The “Quiet Desperation” Racket

Yet another scourge of the bourgeoisie

It never fails to amaze me: the way big-shot novelists and intellectuals have for centuries peddled fantasies about the supposedly soul-deadening nature of middle class life to the hosannas of their oh-so-hip fellow sophisticates. Charles Krauthammer once called it “defining deviancy up” where lower and intellectual class deviancy like drug abuse, violence and anti-Americanism are considered “healthy” while middle class virtues like self-discipline, patriotism and the desire for a more comfortable life are considered unhealthy.

David Brooks takes on the latest of these immortal works of “épater le bourgeoisie” genius: Jonathan Franzen’s latest brick:

…[Franzen’s novel] tells us more about America’s literary culture than about America itself.

Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.

By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma. There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.

Richard is an artist, but we don’t really see the artist’s commitment to his craft. Patty is an athlete, but we don’t really see the team camaraderie that is the best of sport.

The political world is caricatured worst of all. The environmentalists talk like the snobbish cartoons of Glenn Beck’s imagination. The Republicans talk like the warmonger cartoons of Michael Moore’s.

The serious parts of life get lopped off and readers have to stoop to inhabit a low-ceilinged world. Everyone gets to feel superior to the characters they are reading about (always pleasant in a society famously anxious about status), but there’s something missing…

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