Thursday, September 9, 2010

What the Hell Am I Doing Here?

I have no time to write in my blog.  I am too, too busy, attempting to keep up with the piles of papers to grade and the endless demands of my small apartment in San Antonio.  My dog needs walked, stories need revisited and coddled, student loans need paid, dishes need washed, friends need to be called back, lesson plans need revised, appointments need to be made...

But here I am thinking about Jonathan Franzen and his new book, Freedom, which I bought immediately after reading an article in Time Magazine that glamorizes the author in that gritty, sepia-exposed way authors are often glamorized.  I am not going to review the book here, but I do plan to do so eventually.  Instead, what I want to know is why I was compelled to buy it?  The book is a bestseller, probably will be for some time, and yet I make it a habit to avoid reading bestselling books if only because everyone else is reading them, so why bother?  I'd prefer to work down my list of authors whose books are often shushed, to dig for genius in the less-noticed, recently marked-down books I find at Half-Price because this is more fun.  The hunt, the unknown.  The bestseller is a widely accepted work, either by the mainstream reading demographic or, less-often, by the literary community consisting of those academics and writers who run literary journals, MFA programs and who pride themselves in an ability to provide in-depth reviews of writing for context and prose as well as pure, passive entertainment.  Franzen's work, it seems, has more of the latter's endorsement, and this is probably why I bought the book.  OK, that, and I rather enjoyed The Corrections.

But why was my desire to buy the book so strong that I broke my own budget-constraints (and current time-constraints) to purchase the hardcover?  I don't do this.  I don't run to a movie on opening night or stand in line to read a book because I want to be the first to read it.  I don't like crowds, nor do I tend to rush to buy anything when it first comes out.  I like to hang back, let the product's hey day pass, then I'll give the product a go, so that I'm not influenced by the hype (how can a person not be influenced by the hype, even if their motivation is solely to rebel against it?).

Lately, I've been reading old copies of The New Yorker, issues that star some of my favorite writers: Mary Gaitskill, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, and I realized quickly how much more powerful these works are, to me, than those I read in (most of) the current issues.  I wonder if my aesthetic is just too old school?  Then I think, no, I just don't like the fiction that's being published right now as much; it truly doesn't speak to me.  It's too safe, too distant, and far, far too similar.  But maybe I go into current works wanting to dislike them... wanting to disagree with whatever is en vogue.  Perhaps those pieces that Gaitskill and Updike wrote twenty years ago would evoke a different response from me if they were just now being published--I wonder.  I'm trying to not let this prejudice (if that is, in fact, what it is) influence my current reading, but I have to be honest--I went into this book not wanting to like it, wanting to agree with some of the women authors who argue that Franzen's spotlight would never fall so brightly on a female author.  To examine my impulsive purchase further, I might even venture to say I bought Freedom for the same reasons censor-happy folks buy what is most offensive to them... I want to read something I won't like, that everyone else thinks is genius, just so that I can then bitch about it.

Suffice it to say, I wouldn't want to be in Franzen's shoes right now.  Sure, it would be nice to sell enough books to pay just one installment of my student loans (they're up there), but the sort of attention a bestselling book garners is something I do not envy.  I think it's far too distracting, and it's not fair to the author as an artist.

The goal of this post is to work out my bias, in fact; but what is it about buying something that you hope not to enjoy that makes it so tempting?  Whatever it is, I hope to be able to put it aside as I read.  And if I can't, I'll be pissed that I paid for the hard cover because I'll probably put the damn thing on a shelf, for a year or more, until the buzz settles down and I can be wholly invested the way I would be if Franzen were with a small publisher, if he didn't have such a backing, if he were self-published.  Removing bias, as a reader, is a respect I don't ever expect to get (especially seeing as how I wrote a memoir), but this is my goal: to give it.

(This was originally going to be a post about Franzen's over-hyped status, and just look at where it went... This is why I write.  Because what matters isn't the hype or initial reviews, but a book's ability to stand the test of time, after all.  So far as my reading has gone... well, I'll wait to say anything.)

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