Jonathan Franzen on the social novel
We may just be little specks. As a percentage of the total world population, we’re ever smaller specks, and what we are is ever more mediated by the structures we’ve created for ourselves to live in. And yet, as you go through life, you still hit these points of crisis where something genuine is happening. A choice is being made, or a life is being destroyed, or hope is being regained, or control is being relinquished, or control is being achieved. These moments may be utterly insignificant historically, but they’re still hugely meaningful to the person experiencing them as meaningful as everything else in the world put together. To try to connect with what might formerly have been called the soul, and what I might now describe as some interior locus of privacy and reflection where moments of personal significance are experienced: this, I think, is the job of the fiction writer. As great as our various glowing screens may be at capturing vividness and complexity, you’re still always on the outside and just looking at them. You’re never within. Even if you were to construct a very fine virtual reality device, you would be literally insane if you mistook a manufactured and mass-produced experience for a moment of genuine human importance. If you could believe in the simulacrum enough to think you were having a moment of genuine personal meaning, it would mean you were insane.
Only written media, and maybe to some extent live theatre, can break down the wall between in and out. You’re not looking at your feeling from within. An Alice Munro story rushes you along in about 25 minutes to a point where you’re imaginatively going through a moment of deep crisis and significance in another person’s life. I know I’m expressing this in very vague terms, but I think these epiphanic moments have a social and political valence as well, because they’re what we mean when we talk about being a person, about being an individual, about having an identity. Identity is precisely not what consumer culture says it is. It’s not the playlist on your iPod. It’s not your personal preference in denim washes. The moment you become an individual is the moment when all that consumer stuff falls away and you’re left with the narrativity of your own life. All the things that would become impossible politically, emotionally, culturally, psychologically if people ever were to become simply the sum of their consumer choices: this is, indirectly, what the novel is trying to preserve and fight in favour of.