Chapter 5: Obsolescence, the Marginal, and the Popular

Pynchon and DeLillo were ahead of their time.
–David Foster Wallace
Thomas Pynchon. Now there was someone you never saw on “Oprah Winfrey.”
–Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Reconsidered

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Throughout this book, my intent has been to explore a particular group of postmodern novels by arguing not merely for a specific way of reading these texts but for a particular kind of hermeneutic in the textual encounter. This interpretive method looks to cultural studies in its exploration less of specific artifacts than of the circulation of discourses and ideas about those artifacts. By structuring my argument about the anxiety of obsolescence as a fruitful mode of reading around three conceptual categories–the machine, the spectacle, and the network–I have sought to examine the ways in which the novelists I consider mobilize popular and theoretical discourses about contemporary culture in formulating their own responses to television and the other forms of electronic media. My analysis has been aimed at another triad of connected (if potentially paradoxical) conclusions that focus less on what the anxiety of obsolescence means than on what it does: first, that the novelists reveal through their representations of the media a cluster of anxieties about being displaced from some possibly imagined position of centrality in contemporary cultural life; second, that these anxieties are in certain ways a pose, an assumed stance that provides access to a number of useful writing strategies that assist the novelist in trying to regain his ostensibly faltering importance as a cultural critic; and third, that this focus on the shifts in contemporary cultural life produced by new media developments is at times employed to obscure other, unspeakable anxieties about shifts in contemporary social life that pose a lesser threat to the dominance of the novel than to the hegemony of whiteness and maleness long served by the structures of traditional humanism.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Given this final implication of the anxiety of obsolescence, it may seem that I have unfairly set up Pynchon and DeLillo, overlooking the obviously critical positions that each has struck toward the contemporary status quo, asking these two novelists to take the fall for a failing endemic to the whole of Western culture. The question thus remains: is the anxiety of obsolescence, the novelist’s represented fears of an encroaching electronic media (and submerged fears of a similarly encroaching otherness), unique to the writers I have addressed in these pages? Or is it a formation common to the entirety of literary culture, all of which is apparently under threat by television and responding in similarly defensive fashion? In attempting to answer these questions, my work turns its gaze in this chapter from Pynchon and DeLillo to look both forward and outward: forward to David Foster Wallace, a writer often thought of as their descendant, and outward to Toni Morrison, a writer who, though very different from them, has often been considered their peer. In the work of these two exemplary novelists, I hope to unpack two related concerns. The first is the relationship between the representations produced by Pynchon and DeLillo, taken as metonyms for what might be thought of as a group of “first-wave” postmodernists (including Gaddis, Gass, Coover, Barth, et al.), and those more recently produced by a younger group of authors whom many critics have begun to think of as the “second wave” of postmodernism. Do these younger authors, born after television had made its incursions into the U.S. unconscious, carry the same anxieties about the medium that nursed them through their childhoods? The second is the correlation between the rise of new media and the waning social influence of humanism–an influence that has for centuries supported (or been misused to support) the putatively universal ideals that function to reinforce the hierarchies of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, ethnocentricity, nationalism, and individualism. Are those new media experienced and interpreted with the same anxiety by novelists who write from the social margins of contemporary U.S. culture, those who, in other words, write from and about a subject position that is not aligned with whiteness, maleness, Westernness, straightness, and so on? Is the novelist’s anxiety about television a historically specific phenomenon? Or is it socially specific?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 These two concerns come together in the incident with which I began this book, the Jonathan Franzen/Oprah Winfrey entente. This literary brouhaha was for more than a year discussed in terms both irate and offended, invoking notions of conflict, of malfeasance, of blame. Witness the following off-hand remark in an April 2002 New York Observer article that explored the phenomenon of the “media coach,” referring to one such consultant as “the same woman summoned by Farrar, Straus and Giroux to help Jonathan Franzen express himself on the idiot box after he made the mistake of dissing Oprah Winfrey” (Jacobs). As the rest of the article’s tone meanders between amusement at the level of the contemporary literati’s cluelessness about the media and stifled horror at publishers’ too-apparently profit-induced attempts to polish up their writers for the camera, it’s hard to tell how to take this suggestion of Franzen’s “mistake.” The author could be suggesting that the locus of this conflict resides in Franzen’s stupidity or, just as easily, in Oprah’s ego; the reader could infer from this description that Franzen holds an unduly high opinion of his own cultural superiority (given the “idiot box”) or that Oprah’s sense of her own power as an arbiter of contemporary culture was too easily bruised by Franzen’s mouthing off (given the “dissing”). In either case, however, the story begins as one of personalities–Franzen v. Oprah; snooty writer v. purveyor of daytime fluff–and winds up as another battle in the contemporary (media) culture wars, with few of its myriad analysts thoroughly considering the full range of issues that such a conflict might contain.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Nonetheless, the conflict between these two figures raises the hackles of so many in the literary community precisely because of the multiplicity of issues with which it intersects, and the passionate desire of so many to narrow this multiplicity down to a concrete sense of what the “real” issue is. The real issue, for instance, is the way that Oprah’s powerful branding/merchandising mechanisms have transformed book publishing and selling into an offshoot of her media empire, terrorizing authors, editors, and retailers alike with the power of her Good Housekeeping““style seal of approval, and threatening withdrawal of literary stardom if one fails to pay the proper obeisance. Thus, Franzen’s questioning this power, and most particularly the power that Oprah’s name would hold over the reading of his novel, demonstrates his integrity in deciding to withdraw from the corporate scheme, or at least his discomfort with profiting from it, to his eternal credit.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Or the real issue is the elitism so endemic to the contemporary literary scene, particularly among writers who self-consciously consider themselves “serious” novelists, and who wish to hold themselves above popular culture, suggesting that their work contains meanings of a more delicate and nuanced character than do contemporary movies and television programs or even popular novels, and further suggesting that their books cannot be properly read or understood by the viewing audiences of such popular daytime treacle as talk shows. Thus, Oprah’s decision to disinvite Franzen’s participation in the book club and appearance on the show was the only reasonable one, because the viewers watching this show are not cultural dupes and have no desire to be condescended to by literary snobs who have no sense of the nuanced ways that viewers in fact participate in such shows, and that the pleasures of such shows are thus not passively experienced but actively created.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 While each of these narratives is satisfying, though of course in very different senses, I would argue that Franzen v. Oprah should not be read simply as a cautionary tale about high-brow against low-brow, or about the purity of art against the corruption of corporate culture, or even about the damage that individual personalities can do when they take themselves too seriously. Rather, this kerfuffle is these things and more, at its root a complex enactment of all the perceived conflicts between the novel and television that emerge in the anxiety of obsolescence. Franzen resists Oprah because of the threat that her viewership poses to the seriousness of his position as cultural producer. In so resisting, and in the rebuff that his resistance produced, Franzen creates a loyal following among those “marginalized” folks who take fiction seriously in the contemporary United States, thus assuring himself a steady audience (and a New York Times bestseller, and a National Book Award, and a follow-up contract). But in that invocation of the “marginalization” of serious fiction and its readers, Franzen/Oprah inadvertently reveals the uglier issues that all the talk about the inappropriateness of the “Oprah” logo on the book jacket serves to conceal: insofar as the conflict is about the relationship between literary products, their readers, and the mass marketplace, it is also in large part about the subject positions of the novel’s readership and, not incidentally, the subject positions of Franzen and Oprah themselves.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The modernist moment in Western culture, as Andreas Huyssen documents in After the Great Divide, was characterized in part by a perceived need on the part of its “high” artists to separate themselves and their work from the products of mass culture, work produced by and for the popular. Modernist artists experienced, he argues, an “anxiety of contamination,” a need to fend off “an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture” (vii); the locus of this anxiety was not, then, that mass culture threatened modernism with marginalization but that it threatened art with popularization, with an audience composed no longer of the elite few but of the heterogeneous many. While Huyssen argues that the postmodern has successfully located itself “after” the great divide between high and mass culture, I suggest that Franzen/Oprah reveals the extent to which this threat of contamination still obtains for some contemporary artists. The novelist’s concerns about being culturally marginalized by television seem, in the age of Oprah, radically inapropos; the danger for Franzen was less in remaining unread than in being read by the wrong audience.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 And thus the component of this conflict that the dozens of commentators haven’t mentioned, perhaps because in an age in which we like to think such concerns are behind us, it didn’t seem important, or perhaps because it just seemed impolite to say: this battle between the literary and the televisual pits a white male literary humanist against a black female producer of mass media, each vying for control of the cultural arena. Moreover, Oprah’s audience is overwhelmingly female, and certainly more diverse in terms of race, class, and educational background than is Franzen’s previous readership. These facts are not mere demographic coincidences but part of U.S. literary culture’s self-definition–being by, of, and for the unmarked “universal” (that is, white, male, middle-class, educated) individual. It remains true, as it was in Huyssen’s modernist moment, that “mass culture is somehow associated with woman while real, authentic culture remains the prerogative of men” (47); only those granted such cultural prerogative have the wherewithal to scorn the popular. For this reason, the threat television poses to the novel, and thus the threat Oprah poses to Franzen, is not (or at least not merely) a dehumanizing mechanicity, or a depthless spectacularization, or a corrupting commercialism, but a dangerous democratization. Television’s democratizing reach is dangerous to the novelist in part because of the power it wields to level disparities in access to cultural products, exposing the writer to the scrutiny–and, indeed, the judgment–of others who may not be like-minded, who might exist in the terrifying spaces beyond the writer’s personal knowledge, and who might for that reason understand his universalizing view of the human condition to be an ideological construct conditioned on privilege. Moreover, as the specific case of Oprah Winfrey should make clear, the danger in democratized access is worsened for the novelist because of the authority new media often grant to those outside the traditional humanist structures of power: the power not simply to listen, but to speak back.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In Franzen v. Oprah, then, is enacted the full range of conflicts that exist between the postmodern novel and television as the two vie for what appears to each to be a kind of cultural market share. While television as a medium is clearly beset by its own anxieties, worries about being taken seriously perhaps foremost among them, I have focused throughout this book on the writer’s anxieties about television: anxieties about being incorporated, being consumed, being driven into obsolescence. And while I have attempted throughout to deconstruct those anxieties with an eye toward exploring the multiplicity of beliefs, desires, and motives that underlie them, this one scene of conflict, and the vast number of column feet it inspired, should suggest the seriousness with which players on both sides take the divide between the literary and the televisual. Pynchon and DeLillo are of course far from alone in their perceptions of this divide; as I hope the myriad of sources I have consulted throughout this study suggests, the anxiety of obsolescence is merely a local manifestation of a culturewide concern about literacy, about novelty, and about cultural hierarchy. The selection of these two novelists as the objects of my inquiry has in this sense been in part a matter of taste, in part a matter of convenience–and in part a matter that bears some unpacking: generational and social change.

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