Response to: http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article09221001.aspx
Hi. If you look at your negative space, you'll see me. Your article for "The Smart Set" about "Freedom" clearly stated the opposite of some of my core views about fiction. It was antimatter to my matter. If you and I touched each other, I think we'd explode.
We do agree on one thing: there's no canon. The idea that one "should read" certain books is absurd. I am sorry you even have to write that, but since schools exist, I guess you do.
The following sentences, in a brilliant cloud of pith, could be said by me on Opposite Day: "I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored." What you're doing here is caring more about the critical consensus about a book than the contents of the book itself.
Do you avoid "King Lear" because most people agree it's a masterpiece? Do you think, "Well, since the critical reception of Shakespeare's plays is a done deal, what's the point of reading them?" Do you always read to Have An Original Opinion about a book, or do you ever read for the experience the book will give you -- the sensual experience, which no one can have for you, even if many people have had similar experiences.
Have you seen the film "Metropolitan"? In it, a character discusses Jane Austen before admitting that he hasn't actually read any of her novels. He says, "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking." You and that guy could have a great discussion about "One Hundred Years of Solitude" without bothering to read it.
This part of your essay confused me: "...it hit all the right notes at exactly the right moments, but one could always feel the creator manipulating things behind the scenes. OK, now I need the viewer/reader to cry, so let’s get that swelling music going/kill off the only character portrayed with any sympathy. I cried, but I was resentful about crying, and I was suspicious about the crying. It wasn’t the spontaneous, oh my god sobbing I had in the last moments of a film like The Lives of Others. These were cultivated tears. Franzen had planned for them."
But... you cried! You sound like someone who is really suspicious about just letting herself feel something. It's like you're looking over your shoulder, worried someone will accuse you of being a chump. "Aha! You fell for Franzen's confidence tricks. Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge?" If this is the case, I'm sorry. It's also possible you're just way more sophisticated than me. I don't shed regular tears and cultivated tears. I just shed tears. Or I don't. If I do, it means someone or something made me sad.
I am not saying you're wrong. I don't believe reactions can be wrong. If you enjoy relating to novels more via the debris that orbits them (or via your suspicions about what the author is trying to do to you) than via the contents of the works themselves, then that's exactly what you should do. It's just bizarre to me. Why do you care so much about "the build-up of attention, everyone in the literary world pretending that Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time..." As you say, "surely one should just get over it, read the book so that one can make an informed opinion on the matter." Well, one shouldn't read the book unless one wants to. But discussion about a book is not the book itself.
If I were in your shoes -- if there was a book I didn't want to read -- I would just not read it. I can't imagine not reading it and then writing an article about how I didn't read it. There are tons of books I haven't read. There are tons of book I will never read. Some of them are probably bad; others are probably good. But I haven't read them, so I'm not going to write about them. And I'm not going to write about why I'm not reading them, because not having read them, what could I possibly have to say except, "I judged the book by its cover," which is what you did -- or, rather, you judged the book by its coverage.
"Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence."