Franzen, Wallace and the Question of Realism

Jon Baskin in The Point:

ScreenHunter_02 Feb. 18 16.26Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, the two most important American writers of their era, both grew up in the Midwest. Franzen describes his childhood in Webster Groves, Missouri as having unfolded “in the middle of the middle [where] there was nothing but family and house and neighborhood and church and school and work.” Wallace, whose parents were both professors, spent his youth in Philo, Illinois, a “tiny collection of corn silos and war-era Levittown homes whose native residents did little but sell crop insurance and nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide and collect property taxes from the young academics at nearby Champagne-Urbana’s university.” Both fall in a tradition of authors (Dreiser, Hemingway, Brodkey) whose provincial, middle-American backgrounds seemingly failed to prepare them for the shock of modern life—or, perhaps, prepared them to meet that shock with precisely the sideways sensitivity of artists. Separated by less than three years in age, they wrote about similar subjects and dealt with related issues of technology, audience and the ambiguous literary heritage of postmodernism. They were united in believing that responsible fiction ought still to speak to the “desperate questions” of existence, and that the novel, if it did so, could remain vibrant and even vital in the age of mass entertainment and McDonald’s.

Yet they were radically different writers, in many ways as profoundly unalike as two contemporaries treating similar subject matter could be. Most often, their difference has been accounted for in terms of style, or with reference to their divergent attitudes toward “realism.”

More here.