The “Book of the Year,” by popular consensus, is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It’s on everyone’s Best of 2010 list, often in the top spot. There was a thunderous rumbling of pre-publication buzz for the novel, leading to an extravagant amount of review coverage and a full-blown backlash from fellow authors who felt like Franzen was sucking up all the air in the room. Time magazine put Franzen on its cover. Oprah chose him for her book club (again). Despite a few unanimous criticisms (like the unconvincing use of a female POV) the quality of the novel seems to warrant all the attention and accolades.
The counterweight to Freedom is Reality Hunger by David Shields. Freedom is a novel in the most traditional sense—a sprawling fictional portrait of domestic life in America today. Reality Hunger is a manifesto that uses a literary “remix” technique to argue that novels, in the traditional sense, are dead, and will be replaced by what Shields calls the lyric essay. Freedom got more press and sold more copies. But Reality Hunger received an outpouring of support and a backlash all its own. And the ideas behind Reality Hunger—that “reality” is what people crave in art, and the remix is the form of artistic expression best suited to our lives today—are being echoed by other people, in other forms of media, across the cultural spectrum.
You can’t agree with both of these books. One of them has to be right (or more right) and the other has to be wrong (or more wrong). Either the traditional novel is dead, and we’re living in the age of the remix, or the traditional novel is having a renaissance, and will be the salvation of the written word. I don’t like to frame things in such polarized terms, but that’s where we’re at right now.
This blog takes a deliberate stance on questions like the one raised above. The Fiction Advocate position is that stories—whether they appear in a book, in a viral video for an advertising campaign, or in a political speech—are best treated as fiction; that the skills we would use to analyze a work of fiction are the most appropriate skills to analyze all kinds of stories; that all stories are essentially fiction. Further, that language is the most powerful and expressive means for communicating a story, and that language evolves constantly, creating a need for new stories (or new incarnations of stories).
So I don’t agree with Reality Hunger: the remix is not our essential medium, and reality is not what people crave most in stories. But I don’t fully agree with Freedom, either: a self-consciously “classic” style is a noble thing, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere.
Anyway, those are the books of the year.