Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Jonathans Are Illuminated: Unhappiness-Challenged

Filed under: Jonathans are Illuminated   Tagged: ,

Does Michiko Kakutani have trouble with despair? Specifically, understanding what it might be like to be caught in it? Her self-congratulatory review of Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone would seem to suggest that this is so, which would be an unfortunate deficiency in a critic of literature. She also seems not to have been following the progress of the essay over the past twenty-odd years. She writes:

There are two extended riffs in this volume where Mr. Franzen momentarily puts aside his fascination with himself to give the reader some wonderfully observed musings on two subjects that have long preoccupied him: Peanuts cartoons and bird-watching.

I'd like to see her attempt "musings" as "wonderfully observed" as those in "My Bird Problem" and "The Comfort Zone" (both of which first appeared in The New Yorker). She continues, pointlessly, "Indeed the young Mr. Franzen comes across as less of a Snoopy — 'the warm puppy who amused the others with the cute things he said and then excused himself from the table and wrote cute sentences in his notebook' — than as a kind of mean-spirited Lucy on steroids." Must authors be Snoopys? I'd rather read Lucy's memoir, msyelf. Let's not forget that her review of Nick Hornby's comically unsettling novel A Long Way Down lacked both depth and empathy in the extreme. She writes of Franzen's book, "Just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen’s mind remains something of a mystery." It is simply impossible to view any art, in particular contemporary nonfiction, without the ability to answer that question.


Let’s give her Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and see how she reviews that.

It’s a rare person who’s honest about himself, particularly if he’s revealing rather unflattering things about himself. It would be nice if we could all acknowledge our faults so freely.

But it’s funny how here in America, even being honest about yourself seems to sollicit accusals of bragging in some way. Are we really all so tightassed? If I say I’m the best person in my class, and I am, what’s wrong with that? If I say I’m a creep, and I am, does that mean I’m bragging?

It suddenly occurs to me that maybe we should see that review as a further experiment in self-honesty, inspired by Franzen’s book! She didn’t like it. It pissed her off. She was rubbed the wrong way, got irritable, and didn’t feel like empathizing any more than Franzen did in the face of Katrina. She got irritable and didn’t hide it.

I kind of like it when people show their unseemly seams and get grumpy and give a peevish review. The joke is on her! I’m sure Franzen is laughing.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree