Interpolation 7: “God Bless You, Mr. Franzen”


Dear Dave,

I’ve got to admit, Brief Interviews is kicking my butt.  I am loving each of the stories and am in awe of how you construct each of these narrative voices.  But it’s just killing me; I don’t know why but it is taking me so long to get through it.[1] So I perused the archives at Howling Fantods and found a short piece to write about to distract myself from my struggle with BI.

What I found was a Letter to the Editor that you wrote in 1996 in defense of a piece submitted to Harper’s by Jonathan Franzen.  I found it rather apropos since Franzen appeared on last week’s Time magazine with the title “Great American Author.”  The article, and Franzen’s title as a “Great American Author,” has been the subject of lively discussion on the Wallace-l.[2] Given this context, I thought it would be a nice break from the Interviews.

I want to focus on the start of the second paragraph, which reads, “Good art is a kind of magic. It does magical things for both artist and audience. We can have long polysyllabic arguments about how to describe the way this magic works, but the plain fact is that good art is magical and precious and cool. It’s hard to try and make good art, and it seems to me wholly reasonable that good artists should be concerned with their work’s cultural reception.”

I love the end of the second sentence, “the plain fact is that good art is magical and precious and cool.”  There is something magical about good art, whether it is writing or music or visual or performing arts.  Art is able to capture and express elements of the human experience that seem uncapturable and inexpressible and convey them to the masses in a way that is tangible and accessible.  It is the artist who can reach deep into human emotions and find words or images or sounds that perfectly articulate those feelings so that the rest of us can know that our deep, inexpressible emotions are understood.  How many times have we heard a song or read a poem and wanted to shout, “I know exactly what he’s saying!” because the songwriter or poet found the words that were beyond our reach.

The magic of art is its ability to validate our experiences and emotions, to let us know that we are not alone.  Others experience what we experience and feel what we feel.  And some of these others – the artists – are able to help us better understand ourselves and our part in the human experience through their art.

And that is pretty damn cool.

Click Here for the original letter.

[1] Sure, there are other reasons.  I’ve had to take a second job and I’ve been devoting a lot of time to the Supposedly Fun Things… blogs.  So as the cliché goes, “It’s not you, it’s me.”[back]

[2] I have to admit that I have not read all the threads of those discussions, so I won’t really comment on that.  Nor will I make any opinions about Franzen as a writer – or as a “Great American Writer” – since I have not yet read any of his works.  However, based upon the Time article and your defense of him in this letter to Harper’s, I think I am going to add his books to my “I hope to read some day” list.[back]

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