The Harper’s Essay” [“Perchance to Dream”] is retitled “Why Bother?” in Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays “How to Be Alone”. So begins Jonathan Franzen’s famous essay, “Perchance to Dream,” which appeared in Harper’s fifteen years ago this month. The essay. In his now famous essay “Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” published by Harper’s Magazine in April,
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Pitons in the Monolith: Jonathan Franzen’s Despair and the Millennials’ Dream
Just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture and landscape painting, television has killed the novel of social reportage. 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 William Dean Howells and Upton Sinclair and Harriet Beecher Stowe did, but only on their own sensibilities, and with the expectation that no one will be reading them for news.
This is less strange than it might sound. No one had yet seen an e-reader, but there was among my writer friends a pervasive sense that the book, and the centuries-old culture that had grown up around it, were under assault. Franzen, then the author of two well-received but relatively little-known novels, captured this anxiety in his essay, asking aloud the question we were all quietly putting to ourselves: For another, the third novel that Franzen was so painfully bringing into being during the writing of his essay turned out to be The Correctionswhich won the National Book Award and made Franzen the most famous non-guest in the history of Oprah.
Even TV was simpler. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to sit down in front of your set at the prescribed time and watch it. Television, like much of mass culture in the pre-Internet era, was an authoritarian regime: Not only are the distractions of movies, songs, YouTube videos and web memes ubiquitous and easily accessible; they now proliferate from the bottom up.
How is an aspiring novelist intent on telling a quiet tale of romantic love supposed to compete with a home-grown rap tune whose signature line runs: How does a young poet stand a chance against the AutoTuned novelty of a Rebecca Black? According to blogger Seth Abramsonwho tracks creative writing program rankings at The Suburban Ecstasiesthe twenty most selective MFA programs are now harder to get into than Harvard Medical School. And you have to go down to No.
If you are a Millennial feeling the urge to see what pre-Oprah-dustup Jonathan Franzen reads like, I can save you the trouble. It is 15, words long, and readers hoping to savor the morsels of wit and wisdom sprinkled liberally through the text must hack through a thick, fibrous membrane of authorial ego.
In recent years, Franzen, now a successful author in his fifties, has made very public peace with Oprah and is capable of presenting himself on the page as a thoughtful, empathetic guy. But this franzfn not that Jonathan Franzen. This Jonathan Franzen is beset by stupidity franzfn all sides.
The latter description, apparently, fits Franzen to a T, and he is relieved to hear Heath tell him that readers who came to books to cure their social isolation are more likely than other kinds of readers to become writers. Thus, we have Shirley Brice Heath and her eccentric research project to thank for the wonder that is The Correctionsalong with the to my mind somewhat less wondrous Freedom. And what of Tao Linwho at age 27 has written two novels, a novella, a collection of stories, and two volumes of poetry?
Or Joshua Cohenwho had published the page Witz his fifth book by 30? Apparently, perchnce form of storytelling has a future. I would go so far as to say that serious fiction and poetry will survive because of their relative simplicity, not in spite of it. We live amid a constant high-tech, high-revenue din: Next to that stands a poem. Or a book of stories. Ever seen paid product placement in a poem?
Ever had to fast-forward through the ads to read a book? Ffanzen Kindle may be young, but substantive works of fiction, whether on paper or a screen, perchaance as islands of commercial and mental quiet in a sea of cultural noise.
The cost of entry into the world of writing drfam extremely low, and getting lower by the day.
books that matter: “Perchance to Dream” by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
To write a novel, a talented writer needs a laptop and a lot of free time. Of course, you could say much the same about DeAndre Way. But look what happened to him. After the first Soulja Boy video went viral, Way signed with Interscope Records and his first album went platinum, meaning it moved more than a million perhance.
No more filming in empty swimming pools for Soulja Boy.
But somewhere on the journey from DIY to Blingsville, he lost that magic connection with his teenage audience, and his third album, The DeAndre Way, sold only 56, copies. Serious literature is among the least commercially lucrative of all contemporary art forms. A novel never sells anything but itself, which means that the whole huge noisemaking machine we call popular culture leaves novelists more or less alone. Jonathan Franzen may see that as cultural irrelevance.
I prefer to call it freedom. The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: But, okay, DeAndre Way, a teenager from Batesville, Mississippi, moved more units than Jonathan Franzen, a year-old writer judged by many to be the foremost novelist of his era.
Clearly, these are peculiar times. But when was serious fiction and poetry ever a mass taste? Whitman self-published his first two editions of Leaves of Grass.
Melville stopped writing fiction for almost thirty years in the wake of the failure of his magnum opus Moby Dick. Dickinson only made a few half-hearted efforts at finding a public forum for her poetry. And Thoreau, my personal hero, wrote in one of his letters after he bought the remaindered copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: That is what true cultural irrelevance looks like.
The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others? Thank you for this article. As I often say, the lack of audio and video in text-only long-form narrative is a feature, not a bug. And look at the most successful new communications medium of the past 20 years. The SMS text message. The modern age devalues true worth? The same was said a century before, and the century before that.
Aristotle scribing the Poetics may have felt depressed about his writing career. Serious works — those dealing with great moral, ethical, social, and religious issues — make the best-seller lists all the time. And they have longevity. Year after year, without spectacle but as steady as the oceans wash the shores, they sell and sell and sell. And they include genre works. There is only one solution to authorial anguish which Franzen found. Write what you love, what speaks most to you if no one else anywhere or anywhen.
It may never earn you even the praise of one fan or the price of a slice of pizza. Thank you The Millions for running another excellent essay by Michael Bourne. To steal his own recent accolade of Tea Obreht: This is why I love literary fiction so much: The best fiction, the most original fiction, speaks from that realm so far removed from anything one could put a price on. It is freedom, as Mr. Ah yes, the heroic act of shelling out thousands of dollars for grad school to get credentialed to write fiction that no one wants to read but others who shelled out thousands of dollars for grad school to get credentialed to write fiction that no one wants to read….
Say what you want, but that hardly quailifies as cultural relevance except to true believers in making things up. Soulja Boy off in this oh Watch me lean then watch me rock Superman dat oh Yeah watch me crank dat Robocop. The thing about the comparison to Soulja Boy is that the comparison is drfam. People have and more than likely always will be more interested in music than literature overall. Music is passive and invokes the party atmosphere. Reading is engaging and requires alone time.
By making it easier to get published, the internet allows you to concentrate on what perchancd love about writing in the first place. That could result in better xream, as long as you can resist all the other meaningless distractions of the internet. As a fellow teacher of aspiring-writer Millennials, I do worry a bit that writing is becoming — re-becoming, I suppose — the work of the privileged.
Graduating college students worry quite a bit about economic stability and weirdly assume they will get married and have a nuclear family to support. I hear that the Amazon is introducing a cheaper version of the Kindle…with Advertising!
The writer writes to remediate aloneness, not to guarantee connection with other individuals—but at least to create the possibility of connection with others.
But is it the novel alone or serious or literary or high brow fiction that makes this kind of connection possible? I wonder what new forms might evolve that may expose flaws in the belief that fiction, as a salve against inevitable apartness, has to take one form rather than any other.
Your email address will not be published. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed. The Millions’ future depends on your support. Become a member today. I recently had the privilege of participating in a percgance at the Center for Fiction.
The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: My answer — which I think came as a surprise to most — was that I hardly read as a child and youth. My parents are immigrants — English is not their first language — and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over — something about soup made from a button.