Franzen, Jonathan. How to be alone: essays /Jonathan. Franzen.—1st ed. p. cm. ISBN (hc: alk: paper). I. Title. PS Editorial Reviews. cockfoheetaferr.ml Review. Jonathan Franzen is smart and brash, the kind of person you want as your social critic but not as a brother-in-law. How to Be Alone: Essays by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar Straus & Giroux, , In his new essay collection, Franzen brings to light a troubling paradox for.
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How to Be Alone is a book collecting fourteen essays by American writer Jonathan Franzen. . Create a book · Download as PDF · Printable version. From the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections, a collection of essays that reveal him to be one of our sharpest, toughest, and most entertai. Request PDF on ResearchGate | On Jan 1, , Derek Hook and others published How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen.
He asked me the questions that everybody asked me: How did it feel to get such good reviews? It felt great, I said. Was the novel autobiographical?
It was not, I said. How did it feel to be a local kid returning to St. Louis on a fancy book tour? It felt obscurely disappointing.
They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to a culture. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King.
These are honorable writers; but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers. Ringing the depressed urban core of serious fiction were prosperous new suburbs of mass entertainments.
MFA programs offered housing and workfare to the underemployed; a few crackpot city-loving artists continued to hole up in old warehouses; and visiting readers could still pay weekend visits to certain well-policed cultural monuments — the temple of Toni Morrison, the orchestra of John Updike, the Faulkner House, the Wharton Museum, and Mark Twain Park. By the early nineties I was as depressed as the inner city of fiction. Meanwhile, my wife and I had reunited in Philadelphia. All of a sudden it seemed as if the friends of mine who used to read no longer even apologized for having stopped.
Like when you read a book from start to finish? 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. A classic work of literature is inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American political economy had set about consolidating its gains, enlarging its markets, securing its profits, and demoralizing its few remaining critics. In I saw signs of the consolidation everywhere.
I saw leaf-blowers replacing rakes. I saw CNN holding hostage the travelers in airport lounges and the shoppers in supermarket checkout lines. I saw the chip replacing the and being replaced in turn by the Pentium so that, despite new economies of scale, the price of entry-level notebook computers never fell below a thousand dollars.
I saw Penn State win the Blockbuster Bowl.
Even as I was sanctifying the reading of literature, however, I was becoming so depressed that I could do little after dinner but flop in front of the TV.
Naturally, the more TV I watched, the worse I felt. And not just any third novel. But I was paralyzed with the third book. I was torturing the story, stretching it to accommodate ever more of those things-in-the-world that impinge on the enterprise of fiction writing. The work of transparency and beauty and obliqueness that I wanted to write was getting bloated with issues. Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change: 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?
These were unhappy days. A new book by Thackeray or William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that a late-December film release inspires today. The big, obvious reason for the decline of the social novel is that modern technologies do a much better job of social instruction.
Television, radio, and photographs are vivid, instantaneous media. Because they command large audiences, TV and magazines can afford to gather vast quantities of information quickly. The writer of average talent who wants to report on, say, the plight of illegal aliens would be foolish to choose the novel as a vehicle.
Ditto the writer who wants to offend prevailing sensibilities. The essence of fiction is solitary work: the work of writing, the work of reading. At most, I might feel I knew MacLaine a little better. Knowing MacLaine a little better, however, is what the country mainly wants. We live in a tyranny of the literal. The daily unfolding stories of O.
Why Bother? by Jonathan Franzen
Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, and Bill Clinton have an intense, iconic presence that relegates to a subordinate shadow-world our own untelevised lives. None of this stops cultural commentators — notably Tom Wolfe — from blaming novelists for their retreat from social description.
Truly committed social novelists may still find cracks in the monolith to sink their pitons into. But they do so with the understanding that they can no longer depend on their material, as Howells and Sinclair and Stowe did, but only on their own sensibilities, and with the expectation that no one will be reading them for news.
This much, at least, was visible to Philip Roth in His landscape?
This was somewhat awkward, since her hero was the cosmopolitan Henry James. But what she meant was that fiction feeds on specificity, and that the manners of a particular region have always provided especially fertile ground for its practitioners.
Superficially, at least, regionalism is still thriving. The world of the present is a world in which the rich lateral dramas of local manners have been replaced by a single vertical drama, the drama of regional specificity succumbing to a commercial generality.
The American writer today faces a cultural totalitarianism analogous to the political totalitarianism with which two generations of Eastern bloc writers had to contend. To ignore it is to court nostalgia. To engage with it, however, is to risk writing fiction that makes the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine.
Rudeness, irresponsibility, duplicity, and stupidity are hallmarks of real human interaction: the stuff of conversation, the cause of sleepless nights. But in the world of consumer advertising and consumer downloading, no evil is moral. The evils consist of high prices, inconvenience, lack of choice, lack of privacy, heartburn, hair loss, slippery roads. This is no surprise, since the only problems worth advertising solutions for are problems treatable through the spending of money.
But money cannot solve the problem of bad manners — the chatterer in the darkened movie theater, the patronizing sister-in-law, the selfish sex partner — except by offering refuge in an atomized privacy. And such privacy is exactly what the American Century has tended toward.
First there was mass suburbanization, then the perfection of at-home entertainment, and finally the creation of virtual communities whose most striking feature is that interaction within them is entirely optional — terminable the instant the experience ceases to gratify the user.
That all these trends are infantilizing has been widely noted. Less often remarked is the way in which they are changing both our expectations of entertainment the book must bring something to us, rather than our bringing something to the book and the very content of that entertainment. Here, indeed, we are up against what truly seems like the obsolescence of serious art in general. Imagine that human existence is defined by an Ache: the Ache of our not being, each of us, the center of the universe; of our desires forever outnumbering our means of satisfying them.
If we see religion and art as the historically preferred methods of coming to terms with this Ache, then what happens to art when our technological and economic systems and even our commercialized religions become sufficiently sophisticated to make each of us the center of our own universe of choices and gratifications?
How To Be Alone In Our Techno‐Consumer Culture
The reader laughs with the writer, feels less alone with the sting. This is a delicate transaction, and it takes some work. How can it compete with a system — screen your calls; go out by modem; acquire the money to deal exclusively with the privatized world, where workers must be courteous or lose their jobs — that spares you the sting in the first place?
In the long run, the breakdown of communitarianism is likely to have all sorts of nasty consequences. In the short run, however, in this century of amazing prosperity and health, the breakdown takes a heavy toll on the ancient methods of dealing with the Ache. A disease has causes: abnormal brain chemistry, childhood sexual abuse, welfare queens, the patriarchy, social dysfunction. A partial cure, or better yet, an endless succession of partial cures, but failing that, even just the consolation of knowing you have a disease — anything is better than mystery.
Science attacked religious mystery a long time ago. But it was not until applied science, in the form of technology, changed both the demand for fiction and the social context in which fiction is written that we novelists fully felt its effects.
For people as protective of their privacy and as fiercely competitive as writers are, mute suffering would seem to be the safest course. Even harder to admit is how depressed I was. As the social stigma of depression dwindles, the aesthetic stigma increases. Where, where is the mortal who wins more of happiness than just the seeming, and, after the semblance, a falling away?
The invitation to leave your depression behind, whether through medication or therapy or effort of will, seems like an invitation to turn your back on all your dark insights into the corruption and infantilism and self-delusion of the brave new McWorld.
And these insights are the sole legacy of the social novelist who desires to represent the world not simply in its detail but in its essence, to shine light on the morally blind eye of the virtual whirlwind, and who believes that human beings deserve better than the future of attractively priced electronic panderings that is even now being conspired for them. And as you increasingly feel, as a novelist, that you are one of the last remaining repositories of depressive realism and of the radical critique of the therapeutic society that it represents, the burden of news-bringing that is placed on your art becomes overwhelming.
You ask yourself, why am I bothering to write these books? But every apology and every defense seems to dissolve in the sugar water of contemporary culture, and before long it becomes difficult indeed to get out of bed in the morning. How awkward, then, that for me the beacon in the murk — the person who inadvertently did the most to get me back on track as a writer — should have been a social scientist who was studying the audience for serious fiction in America.
She rode public transportation in twenty-seven different cities. She lurked in airports at least before the arrival of CNN.
How to Be Alone
She took her notebook into bookstores and seaside resorts. She interviewed novelists. Three years ago she interviewed me, and last summer I had lunch with her in Palo Alto.
We do our best not to notice that, among adults with similar educations and similarly complicated lives, some read a lot of novels while others read few or none. Heath has noticed this circumstance, and although she emphasized to me that she has not polled everybody in America, her research effectively demolishes the myth of the general audience.
For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she told me, two things have to be in place. In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same. On the East Coast, Heath found a strong element of class in this.
Class matters less in other parts of the country, especially in the Protestant Midwest, where literature is seen as a way to exercise the mind. Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, however, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader. According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. Finding a peer can take place as late as college. I was also considering that for me, today, there is nothing sexier than a reader. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview.
What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. In fact, it can make you hypersocial.
Jonathan Franzen — How to Be Alone : Essays
If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness. Nevertheless, I felt as if she were looking straight into my soul. Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write. By the spring of I was a socially isolated individual whose desperate wish was mainly to make some money.
After my wife and I separated for the last time, I took a job teaching undergraduate fiction-writing at a small liberal arts college, and although I spent way too much time on it, I loved the work. I was depressed, though, to learn that several of my best writers had vowed never to take a literature class again.
One evening a student reported that his contemporary fiction class had been encouraged to spend an entire hour debating whether the novelist Leslie Marmon Silko was a homophobe.
Another evening, when I came to class, three women students were hooting with laughter at the utopian-feminist novel they were being forced to read for an honors seminar in Women and Fiction.
The therapeutic optimism now raging in English literature departments insists that novels be sorted into two boxes: Symptoms of Disease canonical work from the Dark Ages before and Medicine for a Happier and Healthier World the work of women and of people from nonwhite or nonhetero cultures. But the contemporary fiction writers whose work is being put to such optimistic use in the Academy are seldom, themselves, to blame.
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Log in to Wiley Online Library. download Instant Access. View Preview.Included in the collection are "Why Bother? An American face is showing through the mask, and it crashes into the wall as she throws open the cabinet. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King. As Franzen writes, describing Alfred on a trip to inspect the Erie Belt Railroad, an East Coast line Midland pur- chases in the s, Maybe some of the women drivers crossing [by].
I saw CNN holding hostage the travelers in airport lounges and the shoppers in supermarket checkout lines. Janet Maslin, in The New York Times , called the book "captivating but uneven"—"this collection emphasizes [Franzen's] elegance, acumen and daring as an essayist, with an intellectually engaging self-awareness as formidable as Joan Didion's. She took her notebook into bookstores and seaside resorts. But when you are sick you find yourself in a new field of perception where you make a harvest of interpretations which then provides you with your daily bread, your only food.