What I find comforting about this interview is that Franzen's concerns about fiction seem closely aligned to my own, which means that I, too, will someday reach the same pinnacle of fame and success on which he is now ambivalently ensconced! OK, probably not. But I can learn from his trajectory. For instance, like my own, a lot of Franzen's early works grew out of his engagement with science fiction. And this fondness for big ideas, or "systems," to use his term, meant that his characters were created to serve the system. Now, he says, it's the other way around: any "system" that's apparent in the novel is there to serve the characters. However, he still has to remind himself every time to start with character; his tendency, even now, is to start with the system, and he has to learn "the hard way" not to do that.
Yet. I myself am not ready entirely to jettison "systems," and one reason is this nagging suspicion I have of realism as a genre. Helpfully, Franzen addresses that in a way I hadn't thought of before:
You know, enchantment has a positive connotation, but even in fairy tales it’s not a good thing, usually. When you’re under enchantment, you’re lost to the world. And the realist writer can play a useful and entertaining role in violently breaking the spell. But something about the position this puts the writer in, as a possessor of truth, as an epistemological enforcer, has come to make me uncomfortable. I’ve become more interested in joining the characters in their dream, and experiencing it with them, and less interested in the mere fact that it’s a dream.
This "enforcer" role--the author as stripper-away-of-enchantment--is, I think, part of my problem with realism. I like a sense of enchantment in novels, even if there's no actual magic or flying cars or mind-reading; that is, even as I'm absorbed in the story, I like dimly realizing the whole time that I am elsewhere--emphatically not in the real world. Authors who are obviously striving to make that sense impossible (*ahem* Carver) tend to irritate me. You don't have to be some po-mo riff artist, gleefully calling attention to the constructedness of all texts, and to the fact that all is text, to create a pleasant sense of artifice within your work. I don't like the concept of art as spell-breaking; I prefer spell-creating, which is not the same thing as bewitching or misleading. In this view, the author can be a guide to this slightly different reality, not an enforcer.
*I still think it's a little too sadistic to certain characters, and--like The Corrections--features a lengthy, detailed investigation of human feces. I dunno, is that supposed to be a sign of fearless confrontation with life's realities? I guess it's meant as that stark blend of comedy and horror that can work sublimely in fiction...but to me it just seems juvenile.