Wednesday, November 30, 2005

It's all too easy, therefore, to forget how frequently good artists throughout the ages have insisted, as Auden put it, that "art makes nothing happen." It's all too easy to jump from the knowledge that the novel can have agency to the conviction that it must have agency. Nabokov pretty well summed up the political platform that every novelist can endorse: no censorship, good universal education, no portraits of heads of state larger than a postage stamp. If we go any further than that, our agendas begin to diverge radically. What emerges as the belief that unifies us is not that a novel can change anything but that it can preserve something. The thing being preserved depends on the writer; it may be as private as "My Interesting Childhood." But as the country grows ever more distracted and mesmerized by mass culture, the stakes rise even for authors whose primary ambition is to land a teaching job. Whether they think about it or not, novelists are preserving a tradition of precise, expressive language; a habit of looking past surfaces into interiors; maybe an understanding of private experience and public context as distinct but interpenetrating; maybe mystery, maybe manners. Above all, they are preserving a community of readers and writers, and the way in which members of this community recognize each other is that nothing in the world seems simple to them.

--- Jonathan Franzen, "Why Bother?" in How To Be Alone

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