Author Archives: Matt

#JonathanFranzen #Purity


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It’s hard to write about Jonathan Franzen’s work without writing about Jonathan Franzen the Public Figure, an entity that seems to bear surprisingly little resemblance to the man himself. Now that his reputation as a crotchety jerk is all but set in stone, it’s easy to forget that Franzen’s original sin wasn’t dissing Twitter or calling Jennifer Weiner a hack but rather some rather tepid hand-wringing during an interview with Terry Gross about whether having an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the cover of The Corrections could be construed as selling out. In the end—by which I mean by the end of his sentence—Franzen had decided that it didn’t, but that didn’t stop Oprah from disinviting him.1

The charges have shifted and morph over the years. More recently, Franzen has been assailed for being insufficiently grief-stricken at the death of his friend David Foster Wallace2 and, retroactively, for saying that his ambition for The Corrections was that it reach a male audience.You get the sense that these criticisms have less to do with Franzen than what he represents—an exceedingly privileged rich white male who nonetheless finds the world disappointing and unjust. Identity politics aside, I find it really hard to look at the facts of these claims and come away with any other conclusion than that Franzen has been frequently and repeatedly swift-boated. There’s part of me that wants to avoid it all, but with his new novel, Purity, Franzen seems be directly addressing—and quite possibly trolling—his critics. Here at last, he’s given them what they’ve been waiting for—a book that openly takes aim at millennial, feminism, and the necessity of secrecy in a world where privacy is becoming an ever more alien concept.

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Dana Schwartz: Girl in Your Twitter Feed


If the brilliance of @GuyinyourMFA was immediately apparent, its longevity was hardly certain. When I first discovered it last Fall, my assumption was that—like erstwhile Tumblr Life in Publishing or the awkward romance between the Twitter feeds of Harper Perennial and Melville House—it was the creation of bored publicists in one of the New York publishing houses and that, like those, it would gain some quick attention before slowly fading from view. @GuyinyourMFA manages to skewer every aspect of literary culture, from its constant hand-wringing over the line between high and low art to its obsession with New York, but @GuyinyourMFA isn’t an insular concern.

“Of course I’ve read The Corrections,” writes Guy. “Let’s just say I would have made a few corrections.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the human behind @GuyinyourMFA isn’t a guy, but nor is she a bored publishing assistant or even an MFA candidate. She is, in point of fact, a senior at Brown named Dana Schwartz.

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Did You Hear? Hitch

New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!

Speedy Ortiz is my new favorite band. They’re named after an ill-fated character in the comic Love and Rockets, and their singer is an MFA student at UMass Amherst.

Oh, and they rock. 

– Matt Tanner

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Franzen: Bezos Rides a Pale Horse


In a long essay promoting his new translation of essays by Karl Kraus, literature’s curmudgeonly darling, Jonathan Franzen, writes:

In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?

Hear, hear!

There’s already a slew of blog posts (e.g., this one and this one) assailing Franzen for daring to question the utility of Twitter, the coolness of Apple products, and the informational bounty of Google. There’s no doubt that Franzen is being a spoilsport, but still, it’s hard to feel that snark like this is anything more than frivolous trading in the market of coolness—that is, exactly the kind of jockeying that Franzen objects to.

For what it’s worth, I disagree with Franzen’s assertion that Twitter is corrosively dumb and damaging to public discourse, but while one’s tolerance may vary, who could dispute that it is, indeed, a shallow form of social engagement? Even when I disagree, I appreciate that Franzen is one of the few writers out there thinking seriously about confluence of commerce and culture and the political implications thereof. After all, it’s not fun or cool to think about growing inequality or the growth of predatory lending, but it’s healthier to do so than not.

The biggest reason I enjoy reading Franzen is that he’s one of the few writers out there worth talking back to, but in the case of Amazon, I wholeheartedly agree.

– Matt Tanner

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Darkness Lite

Night Film

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Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel Night Film is a sprawling noir that follows disgraced journalist Scott McGrath as he searches for the heart of darkness that drives the films of the acclaimed and reclusive director Stanislas Cordova. At the center of the mystery is Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter Ashley, a piano prodigy who has committed suicide—or has she?

As a legendary purveyor of fear and anxiety, Cordova is an alluring figure. His drive to create ever more disturbing avant-garde psychological thrillers has forced both his film making and distribution literally underground. Having long since lost studio backing, Cordova’s cult lives on through “red-band screenings” held in abandoned tunnels beneath Paris and New York and bootleg videos that circulate among his network of obsessive fans.

McGrath dives into the New York underworld in search of the truth about Ashley’s death. Along the way, he picks up two sidekicks, Nora, a quirky wannabe actress and Hopper, a beautiful, brooding, young alcoholic who’s cagey about his past. Pessl, careful with the details but indifferent to her characters’ feelings or motivations, treats them like hand-painted dolls, and their interesting backstories don’t stop them, McGrath included, from playing as stock types. Still, the plot skips along enjoyably, unburdened by their emotional baggage and inner lives.

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Interview: Griffin Hansbury

newcover2Griffin Hansbury’s novel, The Nostalgist, runs the gamut. It is by turns a bildungsroman, a ghost story, a social satire, and a personal psychodrama. It is, however, most saliently a post-9/11 story. More than just a quest for post-traumatic catharsis, The Nostalgist is propelled not by shock or horror but by a mood truer to the period: anxiety.

The book’s protagonist, Jonah Soloway, is a dumpy, socially isolated thirty-something, who spends his days working a dead-end editorial job at an all-but-unread trade magazine. At night, he collects kitsch—in particular, radios—from bygone eras and works on a graphic novel. Jonah is haunted by the memory of a beautiful neighbor named Rose who died in the Twin Towers. The story is set in motion by a fateful lie: Jonah calls the phone number on a missing poster and tells Rose’s mother that he knew her. In fact, they had only one terse encounter over a dropped glove so brief and ambiguous that it’s unclear they spoke to one another.

Last spring, I was commissioned to design the cover for the  novel. Shortly after the publication, Griffin asked if he could post a Q-and-A about the design on his blog. In exchange, it seemed only fair that I ask him some questions, for FA, about his novel. Continue reading

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