Monday, October 04, 2010

Writers to America: “You folks are ill!”

Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since.

--David Brooks, 9.21.10

Brooks’ comment comes from his informal review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a book that drew much attention when President Obama made it part of his Martha’s Vineyard summer reading this past August (it’s now #1 on the New York Times’ fiction bestseller list). Is it fair to say multi-book author Obama may share a perspective on the American middle class that parallels that of writer Franzen and Walden Pond’s Henry David Thoreau? He did say of small town people in Pennsylvania and the Midwest (the setting for Franzen’s Freedom), “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

I’m with Brooks’ implicit message; writers don’t “get” middle class love of America and its freedom. The writers would paraphrase Tolstoy—who famously opened Anna Karenina with the words, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”— by arguing, “Seemingly happy middle class Americans are outwardly boring; inwardly quietly desperate.” Writers can’t write happy American middle class. So that fact sets writers against the people who make America go, but don’t have time to write. That means folks who read fiction about our middle class aren’t gaining the understanding they should about the people who decide American elections and who thereby rule.

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