Sunday, October 31, 2010

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The Franzen Files-Part 1

I owe Jonathan Franzen a great debt. His essays about his suburban St. Louis childhood moved me to be a writer. When, as a freshman in high school, I first discovered his work, I was a bookish kid with a knack for writing. But I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. I loved books but didn't want to write them; it seemed like an esoteric and frivolous way to spend my life.

Franzen's work took a match to the literary powder lying dormant within me. For the first time, I recognized literature's power to transform the familiar into the transcendent. The stories he told were about a kid who sounded a lot like me, a kid who grew up shy in St. Louis; who loved reading books more than playing sports; who worried more than most fourteen-year-olds about nuclear apocalypse; who should've been an outcast but was blessed by a group of more athletic and congenial friends. This kid, as Franzen described him, found writing to be a natural calling. It was a way to take the thoughts and anxieties that made him feel different and turn them into bids for community, into something useful and beautiful. It was a curious notion, but it appealed to me immensely: writing could make up for my daily failures of communication in the classroom and on the sports field; by withdrawing, I could feel more connected.

Until I read Franzen, I never thought of my childhood as worth writing about. But in his essays, I found changed into golden sentences many of the thoughts and feelings I'd been carrying around for years as ineffable lumps of lead. Immediately, I wanted these same alchemical powers. The childhood he described, though it took place in the 1970s, closely resembled my own upbringing in the St. Louis suburbs, or at least my upbringing as I'd constructed it. I didn't realize it until I encountered Franzen's work, but I'd been a writer as long as I'd been conscious, scripting my world by the afternoons spent in my grandparents' houses, where I played with the toys and read the books that my mom and dad and uncles had read growing up. I was obsessed with the American space program; I was taken with JFK; wood paneling never struck me as a nadir in domestic design. Later, when I attended the same high school as my dad and uncle, I constantly tried to see it as they had in the mid to late seventies. The pervasiveness of the Internet and of cell phones persistently disappointed me. I was always a bit surprised to find that Richard Nixon was no longer in the White House.

Imagining that I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s was a way for me to explain the apartness I've felt throughout my life. It eased the distance I felt from the other kids on the playground. I didn't realize any of this until I read Franzen. Living my life as if it were my dad's or uncle's wasn't a conscious narrative process; it simply felt more comfortable. Franzen's descriptions of a 1970s childhood provided both a comforting sense of recognition and a realization of the illusory quality of my life. It started me down a dual path wherein I burrowed further into my 1970s reverie at the same time I began to leave it behind, for I now knew it as reverie; I could see the wires.

Moving my dad's parents out of their house, which involved giving away so many old books and toys and LPs, furthered the process. And though my contemporization may never be totally complete—I still sleep beneath Robert Kennedy's mournful eyes, peering from a poster on my wall, and I drink my orange juice from glasses commemorating the Apollo missions— I'm no longer confused about what year I'm living in. College has found me committed to living in and writing for my own times. And getting to this point required me to move out of Franzen's orbit.

Franzen, with his essays on Peanuts and pre-Internet Midwestern life, had curiously become as much a figure of my daydreaming years as John Glenn. He launched my interest in writing, but I began to feel trapped by his influence. I discovered him in the years in between The Corrections and Freedom, years when it was easy to feel like the only Franzen fan around. I began to confuse his work with my own, so ardently did I ape his style and so closely did his narratives seem to pillage my own ideas. I didn't mind this as long as the press was relatively quiet about Franzen, but with this autumn's publication of Freedom, disillusionment set in, painfully and necessarily.

My dismay wasn't so much because I felt Franzen was being taken away from me, but because I felt he was being taken away from me for no good reason. As much as I tried to enjoy Freedom, I couldn't. It was bereft of the heart that made his previous works so moving to me; it was so insistent on being relevant and important that it seemed to forget fiction's first obligation, to tell stories about human beings. At one point, a character in the book asks, "How to live?" This strikes me as serious fiction's fundamental question, one that is somehow cheapened by being uttered aloud.

It's been difficult moving beyond Franzen. One of the things I've learned about adulthood is that there's no starter pistol telling you when it begins. It's more like your dad letting go of the bike without telling you—all of a sudden, you're alone, and moving very fast. Franzen's essays are still central to my experience, and I will always credit him with moving me towards being a writer. But since Freedom was published, I've realized that it's time to start speaking for myself.

Over the next few days, I'll be posting a few items about Franzen that I've written since August. They show, I think, my first tottering steps towards independence.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

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NPR and the Balance Fetish

Jim DeMint has a plan to reduce the federal debt. According to CBS, the senator from South Carolina who isn't Lindsey Graham recently said, "We can't keep borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars from China each year to fund public radio and public TV when there are so many choices already in the market for news and entertainment. If CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] is defunded, taxpayers will save billions. This is just one of the many cuts Congress should make next year."

DeMint wants to cut CPB's funding because NPR recently fired Juan Williams, an analyst who made some rather blunt statements about Muslims on "The O'Reilly Factor." DeMint's economics are not sound—taxpayers would not save billions, for NPR doesn't receive that much federal funding; even University of Chicago economists are relatively sanguine about borrowing from China; and either way, it's not as simple a matter as taking money from Beijing and handing it to NPR—but his ire is nevertheless being picked up across the conservative spectrum. Intellectual lights such as Sarah Palin, Liz Cheney, and Mike Huckabee have all voiced their favor for stripping CPB's funding. Meanwhile, NPR has been barraged by threats and complaints since firing Williams.

NPR is certainly not exempt from blame here. Williams's position with the network was always an awkward one, considering his frequent appearances on Fox News. A moment like this was bound to happen, and NPR was foolish not to foresee it. And the network's defense of the distinction between a news analyst and a commentator is laughably thin. Having worked on newspapers myself, I know that journalists rely too heavily on semantic distinctions that no one in the public bothers to pay attention to: between an op-ed and an editorial, an op-ed and news analysis, news analysis and news itself.

Going further, Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News argues that NPR brought this episode upon itself by "retreating deeper into a dank temple of objectivity when journalists are stripped of opinions and the ability to discuss things in ways that most normal people would recognize as...being human."

I agree with Bunch's description of NPR's fanatic quest for purity, but I don't think that allowing journalists to say whatever they want would solve the problem. When was the last time "normal people" responded to a politician or a journalist's off-color remark as "just being human?" The public feasts upon the least missteps by prominent figures; there's hardly ever consideration of someone's humanity when this happens.

Unfortunately, creating a media climate that better serves us all depends on the public adjusting its expectations. NPR has retreated behind a veil of objectivity because we've asked for it. Americans have come to fetishize balance in their news, but only where those outlets with which they disagree are concerned. Those calling for NPR's defunding point to its liberal bias, claiming that a network that receives public funding has to be objective.

But true objectivity—"just getting the news"—is an impossibility. News organizations are biased because human beings are biased. One reporter's perception of an event will be very different from another's. The key, I think, is to distinguish between irresponsible and responsible bias. Fox News and MSNBC are irresponsibly biased. They portray half-truths and plain lies as facts, galvanizing audiences already inclined to the networks' views. NPR, The New York Times, and The Wall St. Journal are responsibly biased (at least in their news sections; I treat opinion pages as separate entities). Their reporters will often color a story one way or another with word choice, but a sentient reader ought to be able to sniff out bias and figure out the facts. The reason newspapers have asininely-named "news analysis" sections is because lazy readers want to know when they can turn their bias detectors on or off—not that it makes a difference, because ideological predispositions mean that to a conservative, the Times is incurably liberal, and vice versa for liberals and the Journal. Despite editor's best efforts, they cannot escape claims of bias, because they're vying with unreason. NPR's attempt to seek shelter behind the distinction of analysis and commentary is foolish because the distinction itself is foolish—a distinction that, again, we've asked for.

Unfortunately, readers often forget that they ought to do some thinking of their own when consuming their news. Yes, New York Times reporters have a responsibility to be factual and fair given their position, but they are nevertheless human beings whose experiences and perceptions will seep into a story. Authority does not relieve humans of their humanity. Instead of going on witch hunts for bias, we ought to accept bias as a fact of life, and support those organizations that curtail it—which also happen to be the ones with the most resources, and thus the ones in the best position to perform journalism's valuable role as public servant. So you want to defund NPR? There are few enough news organizations with reporters overseas as it is; slicing NPR's budget would probably shrink this number even further. NPR has produced some of the best and most consistent coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its Washington and its arts coverage have few parallels in the mainstream media. In blinding NPR, we would only blind ourselves—the logical end of eye-for-an-eye bitterness.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

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Keep on Rolling

Pretty exciting news: The Millions has published my ruminations on the excerpts of Keith Richards's forthcoming autobiography that recently appeared in Rolling Stone. You can find it here.

 While we're at it, it's a good time to peer through the mists of ages, when your correspondent was a downy-faced lad of sixteen. Yes, it's my review of the Rolling Stones' 2006 appearance in St. Louis, which I like to think has aged pretty well. It appeared in Playback:stl; you can find it here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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It Begins

I'm a hesitant blogger, one of those curmudgeons always grumbling about the Internet and its distracting, nebulous noise. Writing this, I'm not sure to whom I'm writing (except for Frank. Hi, Frank!) or what form this experiment will take.

But I've found I have a lot to say lately. Ideas are bubbling within me faster than I can capture them. So I've set up this blog, which I imagine will deal mostly with books and the Rolling Stones, but will also feature little personal essays and probably some political commentary.

Whatever the subject matter, one purpose underlies this project: to carve a little niche in the Web for some sustained thought. I won't be using this blog like a Twitter account; as long as I'm going to contribute to the noise online, I'd like to do so with some consideration. Hence the name: drop the prefix from "distraction," and you have traction, a foothold. You're getting somewhere.