Sunday, June 26, 2011



Why is Franzen Important?

Franzen is important because he allows the middle class to believe they still matter, they still exist.

We know that the Western novel (as distinct from long prose narratives in general, and so not including The Tale of Genji or The Golden Ass) develops in parallel with the Western middle class, and that this parallelism is not a coincidence. The middle class strives to vindicate itself socially alongside the aristocracy by demonstrating a moral superiority predicated on the cultivation of an elaborate personality or interior life. The novel is the model of this kind of interior life and the obsessively general, all-surveying point of view it takes on the world and its society. Any people anywhere in the world, irrespective of class, may have elaborate Freudian inner lives; my point is that the middle class have turned the elaborate inner life into a fetish which serves as one of the fundamental componants of class identity. In principle, every middle class person lives a novel. Middle class life is a novel. Not every novel is a middle class life.

Every generation of the middle class has its great national novelist to update the model and to reflect the persistence of the middle class' importance, and Franzen wins this dubious distinction for the current generation.

The middle class has less clout in American society now than ever. Given current conditions, the status of the solid bourgeois citizen of two generations ago has disappeared. The US is now a society with two classes only: the filthy rich and the rest. The middle class are already lumped in with the rest, but they resist acknowledging this. The last thing they want to do is acknowledge that they have anything in common with the "white trash" they have been trained all their lives to detest irrationally. They cling to their middle class distinction by clinging to trappings, or to cheap or often expensive imitations, of all sorts, the way the Russian duchess, disposessed by the revolution, clings to her hyphenated name, her snippets of French, her endlessly refondled memory of dancing with Prince Shklovsky at the ball, while she's waiting in line to cash her disability check. So, the middle class clings to Franzen. If they didn't have him, they'd find someone else, they'd invent him.

The middle class do not cling to fantasy, horror, and science fiction novels. These are never taken seriously. Now, however, this kind of fiction is a redoubt of literary activity in the US, far more so than is the traditional middle class novel. Why?

Horror fiction: because it registers the idea that ordinary life is a dream, and that reality is in fact much worse. The middle class occupies an oasis of comfort in the midst of the desert created by all the trouble it requires to sustain itself, and which is too discomfiting to look at. In many horror stories, the menace is overcome by a turn to spirituality or religion; this has an obvious counterpart in my analogy. However, not all horror fiction includes a comforting restoration; the basic wrongness often remains, the sense that a penance has to be paid, there is nothing that can be done to reinforce the foundations of this precarious way of life. What's more, horror fiction often masks a desire, which is not always ambivalent, to destroy this way of life. Or at least, to see it destroyed.

Fantasy fiction: because it reflects a desire for a connection between individuals in a greater scheme of things, particularly to fictionalized traditions, histories, and societies. Adopting, if only in fancy, a substitute history, which blocks out the reality. Trying to validate middle class values in the same way that aristocratic values are validated. Tolkien is replete with this: the hobbits are English 19th century middle class values incarnate. However, the appeal of fantasy is hard to understand without realizing that middle class life feels hollow, divorced in practice from the values it espouses in theory. This is especially true of its meritocratic rhetoric; in fantasy, individuals really do make a difference. In many cases, the fictional history is appealing not because it blocks the view of an uncomfortable true history, but because that true history is blocked out in any event, and this in turn creates a yearning for a history, even if it makes all history look like fiction. Fantasy also reflects a frequently fanciful nostalgia for a less alienated life, lived closer to the land and the tribe. For values that are not well realized or really meaningful in a middle class capitalist milieu, like compassion, wisdom, kindness, selflessness, courage, blessings and curses, justice.

Science fiction: because it presents alternative futures that emerge from a special kind of anticipation that is also characteristic of the middle class. Technological innovation can produce sudden wealth and renewal of the middle class; the middle class can go on forever, even on Mars. Neither aristocrats nor poor farmers are traditionally supposed to be interested in innovation (whether or not they are is not material here, only that they are not specially associated with innovation the way the middle class is). Science fiction affords the greatest possible scope to the kind of all-seeing, all-surveying, strictly neutral or "tolerant" middle class point of view. However, science fiction also reflects an intense appetite for meaning through discovery and the development of knowledge; it is now the only place where such an appetite can be found. Science fiction has a salubrious optimism that is surprisingly attractive and resistant to criticism. It values intelligence, curiosity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, intrepidity, and above all a willingness, not to discover the truth, which is an impulse shared by many other kinds of fiction and therefore not specifically a hallmark of science fiction, but rather to embrace and adapt to the truth, which is a hallmark of science fiction.

These three genres continue to develop because they have something to say. The middle class realist novel has less and less to offer, and will likely continue its devolution until it becomes an empty amulet.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I have a literary question. Who is that chick (underneath the black dude and above the blurry dude) with the dark hair? She's pretty smoking.

Anonymous Nom Nom Nom

Michael Cisco said...

That's Adelheid Duvanel.

Above her is Dambudzo Marechera. Next after is Sadeq Hedayat.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, middle-class ought to be defined, instead of just used as a
quasi-academic term.

A general statement on my part is that the middle-class do not read the likes of Farnzen, and when they do, it is far more likely to be John Grisham. (Your own writing demands such a quality of the reader that few will be found that have not cultivated an arrogant rareification, which often is a direct by-product of education/wealth status.)

When I think of the immense poverty of my grandparents and blood blistering toil of my own parents to provide me with an education and the leisure to haunt discussions such as this, it dawns on me that I am the middle-class.
Ought I bow my head in shame and return to the manure of the farm? A farm I have never left.

The slippery slope from "rest", to "filthy rich," begins at what point? Charity among the middle-class, does this not exisit, and does this charity not inherently contain the merits of compassion, kindness, community and so on, or is it all a grand show to impress a grand all seeing God.

What class consumes the majority of horror, fantasy and science fiction? If it isn't produced by the "middle-class" and consumed by them, and little seems to be produced or consumed by the wealthy, then the poor are the great innovators of thought? Just looking at the authors on your blog, indicates that the truth lies in the honeycombs of the WASP.

Perhaps the answers to the above lie within the terms of middle-class?

From one white man to another, I scrub my eyes of class and color. (The lies they reek.)

In constant vigil I wait for two slumbering novels to reveal their black hearts.

Michael Cisco said...

By "middle class" I mean, at least in the US, the group of urban and suburban professionals, doctors, lawyers, mid- to upper-level executives, who owned a bit of property and had access to a bit of capital. This was the class that was supposed to define normality, and consumer culture was produced with them in mind.

Whether or not this or that person reads Franzen, the point I'm making is that a certain position of importance is being ascribed to him. This is largely distinct from any consideration of his popularity. He is presented as The Middle Class Novelist now in a way that Grisham isn't.

Wealthy people always appropriate "the highest" or "the best" of anything, and perpetuate the lie that somehow affluence and excellence go together for some reason. Obviously, intelligence is distributed among people without consulting their paychecks, and anyone who can manage to find the time can educate themselves.

The middle class, which once used to have some power in the US, is bypassed and doesn't want to know it. Whether or not you yourself are middle class is not for me to say. What I would ask you is: how much say do you think you have in the way this country is run, and how does that appraisal gibe with the idea that the middle class are in charge?

The boundary line is very clear. Ten million a year. If you make that or more, you're rich. Otherwise, you're among "the rest."

I don't see the connection to charity. People give to charity for all manner of reasons, but certainly one of the functions of charity is to save face for wealthy people in a way they can control. In other words, they'll give money when they feel like it, but they won't pay taxes.

Innovation in thought isn't directly affected by class. I'm not speaking here of who consumes science fiction, horror, or fantasy, but of the fact that writing in these genres is the only kind that seems to me to be undergoing any development, to be alive. The kind of novel that Franzen writes seems dead, irrelevant to me.

Likewise the jibe about WASPs. Neither Proust, Andreyev, Schulz, Jarry, Kubin, Marx, Hernandez, Girondo, Bioy Casares, Baldwin, Vian, Artaud, Cortazar, Akutagawa, Deleuze, Marechera, Hedayat, Kafka, Lispector, Roussel, Blanchot, Ray, or Rulfo were WASPs. I'm not sure what to call Bernhard, who was Austrian and therefore not exactly Anglo-Saxon, or the various German writers. The only Americans here in any case are Brooks, Poe, Baldwin, Lovecraft, and Burroughs. If you mean to imply that I seem to you to believe that only WASPs produce innovative literature, all I can say is that you couldn't be more wrong, and that I haven't the slightest problem attributing to WASP or to white writers the worst writing in history.

Chris said...

Jackson is merican, too.

Unknown said...

Great essay - spot on, comrade Cisco!

DocMartn said...

The middle class occupies an oasis of comfort in the midst of the desert created by all the trouble it requires to sustain itself, and which is too discomfiting to look at.

Great line.

DocMartn said...

Btw... what's the picture on your profile? Is that an album cover?

Michael Cisco said...

Science and Invention in Pictures, July issue (no year), but the price is 25 cents. The caption is: The Isolator.

DocMartn said...

Thanks - check this out. It's a mosaic of the covers from 1920-25. Your cover is towards the bottom right.

NYCIC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NYCIC said...

Cisco, you are absolutely correct in what you say! Despairing over the terrible spectacle of the debt ceiling debacle and the lamentable disappointment of Barack Obama as president and of progressive causes in this culture, I remarked to a friend that a large part of the problem when it comes to getting us organized is that we have people who go to work in an office each day wearing a suit and tie, who have attained the position of a six figure salary, who do not see themselves as workers. They don't in any way identify with the concerns and struggles of the working-class. Let's call these types the Professional-Class. These are the same people as the ones you describe as clinging to their middle-class trappings.

What happened in the crash of '08 was that not enough of these people suffered. Oh, sure, some were affected, but not enough to have sent any kind of shock wave through this society. Mostly it was people a bit down the economic ladder who felt the brunt of this. Essentially, not enough cages were rattled. Or, rather, not enough of the correct cages were rattled. When the Professional Class is affected, finding itself without jobs, without income, then we may see how quickly this absence of security turns to terrified helplessness and then to rage.

Nathan said...

Sorry I'm so late, but this is a great post. I think you're spot on. Your paragraph on horror fiction highlights one of the reasons I think it's one of the most vital and necessary strains of literature available to us.

Michael Cisco said...

Good to hear from you, Nathan!