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.

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