“The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro”

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A recent interview with Jonathan Franzen has been getting a lot of attention, mainly because it marks another chapter in his ongoing scuffle with Jennifer Weiner. What he has to say about adults reading “down,” however, may be the most interesting part of the conversation.

SL: There’s been heated discussion lately about the uptick of adults who read literature written for young adults. Recently in Slate, the journalist Ruth Graham declared that adults should be embarrassed if what they are reading was written for children, and that it would be a shame if readers substituted “maudlin teen drama” for the complexity of great adult literature. What are your thoughts?

JF: I don’t care what people read.

SL: You have no opinion on the question of whether or not readers might be cheating themselves if they’re reading YA lit?

JF: If it’s a loss, it’s their loss, not mine.

SL: Well, I guess that’s the point of Graham’s argument, that it is their loss and that it’s perhaps a greater loss, a collective loss, that fewer people would be—

JF: Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes. That’s exactly what you want if you’re having a hard life. Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?

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