A Rant for the “Woe’s Me” Attitude

Okay, so I’ve basically realized that I cannot write anything related to authorship and the novel today without getting this rant written first.  I’ve also accepted that this rant may be all I can write on the topic, depending on how cathartic it is.  Please also note that, as this is a rant and therefore rather emotionally motivated, I may be over-simplifying arguments unintentionally.  You may, of course, pick this response apart as you like.

The inspiration for this rant is what seems to me to be a “woe’s me” attitude taken by some 20th c. novelists (much, but certainly not all, of this is in regards to Franzen’s “Why Bother?”): ” Oh no!  Woes ME!  The novel is dead!  I’m writing these novels and no one is reading them!  I’m writing these novels and no one appreciates them!  My novels aren’t changing people’s lives the way I want them to/believe they should be!  The only explanation is the novel is dead!  It’s technology’s fault!  It’s the American marketplace’s fault! It’s American culture’s fault because no one is taking the time to read REAL literary novels like mine!  Etc, etc, etc!  Blah, blah, blah!”  This seems to be a lot of finger pointing to me.  The novel is not dead–if it were, you, as a novelist, would not be published.  If you are earning a living off the sale of your novels, then clearly people are reading your novels because they are buying them–hence the novel is not dead and people are, in fact, reading the novel in contemporary America.  As for appreciation, I cannot speak to this, but few people are as appreciated for their work as they’d like to be, and few people’s work is as life-changing for others as they’d like it to be, so join the crowd.  Again, this does not mean the novel is obsolete.  Maybe you should write about something else if you want to enact more change.  Furthermore, don’t blame technology (tv, film, and internet), people’s desire for up-to-date news that is news because it is current, or people not taking the time to read your novel for these issues.  Perhaps more people would read your novels and be affected by your novels if you weren’t working so hard to make them “elitist” (a la Fitzpatrick’s assertion in The Anxiety of Obsolescence that the “death of the novel” hype merely creates a small protected space for continued novel publication and readership).  Perhaps, if you participated in Oprah’s book club, your novels would have a wider audience and you wouldn’t be boo-hooing about obsolescence.  After all, Oprah inspired many of her diverse audience to read (and appreciate) books (like novels) they would have otherwise never come in contact with because some authors (like novelists) are too good to market themselves to the masses.  And in case your novels are too good or literary for such masses and Oprah to appreciate, I’d like to point out that the last Oprah’s book club read was Dickens, a canonical, literary novelist.  But wait!  He was also a novelist that wrote for the masses, publishing his novels in serialized form to make them accessible to the masses.  Hmmm.  I wonder if that has something to do with your (supposed) obsolescence???  And lest you feel your novels are too “literary” for the average American reader, I will point out that my mother, who did not attend college, works 9-5 (well, 6-2), and is not a big reader unless it’s John Sanford, read in one day and appreciated Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as Octavia Butler’s Kindred.  Although given both these novelists are women, and Atwood is Canadian while Butler is African-American, perhaps neither of these authors can be used as counter examples to the supposed obsolescence of the white, male American novelist? {End Rant}

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2 thoughts on “A Rant for the “Woe’s Me” Attitude

  1. While I must admit I didn’t read any of the articles you had to today, I wonder if your last point is at the heart of them. Perhaps a new sort of “crisis of masculinity”? Just in this case, it would be the crisis of the white male author. While I don’t think that “the masses” read enough, and I do feel technology is partly to blame (when you can get instant news updates or any other kind of update via your phone, who wants to take the time to settle down into a book that’s not “fun”?), there are other factors beyond just laziness or the death of the book or the author or whatever.

    One of those reasons is simply work. And this is where technology really plays a role, because as any sort of office work becomes more advanced, it becomes faster, and from that, the workers expend more energy. When they go home, it’s easier to put the TV on than read. Reading is an active process and it takes energy. Which a lot of people don’t have at the end of the work day.

    It not is as simple I make it or you make it or these authors. It seems like a big mess of reasons why authors are lamenting and the masses apparently aren’t reading. Although, I am inclined to look at and am very intrigued by your assertion of the white male author being the one who is becoming obsolete.

    Perhaps authorship and books is just another arena in which the white structures are being shaken up, to the chagrin of people like Franzen.

  2. I thoroughly enjoy the passionate response here to “Why Bother?”, and know that you are not alone, this article at the time of publication garnered a lot of attention. I realize that over the next couple days I will be in a position to defend Franzen because an onslaught like the one you have produced here makes valid points but also requires some pumping of the brakes. Like, for example, I think we would be remiss in suggesting that Franzen himself, particularly by now, does not recognize his own success in creating an audience for his work (among literary novelists, as the publication of “Freedom” illustrated, he is almost unrivalled). And perhaps that is at the crux of this “death of the novel” conversation, the ability for the existence of such a conversation to create a market for texts that demand an active (working) relationship with the reader. By posing the novel as anti-mass culture, in spite of the fact that it is distributed and disemminated by the same corporate multi-media monolith that distributes blockbuster films, novelists (and publishers) can create a sense among consumers that they are partaking in something both important (mentally and spiritually stimulating) and exclusive (no one else reads, you are special).
    The ability of such a conversation to create both a protected space for authors and a market for the literary genre does not, however, discredit the concerns posed by Franzen in “Why Bother?” (concerns that have been amplified in the fifteen years since its publication). We have to accept both the way in which this conversation serves a marketable purpose and the way in which it is an entirely valid way of assessing the effect that technology has on American readers.
    On an aside, Franzen’s most recent novel was welcomed into Oprah’s Book Club and sold tremendously well (although it trailed considerably behind “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Hunger Games,” and “Twlight” series). His concern was mainly that an Oprah book sticker would curtail some male readers from taking his book seriously, not necessarily that he had an issue with gaining a wide audience of female readers that might be expected from publicity from Oprah. I don’t think he is totally wrong on this point, but the implication then was that everything in Oprah’s Book Club was frivolous. As a current novelist (particularly in 2000 when he was still trying to build some reputation), the effect of an Oprah endorsement is different than for an already well-established canonical works from those of Dickens, Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison. The reputation of these authors is set, their author functions do the work for them. It was not until Franzen made this splash over his invitation to Oprah’s Book Club that he had any real author function among a wide, national audience. This cultural hullabaloo serves as a key example of how positioning the novel against mass culture (Oprah Winfrey) actually creates a market rather than eliminates it (undoubtedly Franzen has enjoyed far more success as a cultural figure than he ever would have solely on the merits of his fiction).

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