Several months ago I went to see Spring Awakening. I was eager to experience the musical that had been so effusively praised by seemingly every publication in town, and I was sorely disappointed. I thought the musical was simplistic, stagnant, and terribly overripe, and I couldn’t understand why so many critics disagreed with me so passionately.
So now, in New York magazine, I see that someone does agree with me, and I’m not that happy about it. If you want to believe that you’re not being snobby, that you just didn’t fall for the hype (which should be dying any minute anyway), you don’t want to discover that your ally is Jonathan Franzen.
Franzen, of course, is the writer who so famously accepted Oprah Winfrey’s offer to feature his novel as part of her book club and then turned up his nose at the honor in a series of interviews. That kind of preening, self-righteous elitism (not to mention the contemptible way he tried to use those he considers his inferiors while ridiculing them to those he considers his peers) piques my anger, and as for the novel in question, The Corrections, I didn’t like it either. Too often, the narrative voice feels contemptuous, as if it is sneering at the Lamberts’ disastrous choices, archly surveying their pain and folly without compassion or humility. While I admired much of the writing, I didn’t like the tone, and I stopped reading about halfway through the damn doorstop.
Franzen’s latest project is another self-consciously “highbrow” work disparaging its “middlebrow” audience. In this case, I admit his audacity sort of cracks me up. Franzen found a publisher for his translation of the century-old German play on which Spring Awakening is based—something he surely could not have done were it not for the musical’s popularity—and then penned an introduction disparaging the musical as “insipid” and “instantly overpraised.”
The thing is, I agree with him. The musical is insipid and overpraised, and I’ll happily argue the same point, but I cringe at how he goes about making that point. In the interview in New York, he says, “I am a theatergoer who has a brain, who knows the difference between good and bad, who wants to enjoy himself but also doesn’t want to have to put his brain to sleep.” That’s practically a parody of overbearing, insufferable pomposity. I don’t like the musical either, but I’m not about to suggest that anyone who disagrees with me is a brainless, dull-witted zombie.
The interview made me think, though, about what we mean by snob. The fact is that anyone who feels strongly about art is going to have strong opinions about different works and, more to the point, is going to consider his or her opinions “correct,” whatever that means. Strong preferences for so-called highbrow material shouldn’t be enough to classify one a snob. It’s the extrapolation from that, the assumption that those who don’t share one’s preferences are somehow deficient, second-class—that’s what’s makes one a snob.
You have to guard against that attitude whether you’re fan of opera or emo or reality TV. Ultimately, it comes down to recognizing that not everyone sees the play or hears the song or reads the book the way you do. They may see qualities you do not. They may experience a sense of recognition, of verisimilitude, that you cannot. And that, of course, is part of why art is so interesting. Even the same person will experience it in different ways throughout a single life.
I don’t mean that all perspectives are equally valid, only that no single perspective is entirely complete. That’s why it’s so much fun to have a conversation about these things, to enrich your own perspective by listening, catching glimpses through other people’s eyes.
Judging from the way Franzen preemptively shuts down any kind of dialogue, I get the impression that he’s content with his perspective and perhaps those of a select few in his own circle. He doesn’t think Oprah’s audience has anything worth saying. He doesn’t think fans of Spring Awakening the musical have anything worth saying (after all, they’ve shut down their brains). And when you consider it that way, it’s an awfully blinkered worldview. It’s actually sort of sad.
So thank you, Mr. Franzen, for giving me such a great example of what I don’t want to be. I can remind myself of your arrogant myopia when I catch myself dismissing a work out of hand—and I will. I know I can be a snob, too. After all, I think you’re absolutely right about Spring Awakening.