Jonathan Franzen Is Wrong: Genre Fiction Is All About Moral Complexity


Well, there’s a new Jonathan Franzen interview out with literary magazine Booth, and for someone who eschews the Internet, the man sure knows how to conquer it. The Twitter detractor is now, himself, a trending topic on Twitter. Well done, sir. Well done.

Where to begin feeding the Franzen-frenzy? Yes, there was the typical social media disdain. There were the potshots at Jennifer Weiner. (She’s already responded, but maybe interviewers should just stop asking him about her. It’s kind of a manufactured feud at this point.) More charmingly, there was an aside about Nurse Jackie, and some very honest sentiments about his writing process. Most notably, though, he makes a somewhat surprising attempt to be generous to genre readers:

Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes.

It’s an interesting stab at kindness and empathy. He’s saying, “Hey, it’s OK to read books to escape reality, my hard-up fellow humans.” Yet I think it’s fair to say that this kind of statement ends up having the exact opposite effect. It’s condescending. It sweeps popular fiction under the umbrella “adolescent,” and assumes that people read such books purely for escapism rather than engagement with moral gray areas. For the latter, presumably, they turn to Jonathan Franzen novels.

First of all, this erases those many literary fiction readers who face the same bleak lives as much of humanity, who have successive hard days for years — and who choose to read stream-of-consciousness novels, meta-fiction, and lyric essays at the end of those hard days, because that’s what moves them. And it also erases the readers who actually read certain volumes of popular fiction because of its particular approach to questions of morality.

In fact, it’s my belief that the best, most popular YA and genre novels are very directly concerned with morality in a way that literary fiction has all but abandoned. I’m talking epic, Shakespearean moral sweep, less about good vs. evil and more about characters facing big, fatal choices and impossible dilemmas with very high stakes.

Let’s look at the genre books that are the biggest crossovers among Twitter-loving literary types. Whether it’s the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire or The Hunger Games deciding when violence should be an acceptable means to an end and facing the repercussions for it, a heroine in a Weiner or Picoult novel making a choice about surrogacy or organ donation, or even a noir detective deciding whether to pursue a sympathetic villain, big moral choices are arguably the central conceit of much of popular fiction.

And the results don’t always make the characters look wise, or pure, or noble. Even Harry Potter is so up his own navel — partly with good reason — as a teenager that his choices inadvertently lead to the death of the one person in the entire universe who is a surrogate parent. Katniss’ choices, set in motion to save her sister, end up leading to her sister’s death. This idea Franzen posits that literature teaches us you’re not the “heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as” is as deeply embedded in many big YA novels as it is in Munro stories. To say these books are simplistic is to mistake grandness, ease of narrative, and breathless pace for mere shallowness.

Yes, some literary fiction does offer complexity of technique and style that is often well suited to layered morality, but not always. It can go the other way. I think there’s a laziness to which a lot of Franzen-style literary fiction panders, as well. Contemporary realism often gives us so much information and so many material signifiers (clothes, cars, houses, cultural tastes) that we’re being directed how to feel about our characters, just as much as we are in, say, The Fault in Our Stars. I could go on and on about the way a lot of literary fiction has become a genre unto itself, with simplistic conventions and rules. I enjoyed Freedom but felt smothered by the long psychological dossiers Franzen compiled for his slate of characters. There was less room to enter with my own thoughts; I felt like his novel was very much about two specific imaginative creations. Meanwhile, I read the best YA and I see it as being about subjects that are much broader in scope and application.

That of course, is my subjective take. The point is, the depth of a work is dependent on so many factors; it’s hardly a matter of categorization. There is plenty of easy, black-and-white morality to be found in literary fiction and popular fiction both, and both can also reach sublime heights of thought-provoking ambiguity. Genre distinctions are about marketing, not quality. We literary populists have argued this a thousand times, in a thousand ways.

So why bother arguing it again? Franzen’s going to keep being Franzen, and a mostly female genre writer cohort on Twitter will react to his statement with humor, exasperation, and anger.

It is worthwhile to consider that there are other reasons, beyond mere distraction, that a reader rushing through the airport might be interested in a shiny book. By doing so, they’re often investing in orphans, loners, outsiders, and exiles who are faced with choices that involve sacrifice, standing up for others, convention vs. individuality, weighing comfort against — ahem — freedom. The best popular fiction helps us mull philosophical dilemmas by scrawling them, in an outsize plot, across our consciousness.