Preview: NS interview with Jonathan Franzen

The US author says the Tea Party movement "rejects the notion of a common good".

J P O'Malley has interviewed the US author Jonathan Franzen in this week's issue of the New Statesman. Here's what Franzen has to say on why he chose Freedom as the title of his new novel:

There is a vulgar notion of American freedom, according to which people wish to be left alone and they almost say: "Keep out." There's this deeply anti-communitarian streak among my fellow countrymen. You see this now with the Tea Party movement, which rejects the notion of a common good.

I was interested in the shocking rage I saw in the past ten years, on both the left and the right in America, the so-called freest and richest country on earth. It was interesting to explore that in the book and to discover reservoirs of misanthropy on both left and right.

Franzen is asked if he felt obliged to write a political novel, given America's current climate::

I don't feel any particular duty as a writer to address political concerns, but it's hard not to be affected by all the things that have happened in my country; hard not to imagine that a character akin to myself, living at the same time, would not also be affected by these things. So what was happening politically, socially, technologically, culturally, did lend itself to the construction of interesting characters.

Elsewhere, the author has praise for Oprah Winfrey and her television book club. In 2001 Franzen expressed unease at the selection of his previous novel, The Corrections, by Oprah. Here, however, his attitude appears to have changed:

Something Oprah Winfrey has been doing, and I hope will continue to do when her show goes off the air, is to inject writers like Toni Morrison, Jane Hamilton and Cormac McCarthy into the larger consciousness. I think that as long as we can keep alive the idea of the American novelist, the experience of getting lost in a novel will become increasingly attractive and become an alternative amid all the electronic noise.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.