In The Change-Up Ryan Reynolds plays an uptight guy who needs to learn how to relax and enjoy life. And near the end of the movie, he does! By eating what appears to be — I don’t know, is that butternut squash soup? – and getting about 2o pages into Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. You can tell it’s the American dream because the soundtrack is by MTV’s “Favorite Rock Act,” Coldplay.
- Brian Hurley
Accidentally I’ve been reading a lot of Michael Chabon. He slipped an introduction into a 50-year-old book on Vikings that I read, and he offered the preface to a 40-year-old book of Norse myths that I received as a gift. The dude likes Vikings, apparently. So do I. But I didn’t realize I’d have to go through Michael Chabon—author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, of all people—to find them.
Of course there’s a tradition of classic books receiving critical introductions by expert scholars. I have an Oxford edition of A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne at my desk, to pull a random example. It’s been edited, with an introduction and notes, by Ian Jack, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Cambridge, and Tim Parnell, lecturer in English at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. They sound like worthy fellows—partly because I’ve never heard of them. I don’t expect to recognize the names of the literary experts who specialize in the second-best book by the author of Tristram Shandy. Do you?
And yet my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is introduced by one of the most notable authors of our time. (I don’t even know who d’Aulaire is.) Michael Chabon isn’t offering a critical exegesis. In his introduction to the other book—The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson—he reflects on how a dear aunt gave him The Long Ships when he was a boy, and he’s loved it ever since. It’s not an introduction so much as a gushing, 1,176-word blurb. See for yourself—it’s posted at The Paris Review.
All I’m saying is, Michael Chabon is branding himself. He’s the Viking guy, among other things. Just like Jonathan Lethem, who provides the introduction to A Meaningful Life by J. L. Davis, is the Brooklyn guy. And Jonathan Franzen, who translated and introduced Spring Awakening, is the German literature guy. You could have guessed as much by reading each author’s work. But they’re reinforcing their brands by putting their stamp on other people’s work, too. Often it’s a fairly weak stamp—just a note to say the famous author has been here before you. And it doesn’t seem to matter that the books they’re endorsing don’t sell nearly as many copies as their own work. It’s branding, baby.
But I would have read these Viking books anyway, with or without the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to approve them. And I kind of wish they started with an introduction by Olaf Olaffson, Professor Emeritus of Skaldic Poetry at the University of Svalbard, you know?
- Brian Hurley
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.