Jonathan Franzen. International Symposium. Córdoba, Spain, April 2013

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Department of English and German Studies, University of Córdoba
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Jonathan Franzen: Identity and Crisis of the American Novel

International Symposium
University of Córdoba, Spain, 18-19 April 2013

For good or bad, American novelist Jonathan Franzen enjoys today a centrality in American popular culture which suggests the resurgence of older modes of interaction between the literary and the public, modes adapted to times in which novelists had iconic status in the public sphere and something like a say in political issues. To be sure, Franzen's service record features well-deserved canon-making recognition of his creative achievements (the 2001 National Book Award for The Corrections), but it is also punctuated with episodes of media-bolstered visibility—the debate over the publication of his Harper's essay, the so-called Oprahgate, President Obama's raving over Freedom, or the recent appearance of his face in the Time Magazine cover over the heading "Great American Novelist"—which cast an uneasy shadow over his strictly literary merits. Yet, is there such a thing as a strictly literary merit when such a gorgeously unreliable creature as the "American Novel" is at stake? The uneven and at times misleading critical reception of Franzen's novels throws into relief this and other related questions. Is a refurbished social realism the new direction of American prose fiction? How far into political commitment should this realism go? Is the post-modern experimentalism of the 1960s and 1970s definitely over? To what extent is academic criticism, currently fuelled by diverse sociological, political and thematic agendas (identity politics, gender studies, trauma studies, ethical turn), likely to respond to Franzen's allegedly white, male, Midwestern and shyly progressive worldview?

More importantly, how many traditions of American fiction are now allowed to coexist? In his recent New Yorker essay on Edith Wharton, Franzen acknowledges the existence of at least four "genealogies" of American fiction: "Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernacularists, Herman Melville and the postmoderns" and a less noticed line, vital to Wharton, connecting Howells to Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and thence to Jay McInnerney and Jane Smiley. Which of these genealogies are actually vital to Jonathan Franzen himself? What is, in other words, his family line? Franzen has persistently claimed natural descent from Don DeLillo and somewhat elective affinities with David Foster Wallace, but he may well be abundantly—and unwittingly—indebted to John Updike and Tom Wolfe. Thus, how should we read both these genealogical claims and his critical conception of the role the novel should play in contemporary society, swaying between (aesthetic) innovation and (public) intervention?

The organisers will welcome proposals for 25-minute papers in English on any of the areas mentioned above. Suggested (merely indicative) topics include:

1. The distinctive and specific merits of Franzen's narrative oeuvre: stylistic innovation, formal construction, ethico-cognitive innovation, socio-political insight.
2. From postmodernism to realism. Gaps and continuities between on the one hand, The Twenty Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), and on the other hand, The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010).
3. Thematic recurrences in Franzen's novels: flawed communities; conspiracy; environmentalism.
4. The autobiographical dimension of his work, with special attention to The Discomfort Zone.
5. The way his novels confirm or disavow the terms of the debate over the necessity of a new realism in contemporary fiction.
6. The reception of Jonathan Franzen: reviews, interviews, articles.
7. The relation between Franzen's novels and his non-fictional work.
8. Against capitalism and instrumental reason: the genuine political reach of Franzen's novels, where the issue of environmentalism is deployed, according to some critics, at the expense of other more pressing concerns.
9. The affiliation of his novels to an existing genealogy of American fiction.
10. The relation between Franzen and the Gaddis-Pynchon-Coover generation of American masters, involving his ambivalent attitude towards postmodern experimentalism.
11. DeLillo-Franzen and the anxieties of influence.
12. Generational issues. Franzen and his contemporaries (David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Dave Eggers…).
13. Jonathan Franzen's position vis-à-vis the "Great American Novel".
14. Red herrings?: a) Franzen, Tolstoy and European realism b) The German connection: Rilke, Kafka, Mann, and Continental Modernism c) Self-proclaimed indebtedness to Alice Munro, Christina Stead, Flannery O'Connor, Jane Smiley and Paula Fox.
15. The relation between Franzen's novels and non-US-centred narrative modes like post-colonial fiction, regional fiction, international novel, fiction of globalization…

One thing remains clear to us: American fiction today is a much more complex and heterogeneous field than this perhaps futile debate appears to admit. Furthermore, this heterogeneity is manifestly systemic, presenting us with at least three autonomous realms—with associated markets, readerships, receptions—of symbolic-capital production, to wit, the realm of best-selling popularity, the realm of academic reception, and a conjectural and unstructured third realm of private endeavour and ambition. It seems that the fate of Jonathan Franzen is invariably lured by the somewhat incompatible attractions that these three realms would appear to provide. This notwithstanding, the organizers of this symposium believe that Franzen's novels command genuine aesthetic respect and deserve critical attention geared to their singularity. They also believe that this singularity may have unpredictable ethical and cognitive effects beyond authorial pre-programming and reader expectation. Hopefully, balanced discussion of Franzen's work may both help restore its genuine singularity and shed light on the ongoing debate over the identity (scope, place, aim, diversity and crisis) of American fiction.

Please submit your 500 word proposals by February 15th, 2013 to Paula Martín ( Abstracts should include your name, institution, e-mail address, and the title of your proposed paper.

Paula Martín Salván
Julián Jiménez Heffernan
Jesús Blanco Hidalga
María J. López