The AV Club interviews Jonathan Franzen. Topics include his new book Freedom, posterity, Glenn Beck, Ian McEwan, and why Franzen still has an AOL account. Here’s Franzen, from the interview, discussing contemporary references in his books–
I’m not too concerned what happens to my books after I’m dead. And I am very concerned by what’s going on with the culture of reading and writing now. So I would not wrap myself in a toga and speak of timelessness regarding my work. It’s my experience that reading Dostoevsky, say, or reading Balzac—the books are full of these contemporary references, and there are feuds going on, and names are dropped, and you know that they’re significant. If you have a good edition, it’ll have six pages of notes at the back explaining what the reference is, because some good scholar has actually looked all of the stuff up. But I don’t really feel like it detracts from my reading of that, and in a perverse way, it actually makes it feel… [Pauses.]
I want to say something can’t become timeless unless it had first inhabited its own time. Undoubtedly, we only get 70 percent of Shakespeare, because the other 30 percent is references that are just completely lost. There are all of these in-jokes, these insider references and contemporary references. We’re so removed from that culture, we don’t even know they’re there. But he was having so much fun writing those plays, and part of the fun was putting all this other stuff in—all of the wordplay, taking a jab at this actor and that theater. He was having so much fun that it just became inseparable from the general fun of those plays, and reading them, and going to performances of them. And he maybe needs those little references to make it fun for him. Not to compare myself to Shakespeare. [Laughs.] But any writer nowadays, I think… I don’t think the book is about those references. It’s not a collection of in-jokes. It’s not some snarky contemporary satire. It’s no dis-fest. It’s about other things, and those things are there for the enjoyment of people who might get them.