: “I wanted you to appreciate all the things I liked about the book,” he told Wood. A seemingly limited statement, but one which holds a nuance that we might easily rush past. For as much as the word “appreciate” is typically taken to mean to esteem, to find worth or excellence in, its foremost meaning, says the O.E.D., is to form an estimate of worth or quality, and, in so doing, to feel the full force of the thing before us.

Now consider Franzen’s comment with both meanings in mind: He had been hoping to discover not merely that Wood had found worth in what Franzen liked, but that Wood had formed an estimate that felt the full force of what Franzen liked–of what Franzen believed he had made.

Setting aside the question, for now, of whether WoodA critic alternately admired in these pages (by Cynthia Ozick) for forming such estimates, or questioned (by myself; full text available), or upbraided (by Roger D. Hodge). fairly judged The Corrections in his 2001 review, I might instead offer a few thoughts on what I see as shortcomings in Franzen’s view of contemporary criticism and what he seems to expect that it should provide our culture. And I’ll share those thoughts on Friday.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Article
Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Article
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
Article
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer

Number of African countries with vaccination rates higher than that of the United States:

16

Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A farmer in Surrey, England, was ordered by the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to tear down his cannon-equipped castle, which he had built secretly and then concealed behind hay bales.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today