By Ted Gioia

In the days of my youth, when I first took cognizance of...
no, not books really, but rather what is called
literature, I
desperately wanted to know what set the great novels apart
from the merely good.   I paid the closest attention to
professors, editors, theorists and other arbiters of taste,
trying to figure out what made them attack certain works,
praise others, and raise a cherished few to the status of
modern masterpieces.  

I read the critics who wrote about
novels, and in time graduated to
the critics who wrote about critics.
When an imposing figure came to
town, I was in the audience to
soak up the insights offered by
Susan Sontag, George Steiner,
Frank Kermode, Umberto Eco,
Tzvetan Todorov and other lumi-
naries in close touch with the
guiding spirit of the times.  I
compared notes with my peers,
and read the book reviews in the
paper.   When time permitted, I even did what
anthropologists might call field work, and developed views
by reading
novels themselves—a practice then increasingly
falling out of favor in college English departments.   

After long consideration and intense observation, I
determined that there were four ways—and
only four ways—
that a contemporary novel could earn adulation from the
literary establishment at that particular juncture in history.

First, the novel could make its mark for its experimental
excesses, and, in this case, the more difficult and
insufferable the reader found the work, the more likely that
it was a masterpiece.  Second, the novelist could earn
acclaim for a work, or even an entire oeuvre, by leading a
lifestyle that was sufficiently bohemian, drug and alcohol
ravaged or otherwise transgressive—think of Norman Mailer
stabbing his wife, Ken Kesey ingesting massive quantities of
LSD, etc.  Third, a novelist could hit it out of the park by
addressing a pressing social issue, employing fiction as a
tool of advocacy for some righteous cause—a good book was
a book that did good.   Finally, if all else failed, a writer
could take the path of
Portnoy’s Complaint, Lolita and
Updike’s collected works by mixing in dizzying doses of sex,
preferably excluding the standard missionary position
between husband and wife, and ideally leading to a book
burning, obscenity charges from a D.A. in a southern state
or, at a minimum, outraged parents demanding a novel’s
removal from a school library.

Those were the four recipes.  
No others existed, as far as I
could see.  And if following them was still no guarantee of
literary acclaim, certainly ignoring all four of them was a
sure predictor of perdition.  You took your pick, and made
your best play.  Then waited for the reviews to come in.

But note what is missing here—and this gets us to the topic
of Jonathan Franzen and his latest novel
Freedom.   Back in
those not-so-distant days, solid plotting, rich character
development, psychological insights, clever dialogue, robust
prose and acute structural control of the narrative earned
you a one way ticket to Palookaville.  Maybe these virtues
helped you if you wrote genre fiction or tried to make a
quick buck churning out a so-called supermarket novel, but
they earned you
nada in the more rarefied world of literary
fiction.  As I think back on the professors and critics that I
dealt with almost daily, over a period of years, I can’t recall
a single instance in which any of them praised a
contemporary work for its plotting.   I can’t remember any
paeans to pacing, or to the nuts-and-bolts of integrating
story lines, or to the crisp repartee of well-constructed
characters.   However, I do recall attacks from the podium
on these retrograde elements, now unveiled as some sort of
bourgeois deception or hegemonic form of distorted class

Given this personal history, I must inevitably marvel at
Jonathan Franzen—yes, we've come around to Franzen—who
staked his entire claim on plotting, character
development, psychological insight, and structural control of
the narrative.  And I marvel not only that he is so good at
these things, but even more that he has parlayed them into
a position of prominence in American fiction.  When he
recently appeared on the cover of
Time magazine, Franzen
had the distinction of being the first novelist in more than a
decade to be so honored.  And he did it without subscribing
to any of the four recipes that would have been required just
a few years ago.  Truly this is a strange state of affairs.

And this unprecedented turn of events also explains the
inevitable backlash against Franzen—a backlash that might
otherwise surprise an intelligent general reader unaware of
the complexities and paradoxes of literary politics.  Anyone
Freedom without some experience in how highbrow
reputations are made might think that there could hardly be
anything controversial about a book of this sort.  After all,
what could get people worked up about plain ol’ good

Well plenty, apparently.  
The New York Times reviewer
Michiko Kakutani was so incensed over Franzen’s last book,
an inoffensive collection of occasional pieces, that she
couldn't help critiquing the author, rather than book, which
was merely the “odious self-portrait of the artist as a young
jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and
overwhelmingly self-absorbed.”  Other critics took Franzen to
task as emblematic of the decline in more challenging
schemes of fiction (that’s the first of the four recipes, in
case you weren't paying attention).  But even Kakutani is
backing down nowadays with her conciliatory review of
Freedom, and anyone who thinks that is just a question of
the superior quality of the new book is missing the real
tectonic shift underway.  In a very real sense, the opposition
is backing down.  Franzen has done something much harder
than writing a fine novel, he has validated a certain type of
aesthetic vision, one that was almost entirely excluded from
the pantheon just a generation ago.

No, he hasn't done it alone.  Indeed, the single biggest
theme in literary fiction these days is the return of
storytelling—and that comes out loud and clear in works of
so many writers of Franzen’s generation.   I could list a
dozen or so names here, but I will abstain.  It’s best just to
focus on Franzen, since he has raised the ante the highest,
and taken the hardest blows from those who wax nostalgic
for the days of the four recipes.  To a certain degree, he has
become the poster boy for the changing of the guard that
has been playing out in literary fiction over the last decade.  

What do we actually find inside this book?   Franzen starts
Freedom with a dysfunctional family.  Certainly Tolstoy
would be proud of how unhappy families now serve as the
center of so many serious novels, but Franzen, more than
anyone, has staked out this territory as his special domain,
as he amply demonstrated in his previous novel, the tour de
The Corrections from 2001.   Here again, in Freedom,
he is the connoisseur of the many ways family dynamics can
turn into a sardonic variant on those survival reality shows.  
Only when it comes to family, no one ever gets voted off the

The Berglunds, on the surface, are an idyllic family unit.  
Husband Walter has enjoyed a successful career with 3M in
Minneapolis, and now is following his bliss in his new calling
as an environmental advocate, “greener than Greenpeace.”   
Wife Patty strives to be the perfect mom, and supportive
neighbor, a former college athlete who has happily
sublimated career goals in order to become the best of
homemakers.  Son Joey is self-reliant, a charmer who feels
that his luck will carry him through life’s tribulations
unscathed and well remunerated.  Jessica is the responsible,
idealistic daughter destined to pursue a career in publishing.

What could go wrong with such a solid team?  Over the
course of this novel, almost everything.  And as in
Corrections, Franzen lets each family member, and many of
their friends, strut on the stage in a major role.   Even the
minor characters here are given the kind of intensely
visualized realization that is reserved for the leading
protagonist in other novels.  In addition to the Berglunds,
we are treated with smartly conceived narratives surrounding
Eliza the stalker, Richard the disgruntled rock musician,
Lalitha the “other” woman, Jessica the spoiled rich girl,
etc.   Occasionally Franzen will insert a character who tilts
too much toward parody, but that is the exception here.  In
most instances, he creates rich, multidimensional figures,
where good qualities and flaws are often jumbled up in an
entirely plausible manner.   

Even when he skewers one of his players—and everyone
gets skewered at some point in this novel—Franzen never
entirely loses compassion for the character’s foibles, never
falls into the temptation to accentuate the comedy or
tragedy by turning the person into a stick figure.  This may
be the area in which Franzen has shown the most marked
improvement since
The Corrections, one of my favorite
novels of the new millennium, but not as moving on a purely
human level as
Freedom.   From the start of his career,
Franzen could inspire us to laugh at his characters; now he
allows us to love them too—and don’t underestimate the
difficulty in achieving both of these in the same story.    

A certain virtuosity of authorial control is everywhere evident
here.  Even the sub-plots in
Freedom have their own deftly
structured sub-plots.  Franzen is relentless in moving his
characters through their paces, but the book never feels
rushed.  Toward the end of the novel, when he embarks on a
new sub-plot relating to the conflicting agendas over the
division of an estate among contentious heirs—an interlude
that involved the introduction of new characters and settings
when the reader is almost at the finish line of the novel—I
feared that our author was pushing too far, that he needed
to rein in his imagination in order to resolve all the open
issues.  But I proved to be wrong here.  Franzen somehow
managed to add new layers to his novel even in the final
stretch, yet still proved capable of pulling everything
together for one of the most memorable and heart-
wrenching conclusions in recent American fiction.

This book is filled to the brim.  But there are many things
you will not find in
Freedom.  The prose packs a punch, but
is never ostentatious.   Every hundred pages or so, you
might encounter a paragraph that is over-written, but for the
most part Franzen understands pacing and proportion as
well as any novelist of the current day.  The work disdains
overt experimentalism, and despite the inclusion of a plot-
impacting text-within-a-text, no postmodern theatrics are
allowed to interfere with the narrative flow.  And there are
plenty of political agendas here, some of which mirror views
of the real-life Jonathan Franzen, but none is allowed to go
unexamined, unchallenged or trample on the nuanced human
elements that reside at the core of this moving book.   
Above all,
Freedom is just good writing, plain and simple.  
And if that stirs controversy and debate, then it’s a debate
well worth having.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
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Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
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Ted Gioia's personal web site

American Fiction Notes
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Millions
The Misread City
Paper Cuts
Joseph Peschel