The Trouble With Novels
That Bring the News

Essay: Jonathan Franzen and fiction as social commentary

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen / AP

To no one’s surprise, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, was published this fall to critical acclaim and commercial success. Like his last two novels, Purity features a dysfunctional family. A young woman, Purity "Pip" Tyler, saddled with $130,000 in student debt and a reclusive, emotionally dependent mother, is trying to discover the identity of her father, whom she hopes will help her out. It’s more complicated than that, of course. The novel actually features three dysfunctional families whose fates are implausibly intertwined. Franzen’s tale, as you might expect, is freighted with social commentary. There’s a Julian Assange/Edward Snowden-type character, a ProPublica-like investigative journalism startup, a half-baked subplot about a missing nuclear weapon, some computer hacking and social media stuff and, helping to drive the ungainly plot along, a long ago covered-up murder. Timely stuff.

Addressing urgent public matters through a fictional family or two has become a professional trademark for Franzen, whose novels, like many other big "literary" novels in recent decades, are chocked full of information and commentary about a great many contemporary things. The argument he makes in Purity is straightforward: it’s dangerous to see the world, or one’s own motives, as either entirely pure or corrupt, because "the truth is somewhere in the tension between the two sides," as one character, a journalist, says of his profession. To make this argument, Franzen lays out, as he has before, a cast of characters and themes plucked from the headlines. Pip is recruited by a Wikileaks-like group called the "Sunlight Project." She hopes its founder, a former East German dissident named Andreas Wolf (the Assange type), can help find her father, the aforementioned journalist who runs the ProPublica-like startup. The father was connected to Wolf decades before, in East Germany, and was married to a woman named Anabel, a failed artist and heir to a vast fortune she renounced for moral reasons.

It’s all very self-consciously relevant. If you like that sort of thing, this is your novel, much like Franzen’s 2001 and 2010 novels, The Corrections and Freedom. Here’s an odd thing, though: twenty years ago these aren’t the sort of novels Franzen thought anyone ought to be writing. In a long essay for Harper’s, "Perchance to Dream," he warned against the urge to write novels that matter to the mainstream culture. At the time, Franzen concluded it was more or less impossible to do, and that writers should resist "newsbringing" in fiction—the attempt to educate readers about the the world’s problems as a way to "engage with the culture."

Prior to this realization, Franzen had published two novels that tried and failed at this sort of cultural engagement. Although his novels were well-received by critics and successful enough to fund the writing of his next book, it wasn’t quite what the young novelist had been hoping for: "I’d intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum." Although now a successful novelist, Franzen realized that writing understated social novels in an age of cultural apathy rendered him obsolete. "The money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue magazine shoot weren’t simply the fringe benefits," he wrote. "They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture."

But Franzen wanted very badly to matter. Part of the problem was practical: "How to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it? The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?" Good question. Somehow, he found the energy. A few years later, Franzen published The Corrections to much critical acclaim. He was on Oprah. He was really famous now. Yet the new novel shamelessly indulged the sort of instructive social commentary and cultural riffing Franzen had warned against in his Harper’s essay. The Corrections was larded with information about biotech companies, pharmaceuticals, commentary on the politics of cuisine, explanations of equity finance and Eastern European black markets. Reviewing the book for The New Republic, critic James Wood noted that the novelist appeared not to have heeded his own advice:

"Franzen has so lengthily lamented the impossibility of producing the social novel that he seems, really, to be longing for its renewed possibility. He appears to be disillusioned only with the possibility of the social novel, not with its desirability: he is still half in love with it. And just as his essay looks toward the social and toward the aesthetic at the same time, and combines all modes of argument, so is his new novel a kind of glass-bottomed boat through which one can glimpse most of the various currents of contemporary American fiction."

Franzen’s problem, according to Wood, was that he tried to write a social novel that had something important to say about contemporary American culture, much like Don DeLillo tried to do in Underworld. But unlike DeLillo, Franzen also wanted human beings in his novel, characters with emotional weight and depth. Indeed, The Corrections revolves around a family, the Lamberts, and for as much as it’s a meditation on all those other societal things, it’s also a meditation on families. It’s been said that The Corrections was meant to be, among other things, a correction of DeLillo, and perhaps it was. For some, that was the book’s saving grace.

Franzen’s novel may have groaned under the weight of its awkward and almost immediately dated social commentary (it was published on September 1, 2001). But his focus on characters and relationships heartened critics like Wood, who hoped the book would help begin the long process of correcting the DeLilloian fallacy of using the novel as a vehicle for cultural criticism.

Alas, it was not to be. Franzen went on to write Freedom, a novel about the Bush years and the Iraq war that, while it has a family in it (two, actually), is nevertheless strapped with information about myriad contemporary things—women’s NCAA basketball, the coal industry, international arms procurement, environmental philanthropy—all in the service of some rather heavy-handed social commentary. And now we have Purity, which is more of the same, except that the characters are less interesting and believable, and Franzen’s prose is almost entirely devoid of any discernable style.

This short history of Franzen is helpful to recount when considering the larger problem of newsbringing in fiction. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera wrote that the novel "is a meditation on existence," not a portrayal of reality. In a 1983 interview with The Paris Review, he explained the problem thusly: "Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone’s philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence." Philosophers who try to write novels, he said, "are nothing but pseudonovelists who use the form of the novel in order to illustrate their ideas."

Along with philosophers, Kundera might have included journalists and cultural critics. For decades, many of what are considered the most serious "literary" novels have been long-form exercises—or experiments—in cultural commentary and journalism. Thomas Pynchon, Tom Wolfe, DeLillo and a host of others have used the novel to analyze contemporary culture and make political arguments; they portray reality in the service of some philosophical or political assertion. Thus, if you want to learn about racism, class, ambition and greed in New York City in the 1980s, you could read Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Then again, you could also read Michael Lewis’s memoir, Liar’s Poker, which covers much the same territory. Likewise, if you want a perspective on the dangers of social media, you could read Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, The Circle, which will leave you in no doubt about where Eggers stands on the subject, but also might leave you bored.

Is this what fiction is for? To depict contemporary situations, to give instructions and perspectives and make arguments? This is not a new problem. In that 1983 interview, Kundera foreshadowed Wood’s critique of DeLillo and Franzen in a comment about an 1857 German novel by Adalbert Stifter, Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer]: "Today, it is unreadable. It’s packed with information about geology, botany, zoology, the crafts, painting, and architecture; but this gigantic, uplifting encyclopedia virtually leaves out man himself, and his situation. Precisely because it is polyhistorical, Der Nachsommer totally lacks what makes the novel special."

And what is that? What is, as Kundera says, "that which the novel alone can discover"? For his part, Kundera conceives of the novel as an autonomous art form concerned primarily with human interiority, with consciousness and being. It doesn’t need to make arguments or advance ideas. Indeed, it is incapable of doing so. It is not especially concerned with the news and politics of the day, or even those of a particular era. The novelist does not deal in absolutes or in philosophy, says Kundera, because he has no philosophy: "People often talk about Chekhov’s philosophy, or Kafka’s, or Musil’s. But just try to find a coherent philosophy in their writings! Even when they express their ideas in their notebooks, the ideas amount to intellectual exercises, playing with paradoxes, or improvisations rather than to assertions of a philosophy."

Neither is the novel concerned with identity as that term is used today. Asked in 1991 about the problems with the literary canon, which of course had to do, then as now, with insufficient ethnic and gender diversity among canonical authors, the great literary critic Harold Bloom replied: "There’s no way the gender and power boys and girls, or the New Historicists, or any of the current set are going to give us new canonical works, any more than all the agitation of feminist writing or nowadays what seems to be called African American writing is going to give us canonical works. Alice Walker is not going to be a canonical poet no matter how many lemmings stand forth and proclaim her sublimity."

His point is very close to Kundera’s: the novel tries to get at truth—not the truth about current events or contemporary life or ethnic identity, but the truth about being alive, about conscience and consciousness. The newsbringing novel can tell us about what’s going on in the world, and why, and what we should perhaps do about it. And maybe that’s useful, in a way. But it cannot tell us anything very profound about ourselves. It cannot really startle or terrify. In his short, insightful book, How Fiction Works, James Wood gives a chilling example of how this works:

"There is still nothing as terrifying in contemporary fiction, not even in the blood-bin of Cormac McCarthy or the sadistic eros of Dennis Cooper, as the moment when Knut Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger, a starving young intellectual, puts his finger in his mouth and starts eating himself. None of us, I hope, has done this, or will ever want to. But Hamsun has made us share it, has made us feel it. Dr. Johnson, in his "Preface to Shakespeare," reminds us, "Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind."

That brings us back to Purity, a book that imitates and comments on some social realities about life in America today. It does not bring any existential realities to mind, and it certainly does not make us share or feel anything of much consequence. That’s too bad, because one gets the sense, after all these novels, that Franzen could do better, could dig deeper. But as long as he and our other celebrated novelists persist in thinking that their art must have some social utility, we will keep getting novels that bring us the news. Eventually, we will simply stop reading them.