Jesús Blanco Hidalga answered some questions for us about his new book, Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community: Narratives of Salvation.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
In my book I offer a close analysis of Jonathan Franzen’s fiction that integrates formal and ideological approaches and maps the relationship of his work to ongoing social, cultural and political issues.
What drew to you writing about this subject?
To be sure, first there was the excitement of discovering a new major narrative voice when I became acquainted with Franzen’s work in late 2010. In fact, no matter how potentially productive from a critical point of view these novels might have seemed, I would have never engaged with them had I not been captivated by their poignancy, humour or social scope.
But soon enough there was the realization that Franzen’s novels formed the perfect ground to pursue one of my interests in literature, namely the analysis of the social dimension of narrative. Indeed, Franzen’s novels stand out in their sustained exploration of the intersection of social and individual concerns. With a remarkable combination of micro and macro lenses, Franzen relentlessly focuses on the realms of family and love relationships as the troubled battleground at the junction of both the social and individual domains. Probably as a result of the atomizing dynamics of late capitalism, the concern with community, with its possibilities and pitfalls, has become a prominent feature of contemporary literature. I was especially interested in the ways this preoccupation runs through Franzen’s novels.
From a different point of view, Franzen's work also provided the opportunity to address several rather pressing questions like, for example, the relevance, critical potential or even the sheer feasibility of traditional narrative modes such as realism or the social novel in our contemporary liquid culture.
How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?
The whole process of researching and writing the book took me about five years. It turned out to be a timely project as I had the chance to analyse Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, released in late 2015. This makes the book fully updated.
What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?
One of the first things I realized in my revision of the previous critical literature on Franzen was that his whole writing career was generally presented as a straightforward salvational narrative involving a sort of conversion from a postmodernist to a realist writer. A look at Franzen’s non-fiction revealed that Franzen himself was the main promoter of this narrative through a series of influential essays. Soon I realized that Franzen’s tale of salvation was replicated in disguise in his novels with obvious purposes of self-legitimation. In this sense, this is a book that certainly has a thesis to prove.
Similarly, examining Franzen’s critical reception I was struck by the lax and perfunctory ways in which very complex concepts, especially those of realism and the social novel, were being used by critics in their account of Franzen’s novels. I found that a stricter and more theory-informed approach yielded a far more complicated view of Franzen’s evolution. It became apparent then that there wasn’t such a neat distinction between Franzen’s postmodernism and realism, while in turn much of what had been taken by many critics as realism was in fact a kind of latter-day romance packed with social yearnings. Clearly, all these formal and stylistic choices by Franzen have ideological bearings that are revealing not only of the novelist’s own views but also of our socio-political climate at large.
What initially drew you to Literary Studies?
As I suppose is the case with most people, it was simply the love of literature that at some point got me writing about other people’s books. Personally, I think that one of the most interesting aspects of Literary Studies is the sheer amplitude of the field as regards the approach to the text. The potential implications of the analysis of any literary work are virtually unending, which means that, to become a decent critic at all, you need to have an adequate knowledge of relevant subjects that may range from stylistics to history, philosophy, sociology or politics. This led me to an interest in the protean field of critical theory, which is quite apparent in my book. Indeed, I have based my study of Franzen’s novels on a rigorous theoretical framework which I have left open for inspection.
Which Bloomsbury Lit Studies books have you read? Which are your favorites, and why?
The size and quality of Bloomsbury's catalogue are truly impressive. To restrict myself to the books most relevant to mine, I must mention Stephen J. Burn's Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (2008), in the Continuum imprint. For several years, it was the only monograph on Franzen available and as such an unavoidable reference. In my book I sometimes engage in what I hope is a constructive dialogue with it. Then there is Philip Weinstein's Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage (2015). It is a perceptive and finely written critical biography which offers the bonus of direct access to Franzen's own views of his work. It seems revealing, in any case, that all three academic books on Franzen's work to date are published under Bloomsbury's label.
Jesús Blanco Hidalga is an independent scholar who collaborates with the Department of English of the University of Córdoba, Spain. His most recent book, Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community: Narratives of Salvation, is out now from Bloomsbury.