Critics' choice?

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  August 29, 2010

But Alsup doesn't stop there. He places Freedom among "the kind of books that the big dogs used to write." It goes without saying that these "big dogs" are male.

While Franzen toils virtuously in his garret, his "lazy and irrelevant" contemporaries "content themselves with small books about nothing much or big books about comics." Let's forget, for a moment, Franzen's introduction to a recent Peanuts anthology — comic-book aficionados Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem are juvenile slaves to fashion because Norman Mailer didn't write about comics.

By "small books about nothing much," Alsup might be referring to the works of anyone from Raymond Carver to Denis Johnson, emasculated men who doubt their abilities as Masters of the Universe. Real men, like Alsup's Franzen, write prose that takes on the world.

But at least two outstanding, socially aware American novels have taken on the world over the past 12 months. Breasts aside, Lorrie Moore managed to write a devastating family drama about race and war. And Jonathan Dee — a man, no less — focused on family, class, and capitalism.

Moore's A Gate at the Stairs and Dee's The Privileges portray the middle classes as precisely as anything Franzen has written. It's Alsup's prerogative not to think so, but he's not doing his job when he doesn't acknowledge that other writers are at least trying to do what Franzen does. Has this man read any books since The Corrections? If he has — and only if — has he liked any? If he hasn't, why does he bother writing criticism? For the women? For the massive checks?

Imagine, for a moment, a rock critic who claimed that there hasn't been a good record since Led Zeppelin IV. He'd be laughed out of the profession. Actually, Alsup's frame of reference isn't quite that current — he compares Freedom with Let It Bleed.

What's more, he's not content to offend any writer who isn't Jonathan Franzen — he does a pretty good job of insulting readers, too. He sees Freedom as an antidote to "jeans and Jake Gyllenhaal." Who likes jeans and Jake? Women and homos! Their consumerist obsessions are rending the very fabric of American society! The BrokebackMountain star distracts us from "the anachronistic things that matter most — our families, our lovers, our country, our planet." Holy Jerry Falwell! Freedom is medicine, and Franzen helps us focus on the family.

The irony of Alsup's review is that Freedom is not in the least bit Puritan. Franzen's characters — the Berglund family of Minneapolis — are integrated, contemporary, and fully human. Oh yeah, and his writing — even when it tackles issues of geopolitical importance — can be screamingly funny, too.

Barack Obama bought Freedom while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard last weekend. That alone would be enough to ensure Franzen the kind of attention undreamt of by most folks, let alone the endangered literary novelist.

More people are likely to read these reviews than those written about less visible novelists. I suspect they'll be bemused when they encounter critics who claim to speak for them but who, well, disdain them.

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