A pair of weeks ago I went to a reading by the author Jonathan Franzen. He read from his new novel (just finished, not yet published) and took a fair amount of Q&A. Someone asked a question about “why he thought people should read stories” or some derivative of that. Franzen, as he’d done all evening, took the question and went where he wished. Most of the questions were as poor as this one, so I’m glad he did that.
He answered by saying that he doesn’t think people should read stories. He said he doesn’t see it as some sort of cultural dictate. Stories are for escape. They are optional. Then he talked about TV. He said that he wrote an essay called “Why Bother” for Harper’s [now his most well-known essay] in which he spoke of TV as the enemy. He said that he’s changed his mind on that and now sees the cable TV drama as a sister to the novel.
Nearly everything we consume, said Franzen, is in tiny bites and is often a comment on something someone has produced, or a comment on a comment on something someone has produced. Cable TV dramas are the last place, besides the novel, where you can get lost for five or six hours (via Netflix) in a story and in the lives of characters unlike you. Both cable TV dramas and the modern novel are successors to the nineteenth century social novel – Dickens for example – where people went to learn about other people, cultures and places.
Now, I don’t watch cable TV dramas. (Although I’m beginning to think I’m missing some good literature.) I saw one episode of “The Wire” several years ago, and I’ve seen a little bit of Downton Abbey – who hasn’t? But Franzen is making sense here. Indeed, as he said while he was signing my books, “we have to find friends where we can”.
So here are the battle lines. On one side we have a fragmented universe with no through-line (e.g. your FaceBook news feed) and on the other side we have the long-form story. One could say both have their place, but I guess you can easily figure out which camp I’m in. Just follow me on Twitter @marshjdavid.