Higher TruthIn her new book, critic Ruth Franklin argues for why the Holocaust is best understood through fiction
by Marc Tracy
A mini-controversy happened a couple months ago when the New York Daily News reported that The New Republic planned to “pan” Jonathan Franzen’s blockbuster novel Freedom. This news was actually news because Freedom had been accorded near-universal critical acclaim and, as importantly, had reached a level on the buzz-meter and sales charts almost always denied novels of real literary merit. Franzen’s publisher, Jeff Seroy, criticized the magazine for publishing “consistently negative reviews;” New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier responded by endorsing what he called, with humor but not in jest, “the higher spleen.”
Seroy no doubt had in mind some of TNR’s more legendary hatchet jobs, including former lead critic James Wood’s influential takedown of “hysterical realism” in novels by Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Salman Rushdie, and the notorious Dale Peck drive-by that began, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” But the practitioner who has best and most responsibly defended the high principles behind TNR’s house style has been Ruth Franklin, a younger critic who is a senior editor at the magazine and, as it happens, the author of the Franzen review.
Although it made the tabloids, Franklin’s take on Freedom is dog-bites-man: It is entirely coherent with the broader values she has stood for in her decade-plus of reviewing contemporary fiction. To begin with, there is the trademark TNR stubbornness. “We damn not with faint praise, but with hyperbole,” Franklin once wrote. As an antidote, she errs on the side of negativity, in part so that when she says she likes something—the novels of David Mitchell, for example—we know she likes it. Too many critics, she worries, are like the teenager who is friends with everyone and thereby ensures that no one knows exactly where one stands with him. In this thinking, the most popular kid in class is Dave Eggers and his “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along approach to literary criticism,” as she put it, which he has enshrined in his journals, McSweeney’s and The Believer. These, according to Franklin, celebrate books rather than critique them, and thereby do writers and readers a disservice.
If Franklin was generally less likely to get caught up in Franzen-frenzy, Freedom specifically embodies literary priorities that she rates lower than most. It is, Franklin accurately observed, a “Way We Live Now novel, consummately of its moment,” intricately immersed in the details of current American life. For many critics, this was a selling point. For Franklin, the novel’s faithful rendering of superficial contemporary truths crowded out the deeper, more human truths that she most urgently seeks. Franzen’s realism is “just a transcription of reality,” she complained. “He substitutes the details for the big picture, a hyper-realistic portraiture for genuine psychological insight.” By contrast, she can love David Mitchell’s novels despite what may seem like their unharnessed gimmickry—his Cloud Atlas consists of six obliquely related stories that span from medieval times to the future—because, as she sees it, “on their most fundamental level all his books are concerned with the connections between human beings.”