We took our seats in the auditorium of the 92nd Street Y[MCA]. Chang Rae Lee read first. I didn’t know his work and hardly heard a word he said. When he was finished Jonathan Franzen, another writer I’d never heard of [in 2001], came out and introduced Don DeLillo. The introduction was pretentious and rambling and mentioned the sometimes regrettable things writers say on Charlie Rose, the implication being that DeLillo wasn’t guilty of these missteps because he existed at a remove from the scene.
JOE DONAHUE: The politicians are thew whores and the corporations are the pimps.
ALAN KAUFMAN: Exactly. The corporation is the thing. I think what we have the corporations doing right now is driving all the humanities, including literature, music and art, into a standard of mediocrity, the middlebrow: we’re in the triumph of the middlebrow. They’re afraid of high literature. They’re afraid of literature that takes risks. They’re afraid of avant-garde.
JOE DONAHUE: They’re afraid of emotion.
ALAN KAUFMAN: They’re afraid of emotion. They’re afraid of risk taking. They want bland, banal, safe, generic. So you have something like Jonathan Franzen and his new novel, Freedom, touted on the cover of Time as a great American novel when, in fact, it’s just a great example of literature at its most mediocre, its worst.
JOE DONAHUE: What JG Ballard called “the bourgeois novel.”
ALAN KAUFMAN: Yes, the bourgeois novel. “Middlebrow” doesn’t even begin to describe the novel, it’s so bad, but we have middlebrow literature posing as high-brow.
I drove to a neighboring complex of strip malls and entered Barnes & Noble. I lingered at the front of the store flipping through The Corrections. Two weeks earlier I’d read a profile of Jonathan Franzen in the New York Times Magazine in which he came off as an insufferable prick. He bragged about how ambitious he was, said he wrote wearing earplugs and a blindfold, challenged the writer to guess how many manuscript pages he’d thrown away in the creation of his masterpiece. Still, The Corrections was the hot book of the moment and I was eager to keep up. I gave up waiting for someone to see me and brought the book to the check-out line.
ALAN KAUFMAN: The writers that I admire are the writers in the outlaw tradition, who have had the ability to step outside of the dominant systems and see what they really are, and provide a record of a possibility of another way … William Burroughs is a great example. Any writer who could step outside of the dominant paradigm is who I like. We don’t need records of what it’s like to live in the middle class right now, which is what Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is. The same goes for all his ilk. We need writers who can describe what it’s like to live outside the paradigm and find meaning there, because now we have no place left to move but into a new kind of existentialism that is different from the existentialism of Sartre and Camus, because the corporations have taken over the world and crowded people into the margins and out of the picture. There’s a lot of people who want to buy into the system and can’t.
JOE DONAHUE: The ladder is being pulled up.
ALAN KAUFMAN: Exactly. If you’re an artist it’s a good place to be. If you’re drowning you can make art of your drowning. This is what the new literature will need to address.
DeLillo was shorter and thinner than I’d imagined. He wore a green work shirt, jeans, winter boots, and thick black glasses. He read from The Body Artist, his new book. During the reading I heard Erin sniffing. There were tears on her face. Out on the street I turned to her as we walked through the snow.
— Hey were you crying in there?
— I was. Something came over me as he was reading and I lost it.
— In a good way?
— Yeah. In a good way. It was beautiful.