And why we need literary scholarship to reunite with literary criticism
Why literary scholarship should reunite with literary criticism.
Last week, Jonathan Franzen, the best-selling, award-winning literary novelist who’s known for the excellence of his books and his bold stands against Oprah, Facebook, e-books, iPhones, and overly generous assessments of Edith Wharton’s looks, unburdened himself of a rant.
Jonathan Franzen wouldn’t know irony if he tripped over it. Last year, he declared that “serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves,” at a public reading. At a large university. In front of many people.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux has long had a reputation as a preeminent literary house. Will it be able to sustain it?
Editor's Note: We'll be running the article recommendations of our friends at TNR Reader each afternoon on The Plank, just in time to print out or save for your commute home. Enjoy! Why did the two greatest poets of the twentieth century—Auden and Larkin—have such trouble writing about love? Slate | 11 min (2,666 words) In the battle between a corrupt Honduran regime and drug lords, the United States has chosen sides. And we are making things worse. The Nation | 15 min (3, 674 words) Shame, guilt, and disloyalty: Jonathan Franzen on the ingredients that made up Freedom.
Watching the outpouring of grief and reflection over the death of Adrienne Rich last week, I admit, to my shame, that I was surprised. Surprised not because of any judgment about Rich’s poetry, which I barely know, but because I had thought of her as an icon of another era. That era, of course, was the era of the women’s movement, of which Rich was a brash troubadour, asserting the value and distinctiveness of women’s experience and lamenting their—our—submission to patriarchy. But when I came of age intellectually, in the 1990s, this mode of expression had fallen out of fashion.
Eleven years ago Jonathan Franzen caught hell for expressing some ambivalence when Oprah Winfrey selected his novel The Corrections for her TV book club. Franzen said that though Winfrey was “really smart” and “fighting the good fight” for the book business, she also “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe, myself” at being selected. He added that he thought The Corrections would prove “a hard book for that audience.” On hearing about these slights, Winfrey cancelled Franzen’s scheduled appearance on her show.
The Marriage Plot By Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 406 pp., $28) Women write about love and marriage; men write about everything else. Like all truisms, this one is best served with a heaping spoonful of caveats, but they don’t alter its essential flavor. Just “look at all the books,” as Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel exhorts the reader in its very first line.
Every critic, I’d venture, has written something that he or she would like to take back. For me, it’s my expression of astonishment, in a column written on the third anniversary of September 11, that no important fiction dealing with that day had yet appeared. Blame it on the fever for documentation that arose in the wake of the attacks, perhaps, or on my naïveté about the amount of time required to write a book—not to mention to sell and publish it.
On December 2, as Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of her TV show, tightly clutching her newest Book Club selection to her chest so that no one could see its title, she proclaimed in her singular, scale-climbing voice, “Dickeeeens for the hooolidaaaays!” Oprah declared that she has “always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays,” and “now [she] can.” Never mind that she could have read Dickens whenever she wanted, seeing as his books have been popular for more than a century. Never mind that Oprah hadn’t chosen A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, or any of Dickens’s other Christmas tales.