William Skidelsky begins by telling us that Franzen was the first living author to grace the cover of Time magazine in ten years. He calls this an event. Note: the event is not that Franzen has a new book coming out, the event is not that Franzen’s new book could be any good, no the event is that an author (who, later we are told is not the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown) is on the cover of a mainstream American title like Time.
Reading between the lines, the question that Skidelsky is asking is this: who gives a damn about an author who writes books about families. And, worse, he can’t even do it regularly: he does it once every ten years.
What about trying to get to better grips with what the Time piece was trying to do? As I see it, the article is all about asking us if it’s possible to (re)engage in a meaningful dialogue with literature in the age of the internet? Put another way, American culture is in a state of crisis and is it possible that someone like Franzen could give us any insight, or maybe even deep understanding of where American culture stands now. Can Franzen do for us, what Google can’t?
Of course it can. And of course Great Literature isn’t dying. It’s changing. Just like Google is changing. Just like we’re changing. I thought it was called (cultural) evolution. So many of these debates (most recently spear-headed by Lee Siegel’s Where have all the Mailers gone?) seem to present us with the idea that we have no choice. That over here we have an old guard musty library literary view and over there we have a world of disposable culture and Kindles on package beach holidays.
Call me an optimist, but I think there must be something in between. An exciting mix of the two. A deep, meaningful future for literature that might just not look like or be what we’re used to.
Bring it on.