The Great American Novel and Beyond: Jonathan Franzen and the Legacy of the Culture Wars

by Hans Frese


Recent contemporary American fiction, it has been claimed, signals a return to a realistic, post-postmodern literature of socio-political commitment. We are witnessing something else than the rebirth of Sinclairian social realism, however: in works such as The Corrections or Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, there is a marked absence of identifiable and specific political agendas and purposes – in fact, Franzen has time and again voiced explicit reservations against the idea of literature-as-agent-of-social-change: “It’s all too easy to jump from the knowledge that the novel can have agency to the conviction that it must have agency.”1 How, then, can one align Franzen’s actual disavowal of the idea of the “big social novel” and political agency and the almost unisonous chorus of critics describing his texts in exactly those terms?

One idea that is frequently referenced in the discussion of Franzen’s writings is the much-maligned notion of the “Great American Novel” which, in Lawrence Buell’s words, “bespeaks a continuing desire for vicarious participation, however skeptical, in a work of social envisioning conceived as still, maybe forever, incomplete.”2 The blurriness of the surface-level politics of Franzen’s writing might be related to the ideological vagueness characteristic of such oversized ambition – the “GAN” seeks to include everyone in the creation of national coherence, rising “beyond” mere politics in order to achieve – paradoxically – the sense of community that politicians forever strive for but seldom accomplish.

Another related aspect to be borne in mind concerns the question of literary periodicity itself. Borrowing conceptually from Actor-Network Theory (ANT), attempts at periodizing contemporary writing such as Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism set up a selective network of (neo-)canonical texts geared towards engineering social change, thus privileging a politically charged conception of literature that works in the manner of a “obligatory point of passage” (Michel Callon) which regulates entry into the revised canon. For Franzen in particular, the alleged dominance of such practices in the academic discussion of contemporary writing is a profound source of alienation, casting further doubt on the very idea of literary agency.

Thus, the recent re-negotiations of the literary tradition of postmodernism in the works of Franzen and other authors such as Jeffrey Eugenides or Jonathan Safran Foer reflect the urge to come to terms with bitter feuds over the value of literature and theory, the questions of canonicity and multiculturalism, and the discussion of the social “usefulness” of the novel – all of these issues relating to a period of intense polarization between politically conservative and progressive critics in academia and the general media that has characterized cultural debates in the U.S. for over two decades. Current post-postmodern writing provides ample proof of the inevitable entanglement of form, the academic institutionalization of literature and politics. Its characteristic aesthetic in-betweenness aims at bridging gaps that have long since separated liberal cultural commentators from their conservative counterparts, and it has to be asked whether this enterprise might truly contribute to a less bitterly entrenched cultural landscape, or whether it participates in a more problematic “coercion into cohesion” that levels necessary lines of conflict in current U.S. culture and beyond.



1 Jonathan Franzen, How to be Alone, London: Harper Perennial, 2002, 90.

2 Lawrence Buell, “The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick as Test Case,” American Literary History 20, 1-2 (2008): 132-155, 149.