Friday, 3 February 2017

The Supreme Court might just be the biggest loser in the battle over Gorsuch

Dr. Emma Long takes us through the political ramifications of Trump's decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice.

Candidate Trump promised to nominate to the US Supreme Court a conservative jurist who would follow in the footsteps of his or her predecessor, Antonin Scalia.  Someone who would adhere to a strict construction of the Constitution, an originalist understanding of that document’s meaning, and a generally conservative judge.  In Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, currently sitting on the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, that is exactly who President Trump nominated. 

Given other events of the past week which have seen Trump’s executive orders go further than even many conservative Republicans had predicted, the nomination of Gorsuch was perhaps the most moderate, least surprising development. His name had been on the second list of potential nominees released by the Trump campaign last fall, he had emerged as one of the leading candidates in the last few weeks and as the frontrunner in the last few days.

His record is largely unsurprising for a man nominated to the nation’s highest court by a Republican president.  His legal career, suggests a friendliness to business, he has been supportive of claims of religious freedom from conservative Christians, supported the death penalty, opposed assisted suicide and euthanasia laws, and written of the “inviolability” of human life which suggests a tough stance on abortion. 

So Gorsuch does not fit with most liberals’ image of the ideal Supreme Court Justice.  But he appears eminently qualified for the role.  He has a law degree from Harvard and a PhD from Oxford, which he attended as a Marshall scholar.  He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, worked on corporate law in private practice and was appointed to the 10th Circuit in 2006 by President George W. Bush. As Trump noted in his announcement, Gorsuch has “outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind … and has earned bipartisan support.” 

And that looks increasingly likely to be the problem.  Even before Tuesday’s announcement, Senate Democrats had indicated that they would be likely to oppose a Trump nominee.  Still smarting from Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings on Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Court, Democrats are now threatening to employ the same tactics.  If they do, not only are they likely to lose, but the battle could cause long term damage to the Court itself, because their opposition is not based on Gorsuch’s qualifications for the role but his political and legal views.

The Supreme Court is a legal institution, first and foremost; its members are judges.  It is also a political institution: its place as one of three co-equal branches of the American government and its role in interpreting controversial aspects of the Constitution mean it cannot avoid being so.  But too often in recent years politicians and commentators have discussed the Court in explicitly partisan terms.  The effect has been to imply, and sometimes to overtly state, that the Court’s members made decisions as Republicans or Democrats, not as judges whose political and legal worldviews might lead them to support one party over another.  From here it’s a very short step to argue, as Ted Cruz and other Republicans did last year, that they could not allow the Court to be “lost” or “taken over” by a liberal majority.

But the Court is not a branch to be “captured” by one party or another.  And the Senate’s job is not to assess a nominee’s qualifications based on his political views but upon his ability to undertake the role to which he has been nominated.  This has too often been forgotten in recent years.  Since the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade which protected, within limits, women’s right to terminate a pregnancy, potential nominees have been judged, in part, on their views on particular “hot button” issues, particularly abortion, the death penalty, and gun control.  This process arguably reached its nadir in the 1987 hearings on President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Court.  Intellectually capable, Bork was rejected because his politics were considered unacceptably conservative for the Court at that time.  In 2006, Justice Samuel Alito found his nomination hearings more challenging than Chief Justice John Roberts just a few months earlier, in part because he was a legal conservative nominated to a seat held by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, considered to be at the Court’s ideological centre.  The process has been a gradual one, and Republicans and Democrats have both played their part, but it has been corrosive nonetheless. 

The consequences of this gradual politicization of the Court have become clear in recent years.  Traditionally enjoying greater public approval than either the president or Congress, the Court has seen its approval ratings plummet. A July 2016 Gallup poll showed public approval of the Court at 42%, well below approval ratings of the 1990s.  The politicization of the Court also threatens the Court’s legitimacy.  Unelected and serving life terms, with no power except their institutional role and persuasion to convince the country to abide by their decisions, historically the legitimacy of the Court and the Justices has rested on the idea that the Court upholds the rule of law, that there is some distance between interpreting the law and making political decisions.  If Americans come to believe that politics is the only deciding factor in the Court’s decision-making, the Court’s legitimacy, and thus its ability to compel compliance, may weaken.  If that happens, all Americans lose, regardless of party affiliation.

Democrats have every right to feel aggrieved about Republicans’ tactics over Garland, and to rue the loss of the chance to appoint a Justice of their choice to the Court.  But both parties need to think carefully about how they handle Gorsuch’s nomination if they want to avoid causing irreparable damage to the Court.  Republicans would do well to show some humility: winning the presidency does not lessen the taint of their tactics in 2016.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s criticism of Democrats for proposing similar tactics to his in opposing Trump’s nominee smacks or rank hypocrisy.  Democrats, for their part, might well have to accept that while they don’t like Gorsuch’s politics, he is qualified to be on the Court.  In losing the battle, they might just help protect and preserve the Court for the future.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Election Roundtable

In association with the UEA American Studies Society, we're hosting an Election 2016 Roundtable on Wednesday November 2nd - 3pm in Lecture Theatre 3. Get your burning election questions ready! See you there!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

February 24th: Professor Russ Castronovo

Next week, Professor Russ Castronovo is delivering the inaugural US Embassy American Studies Lecture (with thanks to the US Embassy in London). Details below - all welcome!

Wednesday February 24th 2016

The US Embassy London American Studies Lecture

Professor Russ Castronovo
Tom Paine Professor of English and Dorothy Draheim Professor of American Studies, 
University of Wisconsin-Madison 

“Sex and the Conservative Girl: Consent, Masochism, and Ayn Rand”

Arts 2.02, 4pm. All Welcome.

Monday, 15 February 2016

“Formation” as Homage to Storyville?

Mollie LeVeque muses on the "Storyville Portraits" and Beyoncé

After I saw Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, I said to my fiancée – the wonderful, long suffering partner of a neurotic PhD student – “Someone is bound to notice references to the Storyville Portraits!” Granted, I’ve been researching these enigmatic images of New Orleans sex workers for years; they are the driving force of my doctoral thesis. I wrote my MA dissertation on them, too - though I made mistakes, constantly disagree with myself whenever I reread it, and dislike my casual use of the words "prostitute" and "whore." (Retrospect.)

The so-called Storyville Portraits are a group of photographs created by French Quarter native E.J. Bellocq during the early 20th century. They portray sex workers from New Orleans’s most infamous red-light district – nicknamed “Storyville."

On February 12 my Facebook feed was inundated with links to Moira Weigel’s piece “The Iconic Images Behind Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ Video.” I was pleased to see them garnering discussion in a new context, and she provides a pithy summary of the images’ history. Evidently, too, friends were excited that my mildewed research topic finally made contact with the “real world” of contemporary popular culture. As Weigel says, “It is not hard to see how Bellocq’s portraits might have appealed to Beyoncé and her team.” They provoke many questions.

Bellocq resists classification despite the way his images have attained a supposedly “iconic” status. His work still remains a niche topic. Aesthetically, it’s haphazard. At times, it’s uncomfortable to view. (It’s also beautiful, in my opinion.) Yet Bellocq didn’t publish any of these portraits - they remained hidden for years. Some researchers claim they were used as advertisements; I come down more on the side of skepticism.

As a white historian of early 20th century sex work in a place where many of the sex workers weren't white, I’m nervous that we moralize, or whitewash, these images at the expense of histories that are – because of the stigma against sex work, and a further marginalization of black sex workers (and sex workers of color) – often ignored. The majority of women Bellocq depicted are anonymous. This isn't accidental.

Between the 1950s and early 1970s –  when the Storyville Portraits were being rediscovered, and later exhibited (notably by Lee Friedlander and John Szarkowski) – little thought was given to what the women might have thought about their labor. When the photographs were exhibited again at various venues in the early 2000s, they still inspired maudlin reviews. Sentimentality – or an assumption that the models were victims and Bellocq somehow "saved" or "humanized" them – should not be intrinsic to interpretations of these portraits. Seeing echoes of them in a music video is refreshing, even if those echoes are perhaps accidental.

According to Rex Rose, Bellocq was “a Storyville dandy” who had an aesthetic interest in his topic. He was likely friends with his models – their client, maybe – and if we are to truly engage with his images, we should focus on the women, not just their potential relationships with Bellocq. He’s one factor – I’m also interested in their circumstances, in their initiative and struggles. Weigel muses, “Because we know so little about the intentions of the man who shot [the photographs], the women come alive as subjects, not victims.” But I disagree with the idea that not knowing Bellocq's intention is what allows the women to be "subjects." They're always subjects, and they seem to be – at least to some extent – comfortable with their jobs, and with Bellocq taking photographs of them.

But many years after Storyville’s 1917 closure, a musician who had played in its dancehalls made a harsh assessment:
[The models] were very pretty, and that’s something that I never ran across in my life, was a pretty whore. I mean, that I knew of. Maybe I’ve seen some on streetcars, and, you know, busses, and they may have been. I wouldn’t know that. But I mean in any of those places, I’ve never seen anything that resembled beauty.
This is telling. Given that Bellocq was a white Creole, and by looking at his models' appearances, we can assume he worked in “white” Storyville. Facilities for black customers were separate and generally amounted to cheap "cribs:" narrow rooms with a bed and little else. Women who worked in cribs were most likely older, less conventionally attractive (including dark skinned black women, or women of color), or otherwise less marketable.

Some of the portraits’ intrigue, then, resides in what they do not confirm, not necessarily in their nudity. It's hard to say definitively without knowing exactly who they were, but Bellocq took photographs of white women, white-passing women, or light-skinned women of color who worked in more expensive brothels. These women were likely the ones featured in local directories of brothels, which would not have advertised the "lesser" establishments. Many of their stories won’t be told, simply because records don’t exist to tell such tales. (We don't really listen to sex workers, regardless.)

Still, these women left their marks. Most of them, including the poorest, would have balked at being called victims.

Storyville was a strange, dynamic place. As Emily Epstein Landau has detailed, at least two powerful madams fought to keep brothel workers desegregated (albeit for business advantages). Others were said to protect their workers from physical abuse. Some strongly influenced society life in New Orleans – to the chagrin of “respectable” ladies who campaigned in Progressive circles. R. Eric Platt and Lillian Hill, meanwhile, observe that Storyville sex workers fostered circles of learning about topics as diverse as classic literature, economics, and sexually transmitted infections.

None of this is surprising. But we need to stop being surprised, and question why these images of women almost always immediately conjure ideas of tragedy when they, on their own, do not necessarily suggest it.

“Formation” functions, at least in part, as a homage to these women. Their lives were more complex than the remaining primary sources and pervasive folklore would have us believe. They should never be underestimated or forgotten. If Beyoncé and her team meant to evoke the Storyville Portraits at all, they acknowledge a powerful lineage.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

American Studies Research Seminars, Spring 2016

Here's our line-up of speakers this semester - all welcome! With thanks to the US Embassy London.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Public Lecture - The Beatles in Miami

The Beatles’ White (Photograph) Album: Race, Class and Gender in Miami Beach, 1964

Professor Brian Ward (Northumbria University) 
Wednesday 9th December, 2015. Arts 2.01. 4pm
This event is free and open to all

This talk explores the circumstances surrounding the Beatles’ February 1964 visit to Miami, Florida, focusing on issues of race, class and gender. Whereas oceans of ink have been devoted to the story of the fab four’s triumphant arrival in New York and debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, relatively little attention has been paid to their second Sullivan Show appearance from Miami, or to their brief holiday in the Sunshine State – a state embroiled in the African American freedom struggle and beset by especially acute Cold War paranoia. Revisiting this trip, particularly its photographic archive – and even more particularly the images generated when the band met Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) – the talk hopes to tease out some of the deeper historical and symbolic significances of the band’s first real encounter with the US South, while also paying due attention to the peculiarities of race relations in Miami-Dade County.

A former UEA undergraduate, Brian is a Professor in American Studies at Northumbria University. Previously, he held the Chair in American Studies at the University of Manchester (2006-2012), served as Head of the Department of History at the University of Florida (2000-2006), and taught at the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne (1991-2000) and Durham (1990-91). He has published widely on the issues of race and popular culture in the United States, most recently the article, “Music, Musical Theater and the Imagined South in Interwar Britain,” Journal of Southern History, LXXX, 1 (2014), pp. 39-72 and the co-edited monograph, Creating and Consuming the American South (University Press of Florida, 2015).

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Opinion: Why we need the SAAC - Mollie LeVeque

Last Wednesday afternoon, I was in the Hive collecting signatures for the Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign petition. To be precise, due to late buses and a labyrinthine post office queue, I managed to help for the last hour we had the booth. Even that was long enough to convince me - well, reaffirm to me - that we have a way to go before this issue's impact is seen for what it is, and not just here, but at virtually any other university campus. All around us, students were chatting, tapping at laptops, sipping mochas, and revising.

I marveled at the fact that few of them bothered to see what we were doing. While nobody was scathing about it, I was asked twice why "this" was important.

That question demonstrates why we need to challenge the prevalence of campus sexual assault. To change policies, we have to change the idea that it's a normal university experience. Confronting this normalization has been one goal of recent activist movements, films, and artworks in the US.

Despite progressive shifts in policy and practice often instigated by students, though, a culture of acceptance remains in the states and here in the UK. There are worrying reminders that it's all still trivialized. Dismissed.

Just head to Google and run a search remotely connected to the topic. (Be careful.) Take the clickbait title Oops, I Guess I Just Raped Emma Sulkowicz, which can't be regarded as appropriate or clever in any context. It's in reference to "Ceci n'est pas un viol," a sex-tape performance piece that Sulkowicz posted online this past summer.

Her introductory text says, "Please, don't participate in my rape. Watch kindly."

Cynicism aside - the SAAC petition is important. I have a laundry list of Anglo-American reasons. It’s important because when I introduced Sulkowicz’s "Carry That Weight" to seminar students last fall, women did not participate in the discussion. (Then, the main question was whether I thought she was lying.) It’s important because a National Union of Students study shows that one in seven woman-identifying students experience sexual assault. It’s important because I overhear conversations about how getting groped - or raped - in a club is normal. It’s important because the concept of consent is so poorly comprehended that a lack of "no" is regarded as a "yes." It's important because people still believe that a rapist will look "bad" - as though predictive qualities are written on one's person.

I could keep going, but I'll stop with this: logically, students, and by extension, staff, know someone who has been sexually assaulted, whether or not that person is open about it.

Maybe they've been a victim themselves. Likewise, they know rapists.

Problematically, because of how people are often treated when they come forward about being sexually assaulted, the numbers we have only come from those who decide to disclose. Pair that with the tendency to underreport sexual assault through official channels, and we've only hit the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Silence and shame won't help. We do have an endemic, as evidenced by the NUS study and surveys conducted in the US. For example, a recently released survey of 150,000 students at 27 American universities revealed that one in five “female undergrads” were victims of sexual assault.

Clearly, then, the issue is not the fault of individual universities. Rather, it is an underlying, poisonous problem in higher education. Overall, avoiding discussions of sexual assault or consent only helps perpetrators. Victims do not benefit from any ambiguity in policies, procedures, or official stances. UEA can set an admirable example by being proactive, and I hope it will.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

"Be Careful What You Wish For": Jonathan Franzen at UEA Literary Festival by Westley Barnes


Jonathan Franzen-like many fine American novelists before him-is a writer typified by an impassioned derision for our media obsessed society and a cruel, uncompromising love for a single artform-literature. He is a writer constantly at war with the reception, positive or negative, of his own work. Writing about what he perceived to be a misunderstanding of the ambitions intended regarding the writing of his breakthrough third novel The Corrections in a Harper’s essay (“Perchance To Dream”, 1996) In the essay Franzen described how during the period that followed the writing his second novel Strong Motion (1992) how he was “succumbing, as a novelist, to despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social” (Franzen, 1996, 2002, 58.)-a trait Franzen emphasised as considerably lacking in 1990’s US fiction. When interviewers asked in reference to the Harper’s essay if The Corrections was Franzen’s attempt to bridge the write the great crossover social/personal novel that he so lamented the lack of in “Perchance To Dream”, Franzen instead accused his critics of inventing an ideological ambition that he claimed was neither apparent in the essay or his novel. Franzen went so far as to rewrite the original article with a comic tone when he included it in his 2002 collection How To Be Alone, even renaming the piece, as if the overarching sense of critical malaise in the original wasn’t enough- “Why Bother?” The explanation Franzen gave for this re-imagining of his essay wasn’t a desire to silence and mock the critics who took him up on the piece’s suggested literary call to arms, instead he claimed in How To Be Alone’s introduction that on re-reading the essay he simply could scarcely understand what it was he had tried to say in the piece, therefore he had clearly changed his mind on whatever the matter was-so he might as well have some fun with it, after that ordeal.

As prickly as Franzen’s critical reputation purports him to be, how he presents himself to his assembled public is a striking example of his canniness-the seeming misunderstood public Franzen acting like a real life version of many of his misunderstood fictional creations (see Chip Lambert in The Corrections, Purity “Pip” Tyler in Purity- One assumes the alliterative forenames are merely incidental.)  Sitting watching Franzen hold court in Lecture Theatre 1 during his interview with Professor Christopher Bigsby I’m struck by how unlike his authorial persona Franzen appears in public. Ever-smiling a boy-scout smile, sprightly and irreverent as he skirts across the stage to read from his latest novel Purity-Franzen cuts the figure of a much younger writer-one sheltered from all the critical expectations, personal upset and death that his literary output is so equally informed and maligned by. (Franzen witnessed his father’s mental demise before his death in the mid-2000s, a loss that heavily informed the melancholy apparent in his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone. A few years later he scattered the ashes of his famous friend and literary confidant, David Foster Wallace, off an island in the south pacific.) What makes his joviality and seeming approachability such a surprise is that Franzen-ever outspoken yet ever conservative, recently divulged in an interview with The Guardian that he has determined a need to self-censor when speaking of his new novel, “I’m trying to figure out how much I should say and how much I should not say.” (Franzen, The Guardian,2015.) This air of authorial concern over opinions of his own work strike a contrast with the favoured beau of American letters image he constructs onstage at UEA-but again if any author knows all too well about the pitfalls incurred by his own contrarianism it’s Franzen.

The interview opens with a quip from Dr Bigsby about how although Franzen is no stranger to Norwich and UEA he’s much rather be off birdwatching in Clyde. Franzen is a keen birdwatcher-of course, he is an oogler of solitary states, and what a more perfect hobbies for a solitarist other than literature and birdwatching? Franzen graciously accepts that he is fond of Norwich, which he calls a “great city of readers.”

The first topic up for discussion is The Kraus Project-by Franzen’s own rather immediate admission “a strange book” -one written about the time he spent in Berlin during the early 1980’s translating the “often woefully untranslatable” critical work of the Frankfurt school linguistic theorist Karl Kraus, as part of a Fulbright scholarship. Franzen described how he spent most of his time in Berlin smoking, translating, not sleeping-the only English language book he brought in his luggage was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) a novel highly preoccupied for arguing for the saviour of morality in a world cast over with chaos, an anecdote that could describe much of Franzen’s fiction. This thematic concern, and the fact that the novel at 760 pages is long enough to intimidate the casual reader clearly made an impression on Franzen, whose character driven tomes consecutively stretch past the 600 mark. (A devotee to the ironist vignette, one could argue that Franzen’s novels are the longest New Yorker stories ever published) On the strangeness of Kraus and of his own time in Berlin, Franzen suffices to say that the project came to fruition (or didn’t, until much later, depending on how you view the twenty-plus years of rewrites and reconsiderations the book went through before the book’s eventual 2013 publication) during a period of intense solitude and personal confusion. “Berlin didn’t help” is the crux of Franzen’s analysis of this era, the ever-partying city’s more decadent and work-stifling attractions offering little to improve on Franzen’s deification of literary solitude.

Franzen asserted that the most positive aspect of his time in Berlin arose not out of writing The Kraus Project but instead out of writing long letters home to his then fiancée. Literary ambitions, it’s ideals and the argument for its’ validation was the topic that Franzen exhausted in his letters home, and provided Franzen with a set of literary ethics that have held firm with him throughout his fiction and criticism.

Soon after Franzen the entertainer is in full effect, reading from Purity-a novel holds firm on familiar Franzen territory-finding the sincere in complex, often disillusioned characters, and the pains associated with wanting to remain part of a dysfunctional family. Franzen alerts his audience to the dilemma of Purity “Pip” Tyler-

“The problem was, as Pip saw it-the essence of the handicap she lived with; the presumable cause of inability to be effective at anything- was that she loved her mother.” (Franzen, 2015, 5.)

Personal imperfections and the desire to have these recognised and accepted is a theme which haunts Franzen’s fiction. Pip’s mothers’ incapability to live a routine-driven life without her daughter’s interactions and reassurances both drives the emotional wedge between them and keeps them so inseparable The dependencies of familial relationships are Franzen’s reliable bedfellows-often his writing is an expansive rendering of the intensely personal-as if his character’s failure to live outside their personal relationships is what define them as morally sound in a confused world. A world evidently more preoccupied with the expanse of technology which Franzen so vocally despises in his personal essays.

The main contrast with Franzen’s previous fiction is that with Purity, Franzen has gone public with breaking his own rules. After a short reading of a later episode in the novel, set in a highly industrialized Texas cityscape with characters engaged in a conversation which actually implies the existence of the internet-fresh ground for Franzen-the author opens the floor to questions from the audience-an exercise he heartily claims to enjoy. An audience member asks why Franzen chose to commit an entire section of the novel to a character who writes in the first person, the contrast here being that Purity and the rest of Franzen’s fiction is strictly written in the third. The audience member had referred in his question to the advice given by Franzen in his contribution to The Guardian’s “Ten Rules Fror Writers” series-specifically Franzen’s rule number 4-“Write in the third person-unless a really distinctive first person voice offers itself-irresistibly.” (Franzen, 2010.) For his response, Franzen good naturedly concedes that in Purity he has broken his own rule-much to the delight of his audience. This own admission of an act of apparent rebellion against his own literary conservatism seems to allow that Franzen concedes to defeat against his own stringent set of literary guidelines-if only to please his audience members, it is an admirable act of self-deprecation. Franzen asserts that the character of Andreas Wolff, a Julian Assange-like internet freedom of information fighter (who Franzen in his response termed to be “handsome in a particularly German type of way”-with further self-effacing omniscience) seemed to him to be the perfect type of candidate for the first-person narrative mode precisely because he was so untypical of his fictional male characters. “Although”-Franzen added, “the third person narrative is still the truest, I find, particularly for a young writer trying to find their voice.” This practice of detachment from autobiography evident in Franzen’s fondness for third person narratives acts a helpful synopsis  of his fiction’s meandering character trajectories-Franzen finds excitement in the otherness of his character’s diverse , but interlinked, frustrations.

Having decided on a question of my own, I dutifully raised my hand in the ensuing silence which had followed the previous question. Never someone particularly keen on public speaking, I nevertheless routinely try when at readings to ask an author a question specific to a thematic concern I find in the their work-if anything to relieve either my own persistent curiosity or self-doubt. The lecture hall is without audience microphones, so asking if I can be heard I plunge into the depths of my literary unknowing. My question: “When reading your memoir The Discomfort Zone-I got the sense of a nostalgia for the mid-century mid-west where your parents lived their lives and brought you up, despite this being an era of political ambitions that you would later critically re-examine. This inherent nostalgia evident in your memoir seemed to explain for me the sense of contemporary dread that is often the narrative focus of the characters in your novels. Could you comment on this?”

My question referred to a distinctive passage in The Discomfort Zone, which described a sense of politically indifferent homely idealism-having grown up in St Louis, Missouri during the 1960s and 1970s, Franzen experienced life in a confident United States that was soon to lose a sense of social progression. The ending of the United States’ postwar dynamism was simultaneous with that of Franzen’s coming of age, a simultaneity acutely evident to Franzen:

“To liberals, the mid-century was a time of unexamined materialism at home, unabashed imperialism abroad, the denial of opportunity to women and minorities, the rape of the environment and the malign hegemony of themilitary-industrial complex. To conservatives, it was an era of collapsing cultural traditions and of bloated federal government and confiscatory tax rates and solipsistic welfare and retirement schemes. In the middle of the middle though, there was nothing but family and house and church and school and work. I was cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocoons.” (Franzen, 2006, 15.)   

Before responding to my question, Franzen seemed to be a little suspicious regarding what I had asked him-which worried me a little because I had wanted to base my question on what I thought was an obvious thematic concern rather than a controversial means of catching the author out. By this stage, I had yet to read The Guardian interview where Franzen erred himself to caution on the subject of interviews regarding his work, but his initial response makes more sense to me now. He responded that although he understood where my question emerged from, that he didn’t consider his perception of his Midwest upbringing as one of nostalgia, particularly seeing how hard his parents had worked with regards upholding their Midwestern principles of honest work and being “good Americans” hadn’t seemed to stand to them all that much later in life. Franzen concluded that he was more interested in living in the present and anticipating what the future had in store for the US rather than focusing on the innocence of the past. This isn’t an easy conviction to analyse out of my own reading of Franzen’s fiction, but let the author speak.

For all of the evening’s good humoured grace on Franzen’s part, the next audience question sparked signs of the prickliness that Franzen’s own protectiveness regarding the critical reaction of his work that has been resoundingly commented on in the past. A woman in the audience brought up a 2015 Guardian review of Franzen by Curtis Sittenfeld-a review which praised the novel’s composition and ambitiousness but nevertheless criticized Franzen as an authour whose “portrayal of women lacks nuance.” (Sittenfeld, The Guardian, 2015.) While the audience member stated that although she didn’t entirely agree with the Sittenfeld review she would be interested in Franzen’s response to it-Franzen seemed to fly off the handle a little-which, for a writer as eruditely polite as Franzen isn’t so much a hissyfit as a momentary blip. “I can’t help being white, as I’ve stated before” Franzen replied. “But what strikes me so curiously is that I am the author of The Twenty-Seventh City who has a female cop effectively running St Louis and in the author who in Strong Motion has a woman as the figure of power.” A critical feminist reaction to his work is one thing that Franzen openly claims not to understand, and it is a little disappointing to see a writer of such international standing not successfully playing down these issues with a manner of reflective cool. The conservative in Franzen is shown most transparently here-a writer who responds to a misunderstanding of his work with a sense of self-righteous rage.

At the booksigning afterwards, I apologised to Franzen for any obtuseness or lack of clarity regarding my question, but the author warmly suggests that I needn’t apologise, he knew what I was getting at. “To conclude my answer more succinctly” offers Franzen with that boy-scout grin and an extended hand “is be careful what you wish for.”

Works Cited

Brookes, Emma “There is No Way to Make Myself Not Male” : Jonathan Franzen 

Interview in The Guardian 21st September 2015
Franzen, Jonathan  The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History New York: Picador, 2006.
-Purity London: 4th Estate, 2015.
-“ Why Bother?” in How To Be Alone London:HarperPerennial 2007.
Originally published as “Perchance to Dream: In The Age of Images,
a Reason to Write Novels” in Harpers, April 1996.
-“Ten Rules For Writing Fiction” in The Guardian 20/02/2010                                                 
Sittenfeld, Curtis -“Purity by Jonathan Franzen Review: Dazzling, Hilarious and
Problematic” in The Guardian 26th September 2015

Westley Barnes is a first-year PhD student in American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

Friday, 9 October 2015

UEA Press Release: Expert View on Gun Control in the US

Dr. Emma Long on the history and politics of US gun control in the aftermath of last week's shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. Dr. Long concludes that, "People will mourn he loss of life in Umpqua, as they have done after every mass shooting event in recent history, but no one should realistically expect anything to change." For Emma's full press release click here.