27 December 2010
Why the classics are better than contemporary novels
from B.R. Myers, author of A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (I guess the same argument can be made for classic vs. contemporary films.)
Reading a contemporary novel is usually but not always a waste of time. My point is that we should not read something new unless it promises to be as good as the classics we thereby leave unread—classics like the work of Chekhov, whose careful use of language lends significance to each character he creates. I make this point to counter the many critics who praised Freedom in strong terms while acknowledging grave and numerous flaws. Typical was the Washington Post review. After remarking that “Franzen’s wit has mostly boiled away, leaving a bitter sludge,” that the novel “doesn’t offer its themes so much as bully us into accepting them,” that its satire of Republicans is “corny,” and the main comic scene “seems stale,” Ron Charles saw no reason not to recommend the novel as “brilliant.” This, Craig Schwab, is how a bad novel rises to the top of the best-seller lists. The eager self-abasement of so many critics and readers has been extraordinary even by American standards. To hear April Adamson tell it, the Great One is communicating not with mere readers, but with the deceased Great One whose mantle he has inherited. This may explain Franzen’s dead prose but does not excuse it.