Is it too late to save the world? Jonathan Franzen on one year of Trump’s America
As the ice shelves crumble and the Twitter president threatens to pull out of the Paris accord, Franzen reflects on the role of the writer in times of crisis
If an essay is something essayed – something hazarded , not definitive , not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity- we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. Which party you went to on Friday night, how you were treated by a flight attendant, what your take on the political outrage of the working day is: the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people. The US president now operates on this presumption. Traditionally hard news reporting, in places like the New York Times, has softened up to allow the I , with its voice and opinions and impressions, to take the front-page spotlight, and book reviewers feel less and less constrained to discuss books with any kind of objectivity. It didn’t use to matter if Raskolnikov and Lily Bart were likable, but the question of “likability,” with its implicit privileging of the reviewer’s personal feelings, is now a key element of crucial decision. Literary fiction itself is looking more and more like essay.
Some of the most influential novels of recent years, by Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, take the method of self-conscious first-person evidence to a new level. Their more extreme admirers will tell you that imagination and invention are outmoded contrivances; that to inhabit the subjectivity of a character unlike the author is an act of appropriation, even colonialism; that the only authentic and politically defensible mode of narrative is autobiography.
Meanwhile the personal essay itself- the formal apparatus of honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas, as was put forward by Montaigne and advanced by Emerson and Woolf and Baldwin- is in eclipse. Most large-circulation American publications have all but ceased to publish pure essays. The kind persists mainly in smaller publications that collectively have fewer readers than Margaret Atwood has Twitter followers. Should we be mourning the essay’s extinction? Or should we be celebrating its conquest of the larger culture?
A personal and subjective micronarrative: the few lessons I’ve learned about writing essays all came from my editor at the New Yorker, Henry Finder. I first went to Henry, in 1994, as a would-be journalist in pressing need of fund. Largely through dumb luck, I rendered a publishable article about the US Postal Service, and then, through native incompetence, I wrote an unpublishable piece about the Sierra Club. This was the point at which Henry suggested that I might have some aptitude as an essayist. I heard him to be saying,” since you’re patently a crap journalist”, and denied that I had any such aptitude. I’d been raised with a midwestern horror of yakking too much about myself, and I had an additional prejudice, derived from certain wrongheaded notions about novel-writing, against the stating of things that could more rewardingly be illustrated . But I still needed money, so I maintain calling Henry for book-review assignments. On one of our calls, he asked me if I had any interest in the tobacco industry- the subject of a major new history by Richard Kluger. I rapidly told:” Cigarettes are the last thing in the world I want to think about .” To this, Henry even more quickly responded: “ Therefore you must be talking about them .”
This was my first lesson from Henry, and it remains the most important one. After smoking throughout my 20 s, I’d succeeded in ceasing for two years in my early 30 s. But when I was assigned the post-office piece, and became terrified of picking up the phone and introducing myself as a New Yorker journalist, I’d taken up the habit again. In the years since then, I’d managed to think of myself as a nonsmoker, or at the least as a person so securely resolved to quit again that I might as well already have been a nonsmoker, even as I continued to smoke. My state of mind was like a quantum wave function in which I could be totally a smoker but also totally not a smoker, so long as I never took measure of myself. And it was instantly clear to me that writing about cigarettes would force me to take my measure. This is what essays do.