Jonathan Franzen and the novel writing tradition that still has made-in-America stamped all over it

Who says that the internet has homogenised taste — turned, say, novel-writing into cooking from essentially the same imaginatively and stylistically flaccid hamburger recipe on every continent where people write in English?

Somehow, the transatlantic gap in literary endeavour is as wide as ever. We have never seen American novelists’ tails tweaked as impishly — but accurately — as in a review in September of a new book by Jonathen Franzen. Most entertaining about this delectable, fearless, evisceration is that in several places, a tiny stylistic tic suggests that the critic could very well be American. If that guess is right, we are ready to toss her — or him — a truckload of bouquets, since who is more lovable than the arbiter capable of (tribal) self-mockery?

‘Super-sighs me’

Oh dear me, Tallulah, the beetle-browed sedulousness with which these big, serious, American novelists set about writing their big, serious, American books. Even to pick up a copy of Purity, with its gleaming cover, the sobersided portrait of its proud yet faintly dishevelled author on the inside back jacket, the promise of its 562 infinitely worked-over pages notwithstanding, is to be instantly transported to what Ronald Firbank would call ‘the heart of a brainy district’, where everything is big and fat and fine and dialogue, description and moral engagement are as bloated as the Greek national debt.

Like many a mock-masterpiece from the further side of the pond, Mr Franzen’s new one comes pregnant with literary allusion and heavy-duty metaphorical freight.


Purity’s essential drawback […is…] that it rambles all over the place, over-eggs every pudding served up on the reader’s plate and drags out its conversations to such a length that they plummet into inconsequentiality, while leaving vital questions as the matter of the lost warhead, [and] what Project Sunlight is actually up to …in such long-term abeyance the reader almost begins to forget they are there.

And of course this is a big, serious American novel, decked out with rather painful stylistic flourishes (‘her short-term memory aching like an unmilked cow’, etc.) doffing its cap to the titans of a bygone era (Steinbeck and Dreiser are mentioned, among others) and harbouring a thematic palate that simply glows with the issues of the day. Feminism, internet activism, the state of the planet and data access are all much in evidence, each picked up with a pair of tweezers and advertised with such obviousness the reader yearns for an agenda that wasn’t quite so blatant, so clearly devised in advance of the people acting it out.

To be fair to Mr F, the second half does contain a handful of excruciatingly funny moments, most of them to do with the current state of the American literary marketplace. There is, for example, an hilarious account of ‘Charles Blenheim’ …obsessed with the idea of ‘the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon’.


As to whom our man is sending up here, well the answer would seem to be himself. … The very best modern US practitioners, you sometimes feel, are writers like Annie Proulx or Mary Gaitskill, cool-eyed miniaturists who concentrate on smaller canvases and don’t see the point of trying to conceptualise worlds they have trouble understanding without a great deal of research …

— Private Eye, 18 September – 1 October, 2015 (No: 1401)

Cooperatives: now, a famously right-wing ex-editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator emerges as an advocate of true sharing in the ownership of companies …

Joining Pope Francis, the influential, left-leaning author of Postcapitalism, Paul Mason, and the rap emperor Jay Z in proposing cooperatives as the most rational economic structure and best weapon against economic inequality, here is Charles Moore — a Margaret Thatcher biographer, right-wing journalist, and former editor of The Spectator and Daily Telegraph. He is so conservative that he converted to Roman Catholicism after the Church of England decided to permit the ordination of women priests. Where did he proclaim his love of a style of ownership that has led to muttering diagnoses of ill-advised Marxist tendencies in nearly everyone else who has — from the charismatic pontiff to the most undeniably obscure bloggers? In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, no less, in a riveting argument quoting Karl himself — approvingly. Sections worthy of special note:

…There is clearly an unmet need for a politics that goes beyond mere grievance-peddling to develop a new way of thinking about what makes a society free and secure at the same time. If this were easy, we would have heard more of it by now, and I won’t pretend to have the answers. But certain basic principles seem like the proper foundation…

Take ownership much more seriously.

Why are so few companies owned by the people who work for them, and why do both liberal and conservative political parties not offer greater incentives, such as tax advantages, for this to change? It is extraordinary that the joint stock company, the foundation of modern commercial and industrial wealth, is still so little influenced by the views of shareholders.

This is perhaps most evident in the preposterous salaries paid, particularly in the U.S. and Britain, to top executives of public companies. If the owners of these companies truly exercised authority over what is theirs, this wouldn’t happen. If these enterprises had grown over the last 20 years at the same rate as pay for the men who run them (it usually still is men), no one would be talking of a crisis of capitalism.

Ownership of housing, stocks and pensions is an area where creativity has died. This failing of our consumer society may owe something to the baby boomers’ desire to “have it now,” but another part of the problem is that people are correctly no longer confident that what they save now will be available to them later. Savings need more long-term government protection than they receive in most Western societies. A business culture based on deals and bonuses means that the best business minds are not interested in saving.

The ideal of ownership also needs to apply more fully to civil society. It might be a good idea, for example, if citizens could establish ownership rights over their local school by becoming “members.” Under the existing arrangements, how much can parents and communities creatively affect what happens in schools? The charter-school movement in the U.S. and “academies” and “free schools” in Britain are working in the right direction but remain a long way from something citizens can feel they own.

These rights would give people a voice when things go wrong, rather as some congregations have a say in their churches. In Britain, there is an admirable and long-standing body called the Wine Society, wholly owned by its members with the sole purpose of getting them good wine at good prices. There could be some bold ideas about applying this principle to things so important that they can’t be bottled, such as health.

The Victorians were more imaginative than we are about principles of mutuality—credit unions, building societies, the cooperative movement. Such organizations feel creakier in an age when people want larger sums, faster. But is it really beyond the skill of our great modern business brains to develop these concepts and adapt them to modernity? Financial creativity, unfortunately, really has become the preserve of the few, for the few.

Science, religion, and a curious note from history: the sad, small Maharaja of Chhatarpur meets a founder of the cooperative movement and is impressed

An early and influential English thinker about the theoretical underpinnings of the cooperative movement, Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), is better known for her unique marriage to a fellow socialist and social reformer, Sidney Webb. She was born rich and beautiful, an eccentric daughter — with eight sisters — of an industrial magnate. Sidney was an undistinguished-looking member of the middle class and, when they met, working as an obscure government bureaucrat.

Theirs was a childless partnership, but her inheritance and their exceptional intellectual fusion created an unparalleled record for translating ideas into action. One editor of a selection of entries from the diaries they wrote together over several decades (archived here), Niraja Gopal Jayal, has listed among their ‘brainchildren’: the Welfare State, the Labour Party, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the New Statesman.

Discussions of cooperatives and founding cooperatives of various stripes — a subject of special interest on our blog — are inevitable, whenever there is acute, widespread worry about social inequality and have-nots faring badly in capitalism, as in the early 20th century, and today. Perhaps because the Webbs were as effective on the practical plane as in refining abstractions, their diaries also contain the most lapidary delineation of what distinguishes science from religion that we at post-Gutenberg have ever read.

The context for that definition, for which Sidney credits only Beatrice, is just as unforgettable.

They were travelling in India, on an expedition that stretched out over several months. On the 14th of February in 1912, they visited the five foot-tall Maharaja of Chhatarpur in central India – described in the diary entry for that day as ‘a rather pathetic figure … sickly and weak, who had been married at 16 to the young daughter of a neighbouring little Maharaja like himself, who had borne him no children …’. He is depressed. ‘Without children, without anyone to talk philosophy to, without friends, without faith, he had (we were told and he almost confessed to S.W.) taken to sexual malpractices, and was profoundly unhappy and unable, as he said, to “find peace”.’

Then, the entry continues,

B.W. captivated him by explaining the difference between science and religion — the one demanding a perpetual striving after making our order of thought correspond with the order of things; the other supplying the purpose of life to be gained by aspiration or communion or prayer, whereby our order of thought, in the realm of purpose, is brought into harmony with a higher order of thought, the great spiritual force that we hope and trust is above and behind all the worlds.

That is remarkable enough in itself, and more so when you consider that B.W. had had to educate herself — because, as Niraja Jayal explains, ‘even a girl with a lively intellectual curiosity was, in Beatrice’s time, denied access to formal education.’

Sidney (1859-1947), on the other hand, had studied law at London University, and was called to the Bar at the age of twenty-six. This was how Beatrice characterised their peculiar mind-meld — in a masterpiece of self-deprecation:

We are both of us second-rate minds; but we are curiously combined. I am the investigator and he the executant; between us we have a wide and varied experience of men and affairs.

Her Wikipedia entry describes this autodidact as a sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian and social reformer.

Of course the Webbs would have got nowhere without what she described as their ‘unearned salary,’ and — as Jayal says — her upbringing in a household ‘visited not only by the captains of industry but also by politicians, pastors and philosophers’.

Still, how many other well-placed not-exactly-trustafarians put their stipends and connections in service to such ideals?