Franzen and the “Open-Minded but Essentially Untrained Fiction Reader”

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"Excuse me..., but that is just such bullshit." On the last day of class, with only six minutes left before the end of the spring semester, assistant professor Chip Lambert finds himself facing mutinous students. The topic of his course is "textual artifacts," and the particular "artifact" under discussion is a series of dramatized cancer awareness ads, sponsored by an office productivity software company. Lambert has just presented his "critical" reading to his class: "the evil of a campaign like 'You Go, Girl' consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: 'Desire office equipment.' It signifies: 'Our bosses care about us deeply.'" 1 To Melissa, though, this sounds like "just such bullshit." Throughout the semester, she has been Lambert's star student, the best critical reader in his class, but suddenly and inexplicably truculent, she now turns against her professor and unlooses an unoriginal but full-throated indictment of "hardcore theory." 2  The first hundred pages of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (2001), a portion that revolves around Chip Lambert's failed bid for tenure at an East Coast liberal arts college, reaches a turning point:

"This whole class," she said. "It's just bullshit every week. It's one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what's wrong exactly. But they all know it's evil. They all know 'corporate' is a dirty word. And if somebody's having fun or getting richdisgusting! Evil! And it's always the death of this and the death of that. And people who think they're free aren't 'really' free. And people who think they're happy aren't 'really' happy. And it's impossible to radically critique society anymore, although what's so radically wrong with society that we need such a radical critique, nobody can say exactly. It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!" 3

This is a comedy of manners, allegorizing two antithetical styles of reading. Chip Lambert embraces and teaches one style. He terms it variously: "critical perspectives," "critical tools of resistance and analysis," or "critical methods." 4 Melissa's denunciation is a fairly comprehensive summary of this style's most salient propensities: self-reflexivity ("one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism"), the attribution to the anonymous social system of a conspiracy to con us into thinking that we are "free" and "happy," the wish that debunking this conspiracy will yield insights into the truth of textual artifacts, and, lastly, the sulky and self-undermining acknowledgement that "it's impossible to radically critique society anymore." In addition, Franzen (through Melissa) identifies a negative affect ("hate") as one requisite attitude for the "critical" reader of textual artifacts. Critical readers are not supposed to enjoy the objects of criticism.

The other style, exemplified by Melissa, is the nemesis of critical interpretation: uncritical reading. In defiant contrast to the assistant professor's interest in depth and cynical motives, Melissa's dissenting reading wallows in the shallows of symbolization: "It's not cynical.... It's celebrating women in the workplace.... It's raising money for cancer research. It's encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It's helping women feel like we own this technology, like it's not just a guy thing." 5 Uncritical reading is not controlled by the fear of being outmaneuvered by something concealed. It battens on sentiments, actions, and characters that are noble, virtuous, uplifting, and cheerful. The uncritical reader wants to hope, whereas the critical reader is driven by a mixture of horror and resentment which, Franzen writes in a key essay, pulsates at the core of postmodernism: "You'll never catch me hoping again!" 6

Is this just another cheap shot at Theory by a practicing novelist, the nauseatingly familiar lament that theorists suck all sweetness and light out of the appreciation of "textual artifacts"? By allowing the students literally to have the last word, Franzen's vignette does make their cheerful consumption of the dupery of mass culture look less ludicrous than Lambert's dogmatic investigation into negativity. It is as much the professor's pinched pedantries ("Baudrillard might argue...") as the students' vapidities that clamor to be subjected to "radical critique." 7 The scene confirms our suspicion that professor Lambert's Ph.D. dissertation, "Doubtful It Stood: Anxieties of the Phallus in Tudor Drama," is also "just such bullshit."  At the same time, though, the uncritical reader does not come out of this collision entirely unscathed. The detailed depiction of the ads that Franzen provides leaves no doubt that the campaign indeed hides the sponsor's profit motive under the altruistic covering of cancer awareness. Lambert's problem is more complicated than the bald narrative (a folk-reading exposes the fatuity of Theory) initially suggests: the professor's critical reading appears silly despite the fact that on substance it is correct. The confrontation has less to do with the aridity of critical theory or the naiveté of undergraduates and more to do with the pathos of the family feud between literature professors and literature majors, between the two sorts of readers, critical and uncritical.

Who is the "uncritical" reader? How do uncritical readers like Melissa read literature? Can we make some general observations about them? What do their practices and values look like? In what follows we will examine some interesting materials connected with The Corrections in order to lay out tentative answers to these often-neglected questions.  The uncritical readers like Melissa merit more systematic and sympathetic study than has been attempted because they practice the mode of reading which the instructors aim to reform. 8  How can we hope effectively to reform something without comprehending its nature? These pedagogical considerations aside, the critical-uncritical distinction is the central axis around which our evaluation of scholarship revolves, particularly in the humanities fields. In the academic universe, the term "uncritical" always connotes something pejorative and the term "critical" something congratulatory and panegyrical, but intimations from the professor-student confrontation above suggest that Franzen views the "critical" approach to literature as an occupational pathology. Regardless of the realism of Franzen's caricature, we ought to desire a more clearly articulated sense of "critical" as a widely adopted evaluative standard in academy.

Some of the materials we will reference below are conventional, others not quite so. First, we begin by looking at Jonathan Franzen's non-fictional writings, which reveal the author's strategic thinking behind The Corrections. From the vantage point of a fiction writer practicing his métier in a society where reading is increasingly marginalized, Franzen has many arresting things to say about the problems of literary reading (even when his provocation seems ill-informed or self-serving). In the second half of the essay, we turn to hundreds of real readers of The Corrections. As of this writing, over one thousand readers have posted their reviews on Amazon.com, the vast majority of which run several paragraphs long and make substantive points about the novel and their subjective reactions to it. Our analysis shows that many of Franzen's postulations about the habits and concerns of what he calls "the open-minded but essentially untrained fiction reader" are born out by these reviews. The reviews, furthermore, help us flesh out Franzen's suggestive but rather flimsy insights into the universe of "untrained" or "uncritical" reading.

By turning from private knowledge about our own uncritical habits, which is gained through introspection and is resistant to generalization, to reader-authored reports, we are obviously in dialogue with a loose confederacy of seminal works and ongoing developments in several interrelated fields. The most apparent is our indebtedness to path-breaking works by sociologists of the popular audience, most notably Janice Radway's study of contemporary romance readers, Reading the Romance, which, going beyond internal evidence (the implied reader, literary representations of romantic fiction readers, and other clues gleaned from the text), extensively uses reader surveys and interviews. 9 More recently, a recognition that the vast number of reader-authored reports that daily appear on the Internet provide a unique window into the reading habits of the "ordinary" reader has been gaining ground, as evidenced by Timothy Aubry's pioneering analysis of Amazon.com reviewers' reactions to Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novel The Kite Runner and Ed Finn's use of similar data sets in his ingenious reconstruction of the shared literary tastes of David Foster Wallace's fans. 10 We also would ally our undertaking with the history of reading. Works done in this thriving field vary in approach, time period, and regional focus. They all, however, have helped pluralize and historicize the prevailing mode of reading and reader identity that has come to assume normative naturalness (the rational and autonomous reader reading silently in isolation from the public) by recovering forgotten ways of reading. 11 Another body of scholarship that has cleared the way for the kind of research we hazard here is the wealth of studies on empathy (or sympathy) and novel-reading in nineteenth-century Britain and the U.S. Much of this scholarship grounds its analysis in the implied reader, but it has also expanded the scope of investigation beyond primary texts to include marginalia, diary, fan mail, and commonplace books. Moreover, this body of scholarship has developed discriminating and sensitive ways of manipulating psychological concepts such as empathy, sympathy, identification, and the reader's "care" for fictional characters to reconstruct the lay readership's engagement with the novel. 12 Franzen's reflections on the fate of literature in the digital era accept these readerly reactions in constructing rationalizations for his strategies in The Corrections. Moreover, our survey of Amazon.com reviews will show how non-academic readers also rely on these psychological concepts to make sense of their reading experiences and to evaluate the novel both as art and as market commodity.

"Hunger for a Large Audience"

Franzen's cultural criticism from the period when he was writing The Corrections suggests that he envisaged the novel's ideal readers as a broad audience comprising numberless Melissas, who may not be voracious readers but who have regular reading habits, who not only like reading generally but like reading "literary" works, whose engagements with literature are uncritical and who tend to avoid the sort of books that intentionally invite critical reading. As he recounts the genesis of The Corrections, Franzen describes a point in the mid-1990s when, although his new novel seemed near completion, he forced himself back to the drawing board. After some agonizing vacillation, he decided to scrap his original blueprint for another postmodern social novel (he had already written two) and instead make his work-in-progress accessible to what he called the "open-minded but essentially untrained fiction reader." 13 He chose, in other words, to turn his back on readers like Chip Lambert and court readers like Melissa. As a result, Franzen discarded two hundred pages, a huge portion of his manuscript, although remnants of the original version are still embedded in the final product, The Corrections. 14

Franzen's account of the composition of his novel is a story of mixed motives and contradictory morals, a story of personal ambition, social passion, epiphany, and loss of innocence, all rolled up in one. Franzen himself seems well aware of how these lessons and agendas are inseparably enmeshed with one another. He freely allows that his "hunger for a large audience" was one motivating factor behind his decision radically to restructure his manuscript. 15 He finds a justification for this hunger in the crisis, as he perceives it, of reading in the new digital epoch, wherein the novel has lost its quondam cultural prestige and social relevance. Franzen's cultural criticism, some of it written even before the explosion of new distractions such as social media and smart phones, drips with an existential angst that the profession of literary authorship is being extirpated by non-literary forms of leisure activities (video games, the Internet, TV). 16 A war is on, between rival entertainment forms for the public's attention, respect, money, and time.

Franzen's vision of different media vying for survival is downright Darwinian, which helps explain his positive view of "competition." Dismissing writer-professors in the ivory tower, Franzen styles himself a fierce, and proud, competitor: "The competitor in me, in fact, is glad that so many of my peers have chosen not to rough it in the free-market world." 17 Franzen's compulsively repeated admissions of his own "competitiveness" provide a clue as much to his understanding of the literary profession as to his personality: writers, in Franzen's view, do not compete for superior craft, but rather for shares of readership. Declaring his own Midwestern populism and anti-elitism, Franzen notes that he does not consider himself "better" than his brother's favorite author, Michael Crichton. 18 In his mostly unfavorable review of The Corrections, James Wood cites this rather desperate comment as evidence of Franzen's lack of love of art for art's sake and rhetorically asks: "what kind of serious writer considers Michael Crichton any kind of competition?" 19 Wood is incredulous that Franzen can be anything but ironic or self-deluded when he says he is not superior to Crichton. Not only, however, does Franzen mean it, but the one aspect of The Corrections (its "realistically" drawn characters) that Wood claims to be a triumph attained in spite of Franzen's misguided populism in fact betokens his desire to compete alongside Crichton in the free market.

Franzen's competitiveness goes beyond literature. He flatly states in an interview that he even regards movies and extreme sports as his rivals in the scramble for the finite consumer demand for entertainment: "If somebody is thinking of investing fifteen or twenty hours in reading a book of minefifteen or twenty hours that could be spent at the movies, or online, or in an extreme-sports environmentthe last thing I want to do is punish them with needless difficulty." 20 This sort of survivalism convinces Franzen that the choice involved in a series of antitheses between Melissa and Chip, between uncritical kinds of literature and critical kinds of literature, is fundamentally trivial or, worse, injurious to the culture of literary reading.  These false rivalries, he believes, blur the real battle lines that run between books and everything else. Franzen's ironic design for the classroom scene becomes clearer once we place the spurious polarization between Chip and Melissa in the context of Franzen's larger concerns with the escalating crisis of literary reading. Melissa is after all an English major who wants to read. Spurn an ally of reading culture like her to score a didactic point ("we are all duped by the System"), and you are basically dropping out of that deadly contest against all the enemies of literature.

These rather melodramatic and self-important calculations in the mid-1990s motivated Franzen's rejection of three tolerably viable strategies for survival. Franzen does not seek protection from the ravages of the free market in the safe haven of creative writing programs. Crafting a delicately faceted gem of an art novel for a coterie of connoisseurs and cognoscenti is not worth his time. Nor can he (a white, straight male) relocate to the gated communities of identity-based writers, all equal but separate. Tribalism is at odds with his nostalgia for the mass reader, that mythological creature representing the statistical middle of the nation, the golden mean of the Culture. Franzen is too liberal and too savvy not to know that America "is multipartite and eclectic and pluralistic." "It tends," he claims, "to make a fool of anyone who tries to write about Important American Themes." 21  He is aware that the mass reader is nothing but a pernicious fiction, which, conveniently for the demographic to which Franzen belongs, elevates a particular variant of middlebrow literary taste to the national norm. 22 For all his lip service to cultural pluralism, though, Franzen cannot stop hankering after a national audience, the mass of average readers, who can choose their books uninstructed by tribal and extra-literary allegiances. 23 Hence his infelicitous phrase, the "open-minded but essentially untrained fiction reader," which is basically a politically palatable appellation for the discredited notion of the "mass reader." And a third and final option is the postmodern social novel, the kind that aims to, in his words, "Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream," the news here being that people who think they are free are not really free, that people who think they are happy are not really happy, and that it is impossible to radically critique society anymore. 24 Franzen believes that postmodern fiction is, in the US context at least, fundamentally an "illustrative and didactic" genre. 25 And the Culture and the Mainstream are not interested in depressingly didactic news, as Professor Lambert learns from his positive-thinking students. Moreover, such social and political tasks are now carried out by non-verbal media like television and movies to much greater effect.

The formula Franzen finally settles on at the end of this eliminating process is unsurprising: character-driven realism. This format, he thinks, should enable him to meet a constellation of closely related priorities. His new novel, for example, must honor what Franzen calls a "contract" with the reader. 26 His critical essay on William Gaddis, which was written a year after the publication of The Corrections, argues that the consumer is within his rights when he demands that the novelist not waste his "good faith effort" to like the novel. 27 Franzen writes: "To serve the reader a fruitcake that you wouldn't eat yourself, to build the reader an uncomfortable house you wouldn't want to live in: this violates what seems to me the categorical imperative for any fiction writer." 28 His triumphalist tone here is a trifle tasteless, and his diction unabashedly relies on economic tropes of commerce. Americans, the types who join "the book clubs of today," are "contract-minded," and the fiction writer has an obligation to uphold his end of the deal. 29 Many writers refuse to be held accountable for their contract with their readers when they write, but as a reader they often demand the contract honored. Franzen cites an episode from William Gaddis's life to expose this common hypocrisy with inarguable force: Gaddis, whose novels after The Recognitions Franzen finds unreadable due to their "unnecessary difficulty," was "more likely to pick up a novel like Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (which he found 'very funny') than novels as challenging as his [Gaddis'] own." 30 For good measure, Franzen injects sorrow into his reproach by divulging that The Corrections was meant to do homage to The Recognitions.

The most important item in this reader-author contract is the provision of "the pleasure of reading fiction." 31 Franzen is vague about what he means by "pleasure," but his choice of metaphors, food and house, offers a clue. The kind of utility that Franzen's contract-minded consumer-reader expects satisfies some raw, animal needs. Being so raw, it assumes the character of a universal need, common to all readers, regardless of their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and educational background. Academics like Chip Lambert may intone that biology is not destiny, that a universal need is always a contingent "interest" in disguise. But Franzen thinks that abandoning the notion, however fictional, of a universal species-wide need such as the "pleasure of reading" is simply a pigheaded and self-defeating strategy, a needlessly unilateral submission to the enemies of literature.

For Franzen, the pleasure that the reader-author contract guarantees is of a special kind: "the sinful pleasures of realism." 32 By realism, Franzen specifically means the character-driven realism (Franzen's examples are mostly nineteenth-century: Dostoyevsky, Dickens, etc), and it is precisely for this reason that the kind of pleasure it generates is "sinful." It doesn't share the didactic pretension of postmodernists. Unlike social realism, modern or postmodern, Franzen's realism gives the characters agency, however illusory. Unlike an art novel, The Corrections does not aspire to disclose an esoteric truth about malevolent conspiracies or the mysterious workings of language, perception, and imagination. Unlike multicultural literature, Franzen's realism privileges the life choices and emotional dramas of young, white, college-educated professionals living in coastal cities, a profoundly unsympathetic demographic at least among the circles of respectable and critical readers. All the same, Franzen thinks that the wages of these sins are worth paying. Visual media are technologically better equipped for radical critique. 33 Novelists might as well concede this socially useful office to documentary producers and bloggers and refocus their resources on the areas where the novel form intrinsically enjoys an edge over its rivals. Writing realistic fiction about doubly and triply marginalized lives is also a luxury better to be forgone in times of crisis. "[Y]oung writers today feel ghettoized in their ethnic or gender identities - discouraged from speaking across boundaries," and this fragmentation within the community of writers can accelerate the decline of literary reading among the public. 34

The Corrections turns out to be too complex to be appreciated exclusively in terms of these dramatic and ostensible stakes Franzen himself lays out. The social content of the novel as well as its aesthetic design argue that it is a product of miscellaneous ambitions, not all of them necessarily awakened by the perceived decline of literature. Franzen's competitiveness was not just directed against the enemies of literature; he was also clearly spurred by his almost congenital one-upmanship vis-à-vis his colleagues on both sides of the realist-postmodernist quarrel. His disavowal of the didactic mission of postmodern experimental fiction and his seemingly reactionary embrace of the character-driven realism notwithstanding, The Corrections in fact neither resolutely rejects the former nor sells out to the latter. Among a mixture of motives that shaped the novel must have been Franzen's desire to show off his technical virtuosity, his hard-earned formula for blending the two alternatives, his resolve to follow his hunch that the novelists could make their fundamentally political argument against the malaise of hedonistic Americanism palatable, or even "enjoyable." The Corrections doesn't simply chronicle and dissect. It also dissents, preaches, and polemicizes. In short, it wants to correct. Its main characters are all implicated in the excesses of the triumphant post-Cold War democratic capitalism of the 1990s (the dot-com bubble, "liberalization" of the various economies of the former Soviet bloc, yuppie liberalism that obsessed about life styles as opposed to the standard of living, medicalization of American life in the post-industrial service economy). Despite himself, Franzen still wanted to  "Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream." And lastly, considerations of mass appeal alone didn't drive Franzen's choice of the character-driven realism. A survey of his literary essays suggests that Franzen held on to a hallowed notion that of all expressive media, old and new, the realist novel enjoyed a unique advantage inasmuch as it alone enabled the masses to share the social realities as they were experienced subjectively and inwardly by solitary individuals. 35 The voice that reverberates through his social commentaries written in the late 90s is lonely and angry and to a surprising degree unmarred by irony, qualities all indicating that he took the social currents fictionalized in The Corrections personally. In light of his faith in the unique capabilities of the realist novel, then, his mid-career switch from postmodernism to the character-driven realism in the 1990s was quite logical. In the following analyses, we will focus on Franzen's most ostensibly promulgated rationales for the particular design he adopted for The Corrections. And so, it is all the more important for us to note at this point that Franzen's "hunger for a large audience" may very well have remained a mere velleity, had it contradicted these other personal aspirations and aesthetic beliefs.

"The Open-Minded but Essentially Untrained Fiction Reader"

As we know now, Franzen's gambit paid off hugely. The Corrections was finally published in September 2001. Expensive fanfares paid for by the publisher (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux spent $100,000 on advertising), free publicity generated by Oprah's Book Club, Franzen's maladroit comments about the nation's foremost arbiter of middlebrow literary tastes, and the subsequent disinvitation from Oprah's show quickly catapulted this relatively obscure writer to the pinnacle of the Culture and the Mainstream. 36 So far, over a thousand readers (1,138 reviews, to be precise, as of this writing) have posted their reviews of The Corrections on Amazon.com. By comparison, Franzen's previous novel Strong Motion (1992) has garnered only 32 reviews, the majority of which were posted after 2001 by readers who came to know him through The Corrections.

In combing through these reviews, our chief objective was obviously not to abstract some platonic profile of the Amazon.com reviewer. Instead, as any researchers confronting vast data would do, we read these reviews with a specific question in mind: do they validate, disprove, or otherwise complicate all the assumptions that Franzen made about "the open-minded but essentially untrained fiction reader"? Our findings are mixed, but whether in agreement with Franzen's assumptions or not, these reviews all help refine the portrait of the untrained reader that Franzen sketches in his cultural criticism.

We should also caution our readers that Amazon.com reviews only approximate the universe of contemporary middlebrow fiction readers. In other words, our decision to compare the ordinary contemporary fiction reader as imagined, with some hyperbole, by Franzen (the "open-minded but untrained fiction reader") with the Amazon.com reviewer shouldn't imply that the former is the latter tout court. We acknowledge that our method is unable to control at least three biases. First, our data are self-selected. They remove from our purview a vast number of ordinary readers who are "open-minded" and "untrained" but don't have the time, desire, or ability to write a review on Amazon.com. It is not entirely unreasonable to hypothesize that these countless ordinary readers who never post reviews online have habits and propensities divergent from Amazon.com reviewers. Second, we suspect that the very function of the Amazon.com review sections encourages certain types of readers to post their responses than others. More specifically, the consumers with a keen sense of entitlement, namely those readers who view purchasing and reading of literary works as part of an economic transaction, are more likely to post their reviews than those who don't. Third, we believe that Oprah Winfrey's endorsement severely skewed readership of The Corrections. That means that we need to exercise caution in generalizing about Amazon.com reviewers as a whole from this particular subset. For all these limitations, however, the inescapable fact remains to provoke us: that at present we don't have any data on popular reading habits that are qualitatively and quantitatively comparable to Amazon.com reviews (surveys currently available give us only gross data points regarding reading time, income, educational level and some such). Under circumstances, we think we should make the most of what we have. Our findings can be extended, refined, or corrected as more information becomes available.

As we have seen, Franzen claims to believe that The Corrections is charged with an important social task: Franzen volunteers his service in the epochal fight against the enemies of literature and reading. Amazon.com reviewers' verdict on this grandiose claim is inconclusive. One highly positive reviewer writes, "[Reading The Corrections] was as good as the feeling I get after a crazy week when I finally marinate in front of the TV while watching the latest episode of 'The Sopranos,'" but favorable comparisons of this sort are few and far between. 37 By contrast, many negative reviews are written by readers who expect that literary experience should be radically dissimilar to the experience of other entertainment forms. One mildly negative reviewer finds the novel "middlebrow" and "commercial," and these attributes prompt this reviewer to reach for a TV comparison: "Franzen is a capable purveyor of middlebrow fiction-as-usual. Not a work of genius, not a masterpiece, but an earnest if clumsy piece of overreaching commercial fiction. He should consider writing for a TV drama series, because he has a sure sense of the expected detail." 38

The reviews of this sort can be interpreted in multiple and partially contradictory ways. And each would have important implications for Franzen's project as well as for how we might think about categories such as the literary, the non-literary, and the highbrow/middlebrow divide. On the one hand, the very fact that these reviewers think it apt to compare their reading experiences with consumption of non-literary entertainment forms and the various sorts of pleasure and displeasure accompanying them indicates that these reviewers are accustomed to making sense of literary reading in light of the broader context of their engagement with non-literary media. Juxtaposition, at least, implies association. Although association, in turn, does not necessarily suggest competition, it could support a weaker version of Franzen's (unnecessarily) strong claim: untrained readers are negotiating the contrasting but overlapping cross-media experiences when they reject or embrace Franzen's novel.

On the other hand, we feel equally justified to interpret these reviews as proof that it is the highbrow/middlebrow distinction, not the literary/non-literary confrontation, that is at the heart of the lived experiences of untrained fiction reading. These reviews can be read to suggest that whatever competition Franzen is engaged in is largely intramural, among different authors and literary styles. One reviewer cited above is repulsed by The Corrections precisely for its "middlebrow" and "commercial" characteristics. Few positive reviewers explicitly cite the middlebrow values and aesthetics when they praise Franzen, but their praise often stems from their appreciation of the novel's "realistic" "character development," commonly considered an indispensable ingredient of middlebrow fiction. This suspicion, that Franzen's self-consciously middlebrow work may be unintentionally gaining new readers at the expense of highbrow literary works, dovetails with the statistics, widely publicized by Reading At Risk, a survey on the nation's reading habits conduced by National Endowment for the Arts and published three years after the publication of The Corrections. The survey justifies Franzen's existential worry over the steep and steady decline in reading: between 1982 and 2002, the percentage of the US adult population engaged in literary reading declined by 7.3 percent, from 54 percent to 46.7 percent, and the rate of the decline during these decades was accelerating. 39 But the more relevant data point is that the time spent on television-watching and movie-going stayed flat during the same time period: these activities were not directly replacing literary reading. It is still possible to argue that Franzen was right in seeing a zero-sum competition between literary reading and other entertainment forms by supposing that instead of television or Hollywood (Franzen's main rivals) the Internet was taking up more and more time of the leisure hours of average Americans to the disadvantage of literary reading. Two facts, however, cast doubts on this conjecture. First, the decline in literary reading began long before the advent of the Internet. Second, a later study conducted by NEA in 2008 shows a dramatic rise in American literary readership across all demographic groups between 2002 and 2008, a surprising and sharp reversal of the decades-long trend. 40 In light of the fact that the popularity and the accessibility of the Internet has exponentially improved from 2002 to 2008, it appears highly implausible that the accelerating decline in literary readership during the 1990s that alarmed Franzen so much is attributable to the Internet. In all likelihood, the sort of zero-sum cross-medium competition conjured up by alarmists in the 1990s (Franzen is by no means alone in this) was inaccurate. The enormous commercial success of The Corrections practically meant less commercial success for other writers, not the induction of new consumers, temporarily captured by digital media, into the thinning rank of literary readers. Craig L. Garthwaite's recent empirical research on the "demand spillovers" created by Oprah's endorsements supports our interpretation. 41

takayoshi1

The decline in reading between 1982 and 2002. Source: Tom Bradshaw and Bonnie Nichols, National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: a Survey of Literary Reading in America - Research Division Report #46 (Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2004)

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The rise in American literary readership between 2002 and 2008. Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy, (Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2008).

 

The most reasonable conclusion to draw from all this appears to be twofold. First, while literary reading may be in tension with other forms of leisure activities, it is not in direct competition with other entertainment forms. How much fiction we read, that is to say, cannot be mathematically deduced from how much of other entertainment forms we consume. There appear to exist other determinants, many of which are of socioeconomic nature, unacknowledged by both Franzen and Amazon.com reviewers, such as how much time we spend at work and what kind of cultural values and aesthetic tastes are inculcated in American readers through school curricula. Second, the intra-literary competition is real in part because the aggregate demand for literature, if not fixed, is not so elastic. This means that you could easily delude yourself into thinking that you are making literature popular when you are actually making your own work popular at the expense of others'.  Or conversely, it is tempting to misrecognize the readers' rejection of your work as a sign of a general rejection of literature when the readers are simply rejecting youyour style, your sensibility, your aesthetic conventionsin favor of other writers. Franzen's analysis of the causes behind the decline of fiction reading is severely incomplete; still more, his hope that he could bend this trajectory upward solely by revitalizing a particular literary genrebasically, middlebrow realism with a postmodern twistproves unrealistically optimistic. The question of genre popularity is relatively independent of the popularity of literary reading in general.

Franzen's observation about the contractual mindset of lay readers proves prescient, as evidenced in the charge of wastefulness voiced by disaffected reviewers. This finding itself didn't shock us. As we already pointed out, Amazon.com's review sections are product review sites designed to encourage exactly this kind of contract-mindedness. Amazon.com reviewers are self-selected and it is reasonable to presume that contract-minded readers are more prone to post their reviews, whether negative or positive, than those who are not contract-minded.

All the same, though, these reviewers' rhetoric still affords an undeniably captivating glimpse into how the economic rationality of untrained fiction readers may work. One persistent refrain running through extremely negative reviews is the old ethic of economizing, according to which a bad novel is bad because it is wasteful. Negative reviewers react exactly as the contract-minded society expects them to react: as cheated consumers. Bitterly disappointed reviewers typically issue a "buyer beware" warning, and this is where these reader reviews most resemble product reviews we find in other Amazon.com departments, like home electronics: "I've given uphalfway through the book. My advicesave your money. Luckily, I borrowed it from a fellow book club member"; 42 "I HAVE TOO MANY BOOKS I WANT TO READ TO WASTE TIME FORCING MYSELF TO READ THIS. DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY"; 43 "Trust me when I advise you not to use your hard earned money on this one. Borrow the book from a library or a friend (she'll probably be happy to fish it out of the recycle box)"; 44 "Don't waste your money or time"; 45 "I've put this one down smack dab in the middle. I cannot fathom wasting another moment of my life on this ill-conceived, unfocused piece of trash." 46 While reviews of this sort are innumerable, none of them say that money and time wasted on The Corrections would have been better spent on other entertainment products, such as DVDs or video games. Granted, many are angry that The Corrections took precious time and money out of their busy lives and tight budgets, but the main presumptionand the cause of their distressis that these lost quantities would have been spent on other novels. Although these readers are contract-minded, they seem to acceptand jeremiahs and cassandras should find a soupçon of consolation in thisthat their contract is with the novelist, not with a video-game creator or a movie producer: another sign that the war of all against all, which at once frightens and invigorates Franzen, is not waged primarily over the borders separating literature from other media.

The traditional convertibility between "time" and "money" hardly bears elaboration. Time spent on a bad novel is understandably interpreted as time wasted, and it is all the worse if you also spentwastedmoney on the bad novel. Quite a few negative reviewers mention that they purchased the more expensive hardcover edition, which apparently adds insult to injury. Predictably, that which wastes one's time and money becomes waste itself. Eleven reviewers explicitly refer to the novel as "trash" or "garbage." Five reviewers report that they literally threw their copy in the trashcan. Others try to be creative with the disposal of the novel they came to regard as "trash." One reviewer writes: "[My book club] discussed it over one year ago and it still comes up during each bi-monthly meeting. Usually, someone has come up with a new idea on what to do with the bookfire starter, white elephant gift, etc." 47 The language of wastefulness also colors negative reviewers' frequent dismay with Franzen's verbosity, since a feeling simmers beneath their outrage that Franzen wastes words, details, and information. Positive reviews, meanwhile, tend not to give credit to Franzen in the explicitly economic language of free market and contract. When the reader complains, he indignantly invokes his contractually protected consumer's rights; if he is happy with the novel, he does not bother to mention the successful consummation of the contractual relationship with the author. One likely explanation for this striking lopsidedness is that the expectation that the contract is binding has normative naturalness for many ordinary readers; its existence rises into their consciousness only when it's violated. Also plausible is a theory that these positive reviewers are reluctant to express their enjoyment using terms of contract and transaction. When the author renders satisfactory services (the pleasure of following the "realistically" drawn lives of relatable and recognizable characters), these readers forget, or at least neglect to mention, that they are contractually entitled to this pleasure. Why? Contract is basically a devise invented to carve out an area of certainty out of a web of social and interpersonal relations that is perennially and unpredictably shifting. It is not unreasonable to speculate that these readers, while contract-minded, hope against hope that there is something about the experience of literary reading that remains irregular, unprotected, and unpredictable. These readers are, in effect as well as in intent, participating in the market economy buttressed by the legal devise of contract, but as long as they can feel they are better off as a result of their transactions in this market, they would rather cling to the illusion that their relation with the author is based on values and purposes exogenous, if not antagonistic, to the logic of the market.

These reviews also confirm Franzen's supposition that, of all the terms and conditions in the author-reader agreement, the provision of a "realistic" story and, particularly, realistic "characters" to inhabit the story is of paramount importance. That realism in general is a major concern for these reviewers is evident in numbers. Of the 1,138 reviews, we counted 463 that mention the novel's realism. Franzen enjoys success in this area: the majority of these reviews praise the novel's realism, or argue that the novel is "realistic" in the conventional sense of "true to life" ("relatable," "recognizable," "familiar," "credible" and so on). A minority observes that the novel is unrealistic ("unbelievable" and so on), and this is always cited as a complaint, an impediment to the reader's enjoyment of the novel.

As we have seen, Franzen's definition of realism is slanted. By this term he specifically means the realism of character development. This reduction, as it turns out, is not objectionable to Amazon.com reviewers. While many readers comment on how "realistic" the plot is, by far more readers are concerned with how realistic Franzen's characters are. And to them realism is essentially a function of identifiability. Of the 1,138 reviews, we counted 277 (just under 25%) that make direct reference to feelings of empathy, sympathy, identification, or their absence. These reviews overlap with those reviews that mention the novel's realism: of the reviews that emphasize the novel's realism, roughly 50% allude to the reviewer's ability to empathize or sympathize with one or more characters. 48 For these reviewers, realism positively correlates with the degree to which characters can make the readers experience the fictional universe from their particular points of view, or the degree to which these characters can establish "connection[s]" with the readers. "Realistic" characters are those characters with whom the reader can easily identify.

We sought to find out exactly what these Amazon.com reviewers mean by "identify," but here we hit the wall of fuzziness. The following review offers a usefully egregious example: "The five central characters here were drawn with amazing clarity. Perhaps more than any writer I know, Franzen captured each one's inner dialogue in totally believable ways. I still didn't manage to feel connected to any of them, but felt like I understood them deeply and well. I suppose, then, that without necessarily connecting, I did come to care for them." 49 This particular reviewer, typical in her praise, draws distinctions among various modalities of the reader-character relationship: believing, understanding, connecting, and caring. She subordinates connection to believability, understanding, and care, suggesting that belief, understanding, and care occur without a sense of connection. Understanding or believing in absence of connection is intuitively easy to grasp (one can understand someone without necessarily feeling intimate connection with that person), but this reader narrows further the region of emotional reaction to realistically developed fictional characters by distinguishing between care and connection. Since it is unusual that one cares for others while feeling disconnected from them, it is possible that this reader means "care about" (in the sense of "have interest in" or "attach importance to") by "care for" (in the sense of "sympathize for" or "feel liking toward"). Otherwise, we have no accepted name for a feeling that this particular reviewer attempts to articulate.

For all the nebulous terminologies of the reviewers, though, we were able to isolate a few major motifs out of hundreds of reviews commenting on realism and character development. There are three at least: verisimilitude, recognizability, and care. First, verisimilitude: characters and, to a lesser extent, the plot must follow the basic canons of plausibility and probability. Stated otherwise, for a character to qualify as "realistic," the readers must be able to agree that someone may plausibly think and act like the fictional character they are reading about given the situation furnished by the plot. And verisimilitude in this sense gives the story an attribute that many readers vaguely call "believable." One characteristic review begins, "I loved this book even though I wanted to hate it," and cited believability as the reason the reviewer was ultimately won over: "I wanted to hate it because of Franzen's ungentlemanly behavior toward Oprah, but I found myself absolutely fascinated. Franzen succeeds in making every character believable; not an easy task when three men and two women are involved." 50 This reviewer goes on to note that she liked Alfred least of all the characters because she felt his back-story did not adequately account for his behavior.

Second, recognizability: characters' traits, behaviors, and inner lives have to evince some degree of familiarity. For many readers commenting on the realism of character development, that these characters obey certain basic laws of physics, psychology, and physiology is necessary but not sufficient. These readers demand to be given representations of mental states and outward behaviors that they can recognize as their own. One reviewer, who describes himself as "generally a non-fiction reader," asks, "Why is a story about the diverging lives of a mid-western family so engrossing? Because you'll probably recognize not only yourself, but maybe other members of your family in these perfectly crafted characters. You'll gain insight into what makes certain undecipherable personalities tick. Again, maybe even your own." 51

Third, some readers insist on the distinction between recognizability and a sense of "care." This distinction is rather hazy, and the intensity of "care" itself varies considerably across reviewers, but when the readers' relationship with Franzen's characters can proceed to this stage of intimacy, they seldom if ever complain that their "contract" with the author is breached. One writes, "Franzen is simply a master of characterisation. Making us care for these Lamberts takes some special talent." 52 This reviewer essentially equates the entire alchemy of "characterization" with the crafting of care-worthy characters. Another reviewer, though he does not use the word "care" exactly, relates how his intense interest in the characters' lives helped him overcome the novel's occasional stylistic excesses: "At first glance, [The Corrections] might seem sprawling and messy, but it's really tightly wrapped and skillfully constructed. ... My opinions of the characters (whether I was sympathetic to them or not) shifted as more of their personality and complexity was revealed... I was captured early on and would not have considered not seeing it through to the end. I really wanted to find out what happened to the members of this family." 53 For reviewers who do not "care," however, formal difficulty aggravates: "Instead of giving a book of characters we care about it seems like the author is more intent on trying to impress us on his wordplay." 54

Cropping up frequently in tandem with comments about the realism of character development are two concepts that Franzen never addresses in his reflections on the essentially untrained fiction reader: the "likeability" and "dislikeability" of fictional characters. Franzen is not alone in neglecting these concepts. Literary scholars have also passed over these common readerly reactions that, for the critical reader, are perhaps the most galling characteristic of uncritical reading. Even James Wood, at whose practical criticism more academy-oriented scholars often look askance, cannot quite contain his disdain for amateur appraisers of literary excellence: "A glance at the thousands of foolish 'reader reviews' on Amazon.com, with their complaints about 'dislikeable characters,' confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness." 55

The apparent "dislikeability" or "unlikeability" of the Lambert family is indeed a major issue of contention for Amazon.com reviewers. An overwhelming majority of reviewers discussing character development and realism are equally likely to state that "the Lamberts aren't especially likeable people," regardless of how they rate the novel. 56 Yet, this initial agreement on the unlikeability of characters bifurcates into two contrasting judgments: 1) disapproving reviewers who find the characters dislikeable, which ruins the "pleasure of reading" (a concept that we will examine shortly) and 2) favorable reviewers who enjoy the novel despite the fact they find the characters dislikeable.  The first group of reviewers can be the harshest and the most unforgiving. A typical reviewer writes: "The characters were all so un-likable, that I couldn't really warm to this book or get attached to anyone in this pathetic family." 57 These reviewers usually distinguish dislikeable characters from unbelievable, absurd, or unrecognizable characters. Dislikeable characters can be even "realistic" characters. The reviewer whose book club members regularly discuss creative ways to dispose of the novel puts this point sharply: "Sure, there is great character developmenttoo bad we couldn't stand one single character." 58 And still, despite the realism of character development, this class of readers finds it difficult to enjoy the novel, so much so that many report the sheer dislikeability of the characters prevented them from finishing the book.

Dislikeability, however, does not necessarily trigger a poor rating. About as many readers, while agreeing to the dislikeability of Franzen's characters, proudly report that they were able to overcome it to empathize with them and hence "enjoy" the novel. One reviewer writes that "[the characters] make me cringe, so it makes me applaud the writer just a little louder because to some extent I got it. ... I usually need to care about somebody to read 500 plus pages. These are never likeable people." 59 She finished the book and rated it four-stars. Her response is typical of this second group of readers insofar as she praises Franzen's skill in hooking her, despite his characters' lack of appeal. Another reviewer writes that he found the characters dislikeable at first, but that "Franzen puts his characters under a microscope, and as the book went on I also became more aware of the fact that if anyone's life was scrutinized so closely, he or she probably wouldn't look so hot either." 60 As a result, this reviewer comes to identify with the characters and experience the pleasure of reading.

As with other terms used by Amazon.com reviewers, what they mean by likeability or dislikeability of characters varies. Yet one clear pattern suggests that, when dislikeability is cited as the basis for their negative evaluation, these reviewers are complaining of a phenomenon that, although apparently very common among untrained readers of fiction, professional readers of literature have rarely acknowledged, let alone developed a suite of concepts to analyze: reading about the feelings and actions of immoral or socially unproductive fictional characters exasperates, angers or depresses many ordinary readers who read fiction not for work (as in the case of critics and academics) or for school (as in the case of students) but "for pleasure." Again and again, aggravated reviewers deplore and protest Franzen's perverse fascination with ugly feelings, abnormal behaviors, irresponsible life choices, and dark themes. The Lamberts are dislikeable because they are "dysfunctional," "self-destructive," or "gross." 61 The believability and even the recognizability of their pathologies are not contested. Their very negativity is in fact amplified by their lifelike verisimilitude and repels these readers even more. In this regard, their tastes and moral sensibilities resemble Melissa and Enid's (Chip's prudish mother): the untrained readers enjoy well-adjusted and positive-thinking people, uplifting stories, and happy endings.

The first group of reviewersthose who claim that empathy alone is not sufficient, that sympathy for likeable characters is necessary for fun and pleasureroughly divide themselves into two groups: A) those who moralistically upbraid the author and the characters and B) those who view their liking or disliking the characters as an accident of personal taste, a reaction for which the reader alone is responsible. At first glance, there seems to be little to be said about group A other than that they represent the recognizable class of moralistic readers who subscribe to the old mimetic theory that the morality of the characters, the author, and the reader mirrors each other. By this logic, the immoral author creates the immoral character, whose potential to be emulated by the impressionable reader renders the whole enterprise dangerous. 62 On closer inspection, however, it quickly becomes plain that these reviewers associate moral wholesomeness with the rationally functioning market economy. They take visceral umbrage at  "dysfunctional" and "self-destructive" characters like Denise and Chip; these characters are dislikeable to the extent that they perform atrociously or clumsily in the market economy (because they are contract-averse, unpredictable, and erratic). Morally scandalized reviewers tend to describe Chip as a "failure" and a "loser"; they frequently add that Chip is "irresponsible" and "lazy." 63 One negative reviewer establishes Chip's dislikeability with a simple plot summary: "[he] loses his job over an affair with a student, and then spends the rest of his life failing at everything." 64  Another negative reviewer complains that Chip had "tenure and a guaranteed job...but then he throws it all away to have an affair with a student" (his review is titled, tellingly, "Impossible to care"). 65 Group B does not cast ad hominem aspersions on the author or the reader who finds the novel enjoyable, but the reason why they blame neither the author nor even the dislikeable characters originates in contract-mindedness. If anything, these readers blame themselves. One reviewer in this vein writes, "I wanted to like this book. Perhaps Mr. Franzen is an acquired taste." 66 When the feeling of "dislike" spoils their reading experience, these readers attribute this failure to a certain tragedy of errors, a mismatch between two equally innocent participants: the seller and the buyer, wandering in the marketplace in search of a right match.

This brings us to the last remaining postulate of Franzen's to be tested against Amazon.com reviews, namely, his hedonistic theory that the open-minded but essentially untrained reader reads the novel "for pleasure."  By pleasure, the majority of the readers of The Corrections mean a particular sort of pleasure, what Franzen calls "the sinful pleasure of realism," enjoyment gained from vicariously following the lives of realistically drawn care-worthy characters. However, the fact that, while agreeing on these entwined desiderata of narrative fiction (realism and pleasure), Amazon.com reviewers responded to Franzen's version of character-driven realism in sharply polarized ways (the ratings bifurcated toward two extremes, 1 star and 5 star) suggests the need for a more nuanced understanding of the nexus between realism and pleasure. In this regard, one interesting pattern in the reviews discussing the pleasure of reading may help. A considerable number, we found, write about the enjoyability of the novel in the same way that some moralistic reviewers write about the likeability of characters, that is, as though these pleasures are a fluke, a result of the serendipitous encounter of a right commodity with a right customer. In these reviews, "enjoying The Corrections" and "liking The Corrections" shade in to each other. Readers of the type who use the word "enjoy" in their reviews do so as part of a contingency: "If you like X, you'll enjoy The Corrections." Usually, the content of the conditional is left underspecified. One reviewer mystifyingly writes, "If you like a good story and enjoy a strong narrative, [The Corrections] is a good one." 67 Yet, sometimes these contingencies are specific enough to guide potential readers toward (or away from) Franzen's novel. One reviewer mentions the film American Beauty as a litmus test: "if you like American Beauty, you will probably enjoy The Corrections." 68 This review sparked a series of responses debating the reliability of this test. 69 Another, who compares The Corrections to a Thomas Hardy novel, writes: "There are books for all tastes. This one [The Corrections] is for people who love reading really dense literature which illustrates deep truths about life." 70 We do not detect snobbery or condescension in that statement. A preference for "dense literature which illustrates deep truths about life" is regarded in this review as one among many respectable predilections, not necessarily superior to the taste for less dense literature. Here the operative logic appears to be: "If you are like me." These reviewers are working with the assumption that even if they find The Corrections too long or dispiriting, other readers would genuinely enjoy it.

It is important to note that this tendency reconfirms, rather than undercuts, Franzen's hypothesis about the ordinary reader's contract-mindedness. To be consistent, contract-minded readers should acknowledge that just as they have the right to choose, so too does the author have the right to write the novel in any way he chooses. And few readers actually begrudge this authorial right, as shown by the fact that those who rate the novel poorly are apt to blame the marketing, the "hype," the initial invitation to the Oprah show, misleading reviews (including those on Amazon.com), and interviews. Incidentally, Oprah in many reviews acts as a metonym for the rational, efficient, and transparent market. Hence the outcry: "As I muddle through this horrific novel, I am trying to figure out why Oprah would recommend this trash." 71 Granted, many of the harshest reviewers are likely to disparage the novel's ideal audience along with the novel. But even in these cases, the reviewers write as if they have been mismatched with the novel, as if a mistake has occurred.

This pattern of behavior exhibited by the untrained readers poses a challenge, potentially an insurmountable one, to Franzen's dream of revitalizing the culture of literary reading through a return to the middlebrow character-driven realist novel. Franzen is on the solid ground as far as the realism-pleasure nexus, in its broadest sense, is concerned. However, there are apparently plural kinds of realism. Consequently, if the reader does not like a particular kind of realism that an author adopts, that reader will not enjoy that author. Liking antecedes and supercedes enjoying. And our analysis reveals that, although the overwhelming majority of ordinary fiction readers today read for pleasure and they usually seek a sort of pleasure that is associated with "realism," there is little sign of consensus regarding the question what type of "realism" is liked by most readers.

Conclusions

How should we evaluate the significance of these findings?  Their significance for contemporary fiction writers should be obvious, but the key points bear reinforcing. Outcomes in the competition between literary reading and other leisure activities involving non-literary media are largely determined by socio-cultural forces beyond the writers' control. That doesn't mean that contemporary fiction writers have no choice. They can still position themselves to their advantage vis-à-vis other writers. However, such local maneuvering is not likely to perturb the dynamics of competition between the literary medium and other media.

Within a sub-segment in the literary marketplace, in the present case study, middlebrow realist fiction, investments in realistic character development will continue to pay high dividends. This is hardly news to anyone who regularly pays modicum of attention to bestseller lists. Still more, Amazon.com reviewers' clamor for "realism" partially issues from the self-selected nature of the data we analyzed. The Corrections presented itself as a realistic family saga updated for the turn-of-the-century mass readership. The marketing rhetoric, from blurbs and reviews and interviews to Oprah's endorsement, guided the potential readers to expect a considerably high quotient of realism in the novel. It shocked us little that the buyers who thought they paid for realism ended up debating the realism of The Corrections a lot. What is real news in our findings is not that the overwhelming majority of middlebrow fiction readers care about realism but that they disagree on what they mean by realism. That is to say, "realism" itself has been severely pluralized and hence that it is not easy for writers to divine which variant the greatest number of consumers like. Franzen and other like-minded contemporary fiction writers, then, should be asking to themselves not "Is my novel realistic enough?" but "Is my species of realism likeable enough?" Franzen might as well rethink the stark choice he thought he faced between experimentalism and realism. Should he reject experimentalism because it is less realistic? Or should he reject experimentalism because its version of the real is less likeable? Either way, he would still discard postmodern experimentalism. But when making such a decision that cannot help animadverting the rejected alternative, it's important that one make it for the right reason.

There is also something valuable in our findings for those of us who teach prose fiction in the university.  We have noted that the competition between literature and other forms of mass entertainment is largely beyond the writers' control. However, its dynamics seem responsive to and derivative of large-scale social and cultural trends, and to this extent, the university, as an institution that socializes the educated classes of American citizenship in massive numbers to a particular structure of norms, tastes, and habits, should be able to influence the future of literary reading more than the writers themselves. The range of choices available to literature instructors is shrinking rapidly in the context of the decline of liberal arts within the research university, but there are still a few things they can try. Given the fact that most students by default enjoy the character-driven realism, literature departments are not recruiting new literary readers by assigning more realist fiction. It makes more sense to teach the students how to like and enjoy literary works that do not comply with realist stipulations. But the instructors cannot successfully proselytize without at the same time helping the students see why they like and enjoy what they already know how to like and enjoy: the character-driven realism. An ideal syllabus for modern fiction, then, blends "difficult" ("experimental," "postmodern," "non-realist") works with "enjoyable" (character-driven) works in equal measure. When the realist novel is under discussion, the odds are high that the students are secretly liking and enjoying the vicarious experience of living the life choices of its fictitious characters. When the experimental prose narrative is under discussion, chances are that many students are secretly disliking their reading, to the extent that the conventional pleasure from the experience of identifying with characters is unavailable (few, by the way, would complain that the author violates his or her contract with the reader as long as the instructor controls the students' expectations effectively). These concealed affectslikes and dislikesare useful energy. They should be sluiced out and channeled into a conduit that leads to a net increase in the students' need for literary reading

The data we present in this paper should also open up avenues for further investigation for literary historians in general and for those interested in the history of reading in particular. We all know the historicist adage that things are the way they are because they got to be that way. That old saw seems particularly applicable to the "untrained" reading practices under discussion here. It is quite logical to posit that the untrained reader's consumerist rationality, contract-mindedness, fascination with "realistic" and "believable" characters, and other salient tendencies are historically contingent, anything but immutable and innate traits. The next challenge for literary historians, then, would involve constructing robust accounts of how long these reading habits and tastes have been around, what shifts in the social process gave birth to this particular form of reader subjectivity, how likely it is that this pattern of engagement with literary works would change in the future, and what might catalyze this projected change. While this is obviously not a right place to launch a historical investigation of this scope, the basic orientations we have observed in the untrained reading practices adumbrate a broad outline: its genesis most likely constitutes a subplot in the larger story of modernization driven by the rise of free market, which was in turn buttressed by the concepts of contract and competition.

Historicization can also be turned against the opposite number of untrained readers. The critically trained reader should be understood as a younger and rebellious sibling of the untrained reader, born of the shared matrix of historical conditions. In itself, this shouldn't surprise anyone who is tolerably acquainted with debates over the growth of literary studies as an academic profession since the late nineteenth century. But the troubled relationship, burlesqued in the opening scene of a student-professor confrontation in The Corrections, between the untrained readers and a host of canonical ways of critical reading, highlights specific points of tension in the historical process whereby socioeconomic forces of commercialization that are foreignand usually antecedentto the priorities arising endogenously from inside the logic of institutionalization have determined the shape and content of critical training. Its pretensions to value-neutrality to the contrary, critical reading, in its most honest form, reveals itself an act of socioeconomic protest, which is to say, a cry for evaluation, whether approving or disapproving. 72 Although most critically trained readers disguise their desire to judge, praise, or condemn with the garb of theory, method, and pedagogy, they should perhaps acknowledge that they are at bottom motivated by extra-literary values (their "likes" and "dislikes") that cannot be justified by an appeal to some goal defined solely in technical terms. The composite profile of the untrained reader this article has constructed reminds us of the fundamentals given outside the closed system of techniques and procedures for aesthetic appreciation, a set of extra-literary values, to which the critically trained readers have normative commitment. Among these are: the non-contractual relationship between the writer and the reader; the notion that far from being the most rational mechanism for matching the reader with a right literary work, the ethic of laissez-faire economycompetition and choicedebases literary works that participate in it, that is, turns them into something other than literature; and the appreciation of literary works that elicit pleasures of different sorts than those afforded by a story about realistically drawn and care-worthy characters (to put it schematically, literary pedagogy today rewards jouissance at the expense of plaisir). 73 All these values are reactive and secondary, chronologically as well as logically, in the sense that they are counter-values speaking to a profoundly and specifically modern skepticism about reification, commodification, and alienation, all well-known ravages of the free market. In the academic world, various schools of critical reading, new and old, will continue to bicker over arcana of hermeneutics, but these theoretical conversations among the critically trained readers will be conducted within the bounds set by their shared disaffection with the values and attitudes of the very audience Jonathan Franzen studiedly courted.

Seth Studer is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Tufts University and an instructor in the English Department at South Dakota State University.  He is currently completing a dissertation about the challenges of realism for American novelists writing in the final decades of the 20th century.

Ichiro Takayoshi teaches American literature at Tufts University. He is at work on two book-length projects, an intellectual history of the 1930s and a survey of contemporary American fiction.

 

 

Amazon.com Customer Reviews Cited

All Reviews in "The Corrections: a Novel." Customer Reviews, Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/The-Corrections-Novel-Jonathan-Franzen/product-reviews/0312421273/

AC from NY. May 10, 2005.

Adam Wasserman "adamrobin." December 22, 2001.

A. Luciano. April 8, 2007.

Anette Sonnenberg. August 7, 2005.

"animzmirot." October 28, 2001.

Anonymous. September 6, 2001.

Anonymous. October 2, 2001.

Anonymous. October 4, 2001.

Anonymous. November 30, 2001.

Anonymous. December 26, 2001.

Anonymous. January 1, 2002.

Anonymous. January 15, 2002.

Anonymous. January 25, 2002.

Anonymous. January 26, 2002.

Anonymous. February 13, 2002.

Anonymous. March 31, 2002.

Anonymous. April 4, 2002.

Anonymous. June 28, 2002

Anonymous. October 31, 2002.

Anonymous. December 15, 2002.

Anonymous. January 11, 2003.

Blake Hilton. January 29, 2004.

Carol Park. April 23, 2002.

C.L Schoon. July 29, 2003.

Daniel Swanson. April 16, 2005.

David A. Urbanek "urbanek." November 20, 2010.

Dennis Littrell. September 18, 2004.

Donna Goerner. September 28, 2001.

e h dunham. October 9, 2002.

Eileen Galen. September 26, 2001.

Gary Schroeder "GS23." September 21, 2002.

The Gooch. May 28, 2002.

Grady Harp. November 9, 2001.

James Ferguson. November 16, 2003.

John E. Riutta. January 18, 2002.

"joloutoo2." March 27, 2002.

Karen McDaniel. March 17, 2003.

L. Martel "Linna." September 22, 2002.

Marilyn. November 29, 2001.

MartinP "MartinP." March 11, 2002.

Mr. Ray D. Slatton "rayd." January 17, 2002.

Paul McGhee. February 28, 2011.

A Plethora of Readers "Under One Roof." January 5, 2002.

S. Silverman "ReaderGeode." March 27, 2005.

Scott Timmreck. December 16, 2002.

Simon Cleveland "Author of 'Descent: The R. Connors Story.'" March 20, 2006.

Susan Bettis. November 1, 2001.

Susan M. Waldron "Sue." November 6, 2001.

T.A. Woolf. August 9, 2004.

"theiqueen." December 2, 2001.

vanishingpoint. August 24, 2002.

Zachary Shrier. September 11, 2002.

 

  1. #1 Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (New York: Farrar Straus, and Giroux, 2001), 43 []
  2. #2 Ibid., 40. []
  3. #3 Ibid., 44. []
  4. #4 Ibid., 39, 40, 42. []
  5. #5 Ibid., 43 []
  6. #6 Franzen, "Mr. Difficult," The New Yorker, September 30, 2002, 111. []
  7. #7 Franzen, The Corrections, 43. []
  8. #8 Unsurprisingly, the critical-uncritical dichotomy has been subjected to the most energetic critique in the fields of pedagogy, rhetoric, and meta-theory. See Robert Scholes' "The Transition to College Reading," Pedagogy 2, no. 2 (2002): 165-172; Faye Halpern's "In Defense of Reading Badly," College English 70, no. 6 (2008): 551-577; and Rita Felski's two essays on the subject, "After Suspicion," Profession (2009): 28-35; and "Suspicious Minds," Poetics Today 32, no. 2 (2011): 215-234.  Major journals in these fields routinely publish articles urging literary scholars to pay closer attention to the reading practices of the students they teach. The ideological bent of these articles covers a broad range, but they tend to be polemical in nature. The essays cited here take Michael Warner's 2004 essay "Uncritical Reading" (in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical?, ed. Jane Gallop [New York: Routledge, 2004]) as a touchstone for the issue. Although the majority of Warner's essay concerns critical reading as a scholarly practice, the essay begins as a reflection on a pedagogical moment: encountering the "bad" reading habits of one's undergraduate students. Another foundational text in this regard is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading," Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997): 1-37. []
  9. #9 Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 11-13, 15. Other notable recent works of literary sociology include Elizabeth Long's Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); James F. English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2008); Laura J. Miller's Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). In 2010, New Literary History featured a special issue on trends in literary sociology, which included articles by English, McGurl, Heather Love, and Elaine Freegood: see "New Sociologies of Literature," New Literary History 40, no. 2 (Spring 2010). []
  10. #10 Timothy Aubry, Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011): 175-198; Ed Finn, "Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception," The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, eds. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2012): 151-176. []
  11. #11 See Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (1986, reprinted and expanded in 2004 to reflect developments in the field of reading history, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Garrett Stewart's Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books: the Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); Elizabeth McHenry's Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); and Meredith McGill's American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). Warner, who has written extensively on historical reading modes and practices, calls into question the normativity of critical reading in "Uncritical Reading," in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical?, ed. Gallop, 13-38. []
  12. #12 For the recent scholarship on the novel and sympathy, see Elizabeth Barnes' States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Lorri Nandrea's "Desiring Difference: Sympathy and Sensibility in Jane Eyre," Novel 37, no.1-2 (Fall/Spring 2003/2004): 112-134; Cindy Weinstein's Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Suzanne Keen's Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Adela Pinch's "Love Thinking," Victorian Studies 50, no. 3 (2008): 379-397. This interest in sympathy has turned many scholars toward theories of the mind and cognition. Recent examples of such scholarship include George Levine's Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Carol Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003); Nicholas Dames' "Wave-Theories and Affective Physiologies: the Cognitive Strain in Victorian Novel Theories," Victorian Studies 46, no. 2 (2004): 206-216; Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005); and Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). []
  13. #13 Christopher Connery and Jonathan Franzen, "The Liberal Form: An Interview with Jonathan Franzen," boundary 2 36.2 (2009): 34 []
  14. #14 Ibid., 43. []
  15. #15 Franzen, "Perchance to Dream: In the age of images, a reason to write novels," Harper's, April 1996, 41. []
  16. #16 Ibid., 42-45. []
  17. #17 Ibid., 48. []
  18. #18 Ibid., 45 []
  19. #19 James Wood, "Abhorring a Vacuum," The New Republic, October 15, 2001. []
  20. #20 Franzen quoted in Ben Marcus, "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know it: A correction," Harper's, October 2005, 49. []
  21. #21 Connery and Franzen, 39. []
  22. #22 Franzen's complicated use of the fiction of the mass reader is discussed by Christoph Ribbat, who reads Franzen's cultivation of and response to the controversy surrounding his novel's inclusion in the Oprah Book Club as an instance of adept self-positioning by a contemporary novelist in a hostile market, "Handling the Media, Surviving the Corrections: Jonathan Franzen and the Fate of the Author," Amerikastudien 47, no. 4 (2002), 555-556. For other readings of Franzen's relationship to contemporary literary culture, see James Annesley's "Market Corrections: Jonathan Franzen and the 'Novel of Globalization," Journal of Modern Literature 29, no. 2 (2006): 111-128; Jeremy Green's chapter on Franzen in Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Martin Hipsky's "Post-Cold War Paranoia in The Corrections and The Sopranos," Postmodern Culture 16, no. 2 (January 2006); and Colin Hutchison's "Jonathan Franzen and the Politics of Disengagement," Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 50, no. 2 (2009): 191-207. []
  23. #23 Evan Brier usefully traces the roots of Franzen's nostalgia for mid-century mass culture in the epilogue of A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). Brier describes Franzen's 2001 ambivalence toward Oprah's Book Club as a "failed disavowal" rooted in nostalgia for mid-century American literary culture. Franzen's appearance on the cover of Time in August 2010 (under the headline "Great American Novelist") might be cited as another instance of Franzen's "failed disavowal," his love-hate relationship with the fiction of the mass-based national literary culture. The accompanying article self-consciously announces the cover's cultural significance, but its author, Lev Grossman, notes that Franzen seems uneasy about his appearance on the cover, and that the cover "puts [Franzen] in the company of Salinger, Nabokov, Morrison, and, twice each, Joyce and Updike" ("Jonathan Franzen: The Wide Shot," Time, August 23, 2010, 44). The novelists in this list range from high modernism to postmodernism and mid-century literary realism (Grossman notably excludes Stephen King and Michael Crichton's more recent appearances on the cover). []
  24. #24 Franzen, "Perchance," 54. []
  25. #25 Connery and Franzen, 46. []
  26. #26 Franzen, "Mr. Difficult," 104, 108, 110-111. []
  27. #27 Ibid., 111. []
  28. #28 Ibid., 110. []
  29. #29 Ibid., 111 []
  30. #30 Ibid., 111 []
  31. #31 Ibid., 111 []
  32. #32 Ibid., 109 []
  33. #33 Connery, 48 []
  34. #34 Franzen, "Perchance," 48 []
  35. #35 See for instance, Jonathan Franzen, "Imperial Bedroom," The New Yorker, October 12, 1998, 48. []
  36. #36 See Brier, 156-159. Journalist Patricia Buchanan noted that, at the time of The Corrections' publication, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux typically spent no more than $30,000 on marketing for a work of literary fiction. See Buchanan, "Seroy gets author Franzen's honesty to come out in Oprah flap," Viewpoint, Advertising Age, March 25, 2002. The decision to aggressively market The Corrections was made after its debut at the 2001 BookExpo America, where the novel was extremely well-received. Journalist David D. Kirkpatrick reported that the novel's inclusion in Oprah's Book Club prompted Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux to print an additional 500,000 copies." By March 2002, wrote Buchanan, sales for The Corrections had reached $12 million. See Kirkpatrick, "'Oprah' Gaffe By Franzen Draws Ire and Sales," New York Times, October 29, 2001. []
  37. #37 Simon Cleveland, "The Corrections: a Novel," Customer Reviews, Amazon.com. []
  38. #38 Anonymous, September 6, 2001, Customer Reviews. []
  39. #39 Tom Bradshaw and Bonnie Nichols. National Endowment for the Arts. Reading at Risk: a Survey of Literary Reading in America - Research Division Report #46. (Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), ix-x. []
  40. #40 National Endowment for the Arts. Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy, (Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2008), 3. []
  41. #41 Craig L. Garthwaite, "You Get A Book: Demand Spillovers, Combative Advertising, and Celebrity Endorsements," Working Paper 17915 (National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2012). []
  42. #42 T.A. Wolf, Customer Reviews. []
  43. #43 Anette Sonnenberg, Customer Reviews. []
  44. #44 Anonymous, October 4, 2001, Customer Reviews. []
  45. #45 Anonymous, April 4, 2002, Customer Reviews. []
  46. #46 Anonymous, March 31, 2002, Customer Reviews. []
  47. #47 Anonymous, December 15, 2001, Customer Reviews. []
  48. #48 A word on definition. Throughout, we distinguish between "empathy" and "sympathy." By "empathy" we mean the reader's experience of understanding the feelings of fictional characters. When this understanding is tinged with the reader's favorable feelings toward fictional characters, we refer to that as "sympathy." To put it schematically, "sympathy" is a particularand positivespecies of the general phenomenon "empathy." []
  49. #49 S. Silverman, Customer Reviews. []
  50. #50 Anonymous, January 26, 2002, Customer Reviews []
  51. #51 Gary Schroeder "GS23," Customer Reviews. []
  52. #52 Anonymous, October 31, 2002, Customer Reviews. []
  53. #53 Anonymous, November 29, 2001, Customer Reviews. []
  54. #54 Blake Hilton, Customer Reviews. []
  55. #55 James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 102. []
  56. #56 Anonymous, October 31, 2002, Customer Review. []
  57. #57 Anonymous, January 11, 2003, Customer Reviews. []
  58. #58 Anonymous, December 15, 2002, Customer Reviews. []
  59. #59 Karen McDaniel, Customer Reviews. []
  60. #60 Anonymous, December 26, 2001, Customer Reviews. []
  61. #61 See Customer Reviews by e h dunham, James Ferguson, L. Martel, Marilyn, MartinP, "theiqueen," and anonymous reviews dated January 25, 2002, and February 13, 2002. []
  62. #62 Here, we have in mind Plato's locus classicus, his discussion of prosody and how it expresses the moral character of the author and shapes the moral character of the reader. See Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeve, in Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 1036-1041. []
  63. #63 See Customer Reviews by Donna Goener, Grady Harp, vanishingpoint, Paul McGhee, A Plethora. []
  64. #64 "animzmirot," Customer Reviews. []
  65. #65 A. Luciano, Customer Reviews. []
  66. #66 Anonymous, June 28, 2002, Customer Reviews. []
  67. #67 C.L. Schoon, Customer Reviews. []
  68. #68 Anonymous, January 1, 2002, Customer Reviews. []
  69. #69 See Customer Reviews by AC from NY, Adam Wasserman, Anonymous January 15 2002, Dennis Littrell, John E. Riutta, Scott Timmreck, and Zachary Shrier. []
  70. #70 David A. Urbanek, Customer Reviews. []
  71. #71 Susan M. Waldron "Sue," Customer Reviews. []
  72. #72 How the academicized form of literary criticism came to abjure evaluation is a complicated story, but in a plausible version reconstructed by Michael Warner, in the U.S. context, the impetus for value-neutrality was born in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. See Warner, "Professionalization and the Rewards of Literature: 1875-1900," Criticism, 27 (Winter 1985): 12-16. []
  73. #73 This invidious distinction was of course canonized by Roland Barthes in, among other works, The Pleasure of the Text (trans. Richard Miller, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 13 - 14, 19 - 22. []