I’m grateful for Jonathan Franzen’s new book of essays, How to Be Alone. Franzen, who wrote the critically hosannaed, award-winning, Oprah-spurning, heart-churning, best-selling The Corrections, is happy to flaunt his instinctive affection for an old cultural milieu that, at the risk of seeming cranky and elitist, actively resisted the onslaught of pop culture by idealizing the sole self. “I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compson, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld,” he said.
The collection covers a wide range of subjects, including his father’s Alzheimer’s, the loss of the distinction between public and private space in American life, the corporate takeover of the prison industry, and Franzen’s desire for a vibrant literary culture (his favorite subject). Here’s a man who still sets his watch by existential authenticity, not pop irony. Distract and avoid as much as you want, he suggests: “Loneliness and pointlessness,” he tells us, are still our “disease.” And “the question of how to be alone” is still our question.
Now occasionally, Franzen can be a pain in the butt. He can be utterly school-marmish as he whacks our knuckles for America’s lazy slide into an acceptance of pop consumerism as a cultural standard. And he tends to make his pronouncements with a curious blend of diffidence and bluster. But no matter. He insists on bringing back “the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture,” and that means re-cultivating an aloneness that scares people half to death but that may be a key to our emotional and spiritual survival.
Franzen didn’t have to cultivate his aloneness. He has felt culturally alienated for years and has taken a perverse pleasure in not keeping up with the latest technology or pop trends. In fact, the cultural alienation drove him into a deep depression that made him temporarily stop writing fiction. In “Why Bother?”—the revised version of a much-discussed 1996 essay in Harper’s magazine—Franzen recounts this crisis of his: After writing two highly acclaimed novels that nevertheless fell like raindrops into pop culture’s ocean, Franzen started feeling that the serious social novel was impotent, doomed. “Why am I bothering to write these books?” he wondered.
After groping here and there, he came upon a Stanford professor, Shirley Brice Heath, who was doing research on who reads “substantive” fiction and why. Her results were a revelation to Franzen. As a child, Heath told him, the serious reader often is a “social isolate—the child who, from an early age, felt very different from everyone around him.”
Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise to us—that a writer should discover that the answer to the question of aloneness and pointlessness involves reading and writing—but it surprised Franzen. So he went back to writing fiction, not out of some heavy responsibility to represent and critique contemporary culture, but, as he put it, “for the fun and entertainment of it.” Or, as Franzen’s friend Don DeLillo put it in a letter, “Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some under-culture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”
Heath and DeLillo certainly seemed to have had their effect; Franzen came up with The Corrections, a novel of prodigious energy, humor, seriousness and imaginative strength, a novel that has linked hundreds of thousands of readers to dimensions of life that are elsewhere treated so simplistically in this country. Franzen’s rededication to the aloneness of writing linked him—in ways AT&T couldn’t even dream—to the alonenesses of so many of the rest of us, saving himself and, in the process, creating a small but significant space for his readers to start saving themselves.