If DFW had the chops as a writer and an introspectionist, his colleague and rival Jonathan Franzen exemplifies normality and the very banality that Wallace wanted to write about, but also disdained. Wallace parodies stupid, unpleasant people, because he's correctly afraid that he is one. Franzen disdains actual stupid people, witness his reaction to Oprah, because he too, is one. However, unlike DFW, he doesn't disdain this, he embodies it. This is also the root of why Franzen continues to churn out observant, high quality novels at an age that Wallace will be dead for over a decade.
Where as Wallace's audience consists of people who think they are geniuses, but know in a reptile way they can't let that on, Franzen is writing for people who want to stand above the middle American families they come from. We hear almost nothing of family in Wallace, he's too self-absorbed, we hear a great deal of it in Franzen. It's a stage of being a comedian, telling jokes about your family. In his case, that includes, as it does for Wallace, his literary family of the Post-Modern authors, who are the middle wave of the Pop era, the providers of the specific justification for social epistemology – knowledge is what people say it is.
Where as Wallace has perhaps the best writing chops of his cohort, with a meticulous eye for compressing meaning, reception, and stance, into one phrase – what he thinks, what you are supposed to think about it, what he wants you to think of him – but is a terrible thinker, Franzen does not care for exposing in every moment his skill, but he has a firm grasp of the obvious as a thinker, that Wallace did not. Hence Franzen is alive, and Wallace is not.
Let's take the example from "Tense Present" – at the same time that Wallace labels the usage wars as political, he completely misdiagnosis them. Do you hear of them now? No? Why not? Wallace's theory that we all need to be passionately committed, which remember is the opposite of the word rigor, and have humility, which remember is the opposite of real humility, but is in fact sociopathic pretense – as "the Democratic Spirit" – he does not say, nor can he say, that really the entire debate was created as a way of laundering racism, an unpermitted form of passionate commitment, which is, never the less, entirely rigorous, even as it is unconnected to underlying biological reality. Octaroons anyone? For people who need the gory details, Gould's <i>The Mismeasure of Man</i> provides a good place to start. Racism is precisely careful, methodological, and rigorous, because it is trying to deny the obvious. If you want to kill someone for evil reasons, bury them in bullshit, as Racists do.
So according to DFW, the usage wars are a permanent state, but the goneness of them shows that they weren't, they were made, and then unmade, as part of a way of advancing the great American Conservative thesis: no money for black people. It is their fault because they don spick Inglish lahk good muricans do.
Franzen calls America "almost a rogue state" and marked his maturity with an essay entitled "Perchance to Dream," focusing on the meaning of the novel in a society that seems to have become post-literate. The very topics, politics, the social matrix that supports them, the relationship of literature to politics, are a very sharp contrast to DFW's treatment. Where as Wallace sees them through the lens of narcissism, and creates consumerist carictures in Infinite Jest – because he cannot conceive of people trapped in consumerism, Franzen paints very real people, in for example "Freedom," who are much less interesting than DFW's Goethe-esque grotesqueries such as the homunculous in Faust II, but are believable. DFW's carictures are a kind of literary dysphoria of his personality, the thing in the mental mirror.
Franzen, then, does not fall for the trap of pseudo-sophistication, but directly grabs, and did from his first published novel, the painful banality of the decline. His writing is pedestrian, but that is because that's his audience. A person incapable of better writing, could not maintain the iron grip on words that Franzen does:
The Corrections, page 380.
"I'm not anything," Denise said. I'm just me."
She wanted above all to be a private person, an independent individual. She didn't want to belong to any group, let alone a group with bad haircuts and strange resentful clothing issues. She didn't want a label, she didn't want a lifestyle, and so she ended where she'd started: wanting to strangle Becky Hemerling.
She was lucky (from a guilt-management perspective) that her divorce was in the works before she and Becky had their last, unsatisfying fight. Emile had moved to Washington to run the kitchen at the Hotel Belinger for a tone of money. The Weekend of Tears, when he returned to Philly with a truck and they divided their worldly goods and packed up his share of them, was long past by the time Denise decided, in reaction to Becky, that she wasn't a lesbian after all.
This is truly banal writing, but it isn't bad writing, in that while it is loaded with the clunky habits of its age, for example using parenthesis where commas would do, and it is absent all of the literary fireworks that set almost every note of DFW. But that's the point. Note that while the Pop-isms are there, they are in the mouth of the character, without the author distancing himself from them. Note how the compressed story of the divorce is woven in, in an intensely economical way, every bit as concise and far more seemless, as DFW's prose. Where Wallace wants to use every technical device for compression possible, and then spills over into the foot notes in big gaudy brush strokes, Franzen's brushstrokes are invisible, he needs no devices, and in fact deflates them by using them: the parenthesis are so leaden as to make any virtuosity seem the same kind of device, that is, a means of deflecting the attention on the absence at the center of the writer.
He's writing not because he cannot write any better, but because his intended audience cannot read any better. Though Franzen exists of himself, and not in reference to other writers, one more DFW comparison is in order here. DFW is talking to other people who are too smart for their own good, Franzen for people who are too stupid for their own good. DFW to people who will ruin the world they live in by trying to do stupid things in a smart way, like say, sleep around after the age of 40 and still feel good about their role as a husband, while Franzen is about people who live in a smart world of technology and capital, while being too stupid to even understand themselves. After all, anyone who says they don't want a label, is a paradigmatic example of a label. People who defy labeling spend their lives pretending to be ordinary.
Thus, DFW is who you read about a smart Post-Modern American crawling up his own ass and disappearing. Franzen is who you read to understand why Post-Modern America crawled up its own ass and disappeared. DFW explains Bill Clinton's repeal of Glass-Steagall. Franzen explains why ordinary people burned by it love him anyway. My friend Ian Welsh is in the same position as Franzen, very aware, painfully so, that he lives in a ghetto because he is preaching moral truths, that were largely known 2500 years ago to most advanced thinkers. Moral truths don't change. Wallace tries to come up with a new scam to cover immorality, Franzen has no need of the dazzling heights of misdirection, because he understands that smart people are merely stupid people with more words on their hands.
How do we know this about Franzen? Take a look at page 117 of The Corrections where he intertwines the fantasy wedding, with the decline of America, by means of the word paroxysmal, while diagnosing the problem: everyone wants to think of their people as good people. This is intellectual sophistication of the problem that besets Americans of the pop era, which he glides by, a topic that years later DFW blunders away an entire essay about. Writing well is not thinking well, but to be able to think well, and then explain to people who think badly, is a mark of an excellent writer.
Franzen is indeed that, and something else that DFW was not.