The quiet dignity of Mr Franzen

The famous novelist is making his promotional video. Shortly, his face will be on the front of Time magazine, his book praised to the heavens and at No 1 in the American bestseller list. “This might be a good place to register my profound discomfort at having to make a video like this,” he says, looking indeed profoundly discomfited. The internet is fine for commerce, but “to me, the point of a novel is to take you to a still place”.

How we need the quiet, old-fashioned wisdom of Jonathan Franzen right now. Not only are his two most recent novels, The Corrections and the soon-to-be-published-in-Britain Freedom, compelling testaments to the capacity of great fiction to go beyond the noise of news, opinion and electronic media, but the way he presents himself and his work to the world has an unfussy dignity which has become increasingly rare.

It is the work, not the fluff of commerce and gossip that surrounds it, which matters. Unlike other authors who have been thrust into the spotlight, Franzen has declined to play the fame game, schmoozing on chat-shows, issuing headline-grabbing opinions about this and that, attending high-profile parties. As he says in his video: “The world of books is the quiet alternative – an ever more desperately needed alternative.”

This kind of seriousness, once normal among writers, is now held to be deeply suspect. During the past few years, Franzen has become a figure of controversy. When he failed to show the right doggy gratitude to Oprah Winfrey for nominating The Corrections in her TV book club, he was accused of snobbery. When in defiance of the folk wisdom of publishing, he took his time – nine years, in fact – to write the new book, he was rumoured to be in trouble, a one-hit wonder. The idea that a novel should be a struggle to write was a daring contradiction of the prevailing fantasy – that true talent gushes effortlessly from its source.

Yet another big row has attended the publication of the new book in America. Jodi Picoult, the bestselling author who has complained in the past of Franzen’s “lack of grace in the face of success”, was annoyed by the fact that Freedom was reviewed favourably in both the daily and Sunday editions of the New York Times. “Is anyone shocked?” she tweeted. “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” Another chippy romantic author, Jennifer Weiner – Good in Bed is one of hers – joined in. “When a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same subjects, it’s romance, or a beach book.”

These are the mad antics of a fretful, silly culture – the kind of noise to which good books do indeed provide a quiet alternative. The anxious, crazed competitiveness of modern America throbs like a pulse through the pages of Freedom but, outside the pages of his fiction, Franzen seems to care little about the complaints of rival authors or journalists.

It is important, though, this example of a writer refusing to acknowledge that, in the modern world, a large part of his job involves the non-writing business of sucking up to the public. “There’s never been much love lost between literature and the market,” Franzen wrote in “Why Bother?”, an essay published in 1996. “The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium, wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness. To an economy like this, news that stays news is not merely an inferior product, it’s an antithetical product. A classic work of literature is inexpensive, infinitely re-usable and, worst of all, unimprovable.”

The busy everyday life of the media distrusts what the best of fiction offers – complexity, thought, an exploration of the way great trends play out in small lives, with no sound-bite messages or easy conclusions. But for those who value that important still place, rare novels of the quality of Freedom, providing news that stays news, are something to be treasured.

Independent, Friday, 10 September 2010