If a cliché is beautifully wrought does it save it from the evils of being cliché? David Brooks does not like what he refers to as the “Quiet Desperation dogma” of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom—or, more broadly, of American literary culture. In his view, there is a trend—or rather, an “orthodoxy,—in American letters, and one inevitable effect of orthodoxy in art-form is cliché. In his New York Times op-ed, “The ‘Freedom’ Agenda,” Brooks makes the claim that the novel, while brilliant, remains in one way fundamentally a failure: Franzen follows a trend. And this trend not only fails to fully represent the Way We Live but moreover serves a sinister purpose: aggrandizing the authors who sell it, as well as the readers who buy it.
One must not condescend to one’s characters: this is perhaps one way of describing Brooks’s claim. But who made that rule? And, does fiction have rules? Should the qualitative value of a novel rise and fall on philosophy or politics? Brooks proposes it does, at least in part. He writes that:
. . . . “Freedom” tells us more about America’s literary culture than about America itself.
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. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.
By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma. There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.
So what we are missing is something ennobling? It was Thoreau who first talked about how “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and the elemental particles of that phrase have infected novelists ever since. In a good way. Sinclair. Dreiser. Carver. Yates. Moody. Franzen. (And, elsewhere in the world, ever before.) But an indictment of anyone not living with“passionate intensity” is not a crime, a condition, or an “intellectual cul-de-sac.” It is a choice. Perhaps the dangerous implication of what Brooks describes is not a failed book but the lure of our own self-reinforcing choices—in our news, our novels, even our preferred columnists, that prevents us from ever being challenged.
Respectfully, consider this: isn’t it the same class of Americans described by Franzen’s Freedom and indicted under the uniquely literary, critical lens of David Brooks who might first select Brooks’s column over all others while taking their morning green teas, pausing mid-way through their own fresh readings of Freedom, settled safe behind the enemy lines of some real or even simply psychological suburbia, that same suburbia another cultural observer once referred to, if ironically, as “Paradise?” What are they looking for? Why do they define us?