Charles Baxter on Jonathan Franzen

This is a fantastic essay on/review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, by Charles Baxter, in the New York Review of Books. Baxter’s clear prose and thinking on the book are a relief from all the other discussion surrounding Freedom‘s release, which may be interesting and useful, but doesn’t have much to do with the book itself.  Baxter (and TNYRB)  show the kind of careful, engaging thought and analysis so rarely seen in reviews or critical response to fiction today. This reminds me of why Baxter’s Burning Down the House is one of my favorite books of essays on writing — weaving astute cultural observation and criticism with the elements of fiction and storytelling he examines, kicking the whole “Is fiction relevant?” question squarely in the ass, or, better,  just showing over and over the irrelevance of that question.

Baxter’s Willow Springs interview from spring 2010 is here.


  • Shira Richman says:

    Thanks for spreading the word, Sam. I did enjoy this review–especially Baxter’s attention to and analysis of language, the sentence of winding negatives.

  • Robin says:

    I was very unhappy with Baxter’s analysis of the book, especially the second half. I found him to be unaware of the irony in the social and political plotlines and more interested in Frazen’s personal life (Oprah) and his ability to write books with mass appeal (which I take Baxter thinks somewhat deplorable) and also with other critic’s reviews. I found the analysis of the end of the novel as a “happy ending” to be a mistake on Baxter’s part — I believe the ending of the novel warranted a better analysis at least, and I personally (rightly or wrongly) don’t believe Franzen  ‘didn’t have the heart’ to end the novel unhappily, but that it was, in a sense, an unhappy ending, especially for Walter. Also, most enraging, I found the last paragraph disappointing in its pretentious condescention, especially here: “The large audience for which Franzen’s novel is intended will no doubt find it written with consistent intelligence and energy. But it cannot solve the problems it regards as crucial, which is our loss and probably our fate.” I find this condescending to readers and, more so, to Franzen, who Baxter assumes would wish to write only for people who would not dare to criticize him, and assumes that Frazen should have, but (I’m guessing Baxter believes) couldn’t, solve the great social problems that Franzen brings up throughout the novel.

    All in all, I was (obviously) disappointed by the review, and look forward to reading others.

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