Late last year there was a confluence of critical opinion in America the likes of which the nation hadn’t seen in years. Every single film critic in the traditional media – 350 “best” lists, the ads boast – seemed to anoint The Social Network, director David Fincher’s semi-fictionalised account of the founding of Facebook, as the movie of the year, maybe even of the decade. Every single literary critic in the traditional media seemed to agree that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, his saga of a dysfunctional American family, was the novel of the epoch. And just to make it three for three, just about every television critic in the traditional media seemed to genuflect before Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, an HBO series that depicts the depredations of a mob kingpin in Atlantic City during Prohibition.
Every now and then I see this kind of story about America in the Brisith papers: the kind of story in which a critic says quite absolutely that something is true that is in fact, not at all true. Critical opinions about Franzen’s novel were seriously divided. For instance, Ruth Franklin absolutely trashed the book in The New Republic, a very prominent journal; and she was not alone. It sometimes seems that the English love to tell one another that the whole of America is of one mind about something. Such a claim fulfills desires and fears alike. But you rarely see it done as straightforwardly as here.