Jonathan Earl Franzen (born August 17, 1959) is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earned Franzen a National Book Award, was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, earned a James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. His novel Freedom (2010) garnered similar praise and led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline "Great American Novelist".
Franzen writes for The New Yorker magazine. His 1996 Harper's essay Perchance to Dream bemoaned the state of contemporary literature. Oprah Winfrey's book club selection in 2001 of The Corrections led to a much publicized feud with the talk show host. In recent years, Franzen has become recognized for his opinions on everything from social networking services such as Twitter ("the ultimate irresponsible medium") and the proliferation of e-books ("just not permanent enough") to the disintegration of Europe ("The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers. The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people") and the self-destruction of America ("almost a rogue state").
Early life and education
Franzen was born in Western Springs, Illinois, the son of Irene (née Super) and Earl T. Franzen. His father, raised in Minnesota, was an immigrant from Sweden of Swedish and Norwegian descent. Franzen grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German in 1981. As part of his undergraduate education, he studied abroad in Germany during the 1979-80 academic year with Wayne State University's Junior Year in Munich program. Here he met Michael A. Martone, on whom he would later base the character Walter Berglund in Freedom. He also studied on a Fulbright Scholarship at Freie Universität Berlin in Berlin in 1981-82. From these experiences, he speaks fluent German. Upon graduation Franzen got married and moved with his wife to Boston to pursue a career as a novelist. When this plan fell through, they moved to New York in 1987, where Franzen managed to sell his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.
The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is set in Franzen's hometown, St. Louis, and deals with the city's fall from grace, St. Louis having been the "fourth city" in the 1870s. This sprawling novel was warmly received and established Franzen as an author to watch. In a conversation with novelist Donald Antrim for Bomb Magazine, Franzen described The Twenty-Seventh City as "a conversation with the literary figures of my parents' generation[,] the great sixties and seventies Postmoderns.", adding in a later interview "I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable middle-aged writer."
Strong Motion (1992) focuses mainly on a dysfunctional family, the Hollands, and uses seismic events on the American East Coast as a metaphor for the quakes that occur in family life (as Franzen put it, "I imagined static lives being disrupted from without—literally shaken. I imagined violent scenes that would strip away the veneer and get people shouting angry moral truths at each other."). A 'systems novel', the key 'systems' of Strong Motion according to Franzen are "[...] the systems of science and religion—two violently opposing systems of making sense in the world." The novel was not a financial success at the time of its publication. Franzen subsequently defended the novel in his 2010 Paris Review interview, remarking "I think they [critics and readers] may be overlooking Strong Motion a little bit."
Main article: The Corrections
Franzen's The Corrections, a novel of social criticism, garnered considerable critical acclaim in the United States, winning both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The novel was also a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (won by Richard Russo for Empire Falls).
In September 2001, The Corrections was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Franzen initially participated in the selection, sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah and appearing in B-roll footage in his hometown of St. Louis (described in an essay in How To Be Alone titled "Meet Me In St. Louis"). In October 2001, however, The Oregonian printed an article in which Franzen expressed unease with the selection. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he expressed his worry that the Oprah logo on the cover dissuaded men from reading the book:
So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I'm sorry that it's, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.
Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded. Winfrey announced, "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book."
These events gained Franzen and his novel widespread media attention. The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction. At the National Book Award ceremony, Franzen said "I'd also like to thank Oprah Winfrey for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections."
Following the success of The Corrections and the publication of The Discomfort Zone and How to Be Alone, Franzen began work on his next novel. In the interim, he published two short stories in The New Yorker: "Breakup Stories", published November 8, 2004, concerned the disintegration of four relationships; and "Two's Company", published May 23, 2005, concerned a couple who write for TV, then split up.
In 2011, it was announced that Franzen would write a multi-part television adaptation of The Corrections in collaboration with The Squid and The Whale director Noah Baumbach for HBO. HBO has since passed on Corrections, citing "difficulty" in "adapting the book's challenging narrative, which moves through time and cuts forwards and back": that would be "difficult to sustain in a series and challenging for viewers to follow, hampering the potential show's accessibility."
Main article: Freedom (Franzen novel)
On June 8, 2009, Franzen published an extract from Freedom, his novel in progress, in The New Yorker. The extract, titled "Good Neighbors", concerned the trials and tribulations of a couple in St. Paul, Minnesota. On May 31, 2010, a second extract — titled "Agreeable" — was published, also in The New Yorker.
On October 16, 2009, Franzen made an appearance alongside David Bezmozgis at the New Yorker Festival at the Cedar Lake Theatre, reading a portion of his forthcoming novel. Sam Allard, writing for North By Northwestern about the event, said that the "…material from his new (reportedly massive) novel" was "as buoyant and compelling as ever" and "marked by his familiar undercurrent of tragedy". Franzen read "an extended clip from the second chapter."
On September 9, 2010, Franzen appeared on Fresh Air to discuss Freedom in the wake of its release. Franzen has drawn what he describes as a "feminist critique" for the attention that male authors receive over female authors—a critique he supports. Franzen also discussed his friendship with David Foster Wallace and the impact of Wallace's suicide on his writing process.
Freedom was the subject of a highly unusual "recall" in the United Kingdom starting in early October 2010. An earlier draft of the manuscript, to which Franzen had made over 200 changes, had been published by mistake. The publisher, HarperCollins initiated an exchange program, but thousands of books had been distributed by that time.
While promoting the book, Franzen became the first American author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King in 2000. Franzen appeared alongside the headline "Great American Novelist". He discussed the implications of the Time coverage, and the reasoning behind the title of Freedom in an interview in Manchester, England, in October 2010.
On September 17, 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be an Oprah book club selection, the first of the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show. On December 6, 2010, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote Freedom where they discussed that book and the controversy over his reservations about her picking The Corrections and what that would entail.
Franzen has stated the writing of Freedom was deeply impacted by the death of his close friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace.
Main article: Purity (novel)
In an interview with Portland Monthly on December 18, 2012, Franzen revealed that he currently had "a four-page, single-spaced proposal" for a fifth novel he was currently working on, although he went on to suggest that while he had a proposal there was no guarantee that what was proposed would make the final cut, saying of similar proposals for previous novels, "I look at the old proposals now, and I see the one part of them that actually got made into a book, and I think, 'How come I couldn't see that? What is all this other stuff?'". Franzen also hinted that the new novel would probably also be long, adding "I've let go of any illusion that I'm a writer of 150-page novels. I need room to let things turn around over time and see them from the whole lives of other characters, not just the single character. For better or worse, one point of view never seems to do it for me." In October 2014, during a discussion at Colgate University, Franzen read a "self-contained first-person narrative" that is part of a novel that he hopes will be out in the summer of 2015.
On November 17, 2014, The New York Times Artsbeat Blog reported that the novel, titled Purity, would be out in September. Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, described Purity as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents. The story centers on a young woman named Purity Tyler, or Pip, who doesn't know who her father is and sets out to uncover his identity. The narrative stretches from contemporary America to South America to East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and hinges on the mystery of Pip's family history and her relationship with a charismatic hacker and whistleblower.
In 2016, Daily Variety reported that the novel was in the process of being adapted into a 20-hour limited series for Showtime by Todd Field who would share writing duties with Franzen and the playwright Sir David Hare. It would star Daniel Craig as Andreas Wolf and be Executive Produced by Field, Franzen, Craig, Hare & Scott Rudin.
However, in a February 2018 interview with The Times London, Hare said that, given the budget for Field’s adaptation (170 million), he doubted it would ever be made, but added “It was one of the richest and most interesting six weeks of my life, sitting in a room with Todd Field, Jonathan Franzen and Daniel Craig bashing out the story. They’re extremely interesting people.”
In 1996, while still working on The Corrections, Franzen published a literary manifesto in Harper's Magazine entitled Perchance to Dream. Referencing manifestos written by Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, among others, Franzen grappled with the novelist's role in an advanced media culture which seemed to no longer need the novel. In the end, Franzen rejects the goal of writing a great social novel about issues and ideas, in favor of focusing on the internal lives of characters and their emotions. Given the huge success of The Corrections, this essay offers a prescient look into Franzen's goals as both a literary and commercially minded author.
In 2002, Franzen published a critique of the novels of William Gaddis, entitled "Mr. Difficult", in The New Yorker. He begins by recounting how some readers felt The Corrections was spoiled by being too high-brow in parts, and summarizes his own views of reading difficult fiction. He proposes a "Status model", whereby the point of fiction is to be Art, and also a "Contract model", whereby the point of fiction is to be Entertainment, and finds that he subscribes to both models. He praises The Recognitions, admits that he only got halfway through J R, and explains why he does not like the rest of Gaddis's novels.
In 2004 Franzen published "The Discomfort Zone", a personal essay about his childhood and family life in Missouri and his love of Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts, in The New Yorker. Susan Orlean selected it for the subsequent volume of The Best American Essays.
Since The Corrections Franzen has published How to Be Alone (2002), a collection of essays including "Perchance To Dream", and The Discomfort Zone (2006), a memoir. How To Be Alone is essentially an apologia for reading, articulating Franzen's uncomfortable relationship with the place of fiction in contemporary society. It also probes the influence of his childhood and adolescence on his creative life, which is then further explored in The Discomfort Zone.
In September 2007, Franzen's translation of Frank Wedekind's play Spring Awakening (German: Frühlings Erwachen) was published. In his introduction, Franzen describes the Broadway musical version as "insipid" and "overpraised." In an interview with New York magazine, Franzen stated that he had in fact made the translation for Swarthmore College's theater department for $50 in 1986 and that it had sat in a drawer for 20 years since. After the Broadway show stirred up so much interest, Franzen said he was inspired to publish it because "I knew it was a good translation, better than anything else out there."
Franzen published a social commentary on cell phones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space, "I Just Called To Say I Love You" (2008), in the September/October 2008 issue of MIT Technology Review.
In 2012 he published Farther Away, a collection of essays dealing with such topics as his love of birds, his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on technology.
In 2013, Franzen published The Kraus Project. It consists of three major essays by the "Perennially [...] impossible to translate" Austrian "playwright, poet, social commentator and satirical genius"Karl Kraus – ""Heine and the Consequences" a takedown of the beloved German poet, "Nestroy and Posterity" which established that playwright's reputation in Austria to this day, and "Afterword to Heine and the Consequences"". The essays are accompanied by "Franzen's [own] plentiful, trenchant yet off-beat annotations" taking on "... Kraus' mantle-commenting on what Kraus would say (and what Franzen's opinion is) about Macs and PCs; decrying Twitter's claim of credit for the Arab Spring; and unfurling how media conglomerates influence politics in their quest for profits."
Franzen is set to publish his third essays collection, The End of the End of the Earth: Essays, in November 2018  According to advance press for the book, the collection "gathers essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years, [and] Jonathan Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes—both human and literary—that have long preoccupied him. Whether exploring his complex relationship with his uncle, recounting his young adulthood in New York, or offering an illuminating look at the global seabird crisis, these pieces contain all the wit and disabused realism that we’ve come to expect from Franzen. Taken together, these essays trace the progress of a unique and mature mind wrestling with itself, with literature, and with some of the most important issues of our day, made more pressing by the current political milieu. The End of the End of the Earth is remarkable, provocative, and necessary."
Philosophy of writing
During a lecture on autobiography and fiction, Franzen discussed four perennial questions often asked to him by audiences, all of which annoy him or bother him in some way. These are: (1) Who are your influences? (2) What time of day do you work, and what do you write on? (3) I read an interview with an author who says that, at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters "take over" and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too? (4) Is your fiction autobiographical? In the lecture he said of the third question in particular "This one always raises my blood pressure" and quoted Nabokov in response.
In February 2010, Franzen (along with writers such as Richard Ford, Zadie Smith, and Anne Enright) was asked by The Guardian to contribute what he believed were ten serious rules to abide by for aspiring writers.
Franzen married Valerie Cornell in 1982; they separated in 1994 and are now divorced. Franzen now lives part of the year on the Upper East Side of New York City and part in Boulder Creek, California. When in California, Franzen lives with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich.
In 2010, at an event at the Serpentine Pavilion in London celebrating the launch of Freedom, Franzen's glasses were stolen from his face by a gate-crasher, who jokingly attempted to ransom them for $100,000 before being apprehended by police elsewhere in Hyde Park.
Awards and honors
- Honors and other recognition
- 1996 Granta's Best Of Young American Novelists
- 2001 New York Times Best Books of the Year for The Corrections
- 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for The Corrections)
- 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist (Fiction)
- 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist
- 2003 International Dublin Literary Award (short list)
- 2009 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor American Academy in Berlin
- 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for Freedom)
- 2010 New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2010 list (for Freedom)
- 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) finalist (for Freedom)
- 2012 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) shortlist for The Kraus Project
- 2017 International Dublin Literary Award long-list for Purity
- In January 2011, The Observer named him as one of "20 activists, filmmakers, writers, politicians and celebrities who will be setting the global environmental agenda in the coming year".
- On May 21, 2011, Franzen delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College to the class of 2011.
- The first international academic symposium solely dedicated to Franzen's work took place at Glasgow University, UK, 22 March 2013. Another one, "Jonathan Franzen: Identity and Crisis of the American Novel", was scheduled to take place at the University of Córdoba, Spain, 18–19 April 2013, but later has been cancelled due to the lack of submitted papers.
Short stories and novel excerpts
- "Somewhere North of Wilmington". Blind Spot 8. (1996):116.
- "How He Came to Be Nowhere." Granta 54 (1996):111-23
- "Chez Lambert." The Paris Review 139 (1996): 29-41
- "At the Party for the Artists with No Last Name." Blind Spot 14 (1999): n.pag.
- "When the new wing broke away from the old mansion." The Guardian. 25 March 2003: n.pag.
- "Breakup Stories." New Yorker. 6 October. 2004.: 85-99
- "Two's Company." New Yorker. 23 May 2005.: 78-81
- "Good Neighbors." New Yorker. 8 June 2009.: n.pag.
- "Agreeable." New Yorker. 31 May 2010: n. pag.
- "The Republic of Bad Taste." New Yorker. 8 June 2015: n.pag.
- ^"Time 100 Candidates: Jonathan Franzen". Time Magazine. April 4, 2011. Retrieved 2014-11-19.
- ^Hayden East (November 18, 2014). "New Jonathan Franzen novel Purity features Snowden-like hacker". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-11-19.
- ^"Freedom: A Novel". Macmillan. Retrieved 2010-09-10.
- ^ abFehrman, Craig (August 16, 2010). "The Franzen Cover and a Brief History of Time". The Millions.
- ^Flood, Alison (2012-03-07). "Jonathan Franzen: 'Twitter is the ultimate irresponsible medium'". The Guardian. London.
- ^Flood, Alison (2012-01-30). "Jonathan Franzen warns ebooks are corroding values". The Guardian. London.
- ^Manzoor, Sarfraz; Healey, Alex; Tait, Michael (2010-10-25). "Jonathan Franzen: 'America is almost a rogue state'". The Guardian. London.
- ^"Jonathan Franzen Biography – Bio of Jonathan Franzen". Contemporary Literature.
- ^Matassa Flores, Michele (September 15, 2010). "A sweaty-palmed night with Jonathan Franzen". Crosscut.com. Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-20.
- ^"Jonathan Franzen's struggle for 'Freedom'". Star Tribune.
- ^"IRENE EARL FRANZEN". Google Books.
- ^"Jonathan Franzen '81 First Living American Novelist on Time Cover in Decade". Swarthmore. Archived from the original on 2012-08-05. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
- ^Ferguson, Mark. "75 Years of the Junior Year in Munich." Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching of German 40.2 (Fall 2007): 124-132; p.132.
- ^"Jonathan Franzen". PEN American Center.
- ^Willdorf, Nina. "An author's story: How literary It Boy Jonathan Franzen spun himself into a tornado of controversy". The Phoenix.
- ^Laura Shapiro, "Terra Not So Firma," Newsweek, January 20, 1992. (Shapiro: "A huge and masterly drama of St. Louis under siege, gripping and surreal and overwhelmingly convincing." Shapiro also noted The Twenty-Seventh City's "brilliance," and the author's "prodigious gifts," concluding, "The news that he is at work on a third [novel] is welcome indeed."]
- ^Antrim, Donald. "Jonathan Franzen". Bomb Magazine. Fall 2001. Retrieved 2011-07-27.
- ^ abcdStephen J. Burn (Winter 2010). "Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fiction No. 207". The Paris Review.
- ^ ab"National Book Awards – 2001". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.(With acceptance speech by Franzen and essays by Mary Jo Bang, David Ulin, and Lee Taylor Gaffigan from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- ^ ab"Book Prize Information – The Corrections". Bookprizeinfo.com. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
- ^"PEN / Faulkner Foundation Award For Fiction Previous". Penfaulkner.org. Archived from the original on 2010-03-02. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
- ^ ab"Fiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
- ^Gross, Terry (October 15, 2001). "Novelist Jonathan Franzen". Fresh Air. NPR.
- ^"You go, girl… and she went". The Age. 2006-01-21. Retrieved 2007-04-04.
- ^"Oprah's Book Club user communication, October 22, 2001".
- ^"National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches: Jonathan Franzen". National Book Foundation. 2001. Retrieved 2007-04-04.
- ^"jonathan franzen: Contributors". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
- ^O'Neal, Sean (September 6, 2011). "Noah Baumbach developing Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections as HBO series". A. V. Club.
- ^Rose, Lacey (2011-09-02). "Noah Baumbach to Take on Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' for HBO". The Hollywood Reporter.
- ^Andreeva, Nellie (May 1, 2012). "HBO Drama Pilot 'The Corrections' Not Going Forward". Deadline.
- ^Jonathan Franzen (May 31, 2010), Agreeable, The New Yorker
- ^"Festival". The New Yorker. 2009-01-07. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
- ^ ab"The Franzen Interface". North by Northwestern. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
- ^"Franzen On The Book, The Backlash, His Background". Fresh Air. NPR. 2010-09-09. Retrieved 2010-09-10.
- ^Flood, Alison; Davis, Rowenna (2010-10-01). "Jonathan Franzen's book Freedom suffers UK recall". The Guardian. London.
- ^Haslam, Dave (October 3, 2010). "Onstage interview with celebrated American novelist Jonathan Franzen". Dave Haslam, Author and DJ – Official Site.
- ^Kellogg, Carolyn (September 18, 2010). "Oprah's book club christens Franzen's 'Freedom'". Los Angeles Times.
- ^"Author Jonathan Franzen Appears on 'Oprah' Show". ABC News.
- ^Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Franzen: 'Modern life has become extremely distracting', The Guardian, 2 October 2015.
- ^ abc"Q&A: Jonathan Franzen". portlandmonthlymag.com. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
- ^Rice, Jessica. "Author Jonathan Franzen visits Colgate as part of Living Writers course". Colgate University. Retrieved 3 November 2014.
- ^ abAlter, Alexandra. "New Jonathan Franzen Novel, 'Purity,' Coming in September". Colgate The New York Times Blog. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
- ^Wagmeister, Elizabeth (2016). "Showtime Lands Daniel Craig, Scott Rudin Limited Series 'Purity'". Daily Variety.
- ^Maxwell, Dominic (2018). "David Hare: 'I am sick to death of hearing about the need for strong women as protagonists
How America’s foremost novelist became its leading public moralist.
Love may not be the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name Jonathan Franzen, but it’s a word that’s become more and more important to him over the years. “You have to love before you can be relentless.” That, whatever it means, is the last of Franzen’s rules for writing fiction, published in the Guardian in 2010. In 2011, Franzen told the graduating seniors of Kenyon College that “trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships.” His point was that it’s better to love, say, a spouse or birds than to spend too much time on Facebook. Franzen has also lamented “the near-perfect absence” in the fiction of his late friend David Foster Wallace “of ordinary love.” The paradox was that Wallace’s readers felt loved when they read his books, and in turn came to fiercely love their author.
Do you love Jonathan Franzen? Does America? Does the world? These questions sound ridiculous, but they’re the ones Franzen has been posing over the past two decades, as he has, against long odds, made himself the kind of public figure about whom they aren’t entirely ridiculous or even unusual. He started asking them in the mid-’90s in a series of essays — most famously, one published in Harper’s as “Perchance to Dream” in 1996 — that lamented the novelist’s diminished role in the culture; the burned-out state of “the inner city of fiction”; and the failure of his first two novels, despite critical acclaim, to connect with a wide readership. Yet he knew that, even if it had been a while since a writer more challenging than Scott Turow or Stephen King had appeared on the cover of Time, E. Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy were still selling lots of books. Many of their readers, a sociologist informed him, were women; many were people who’d grown up, like Franzen, as social isolates (not necessarily nerds, Franzen took pains to point out); many were people whose lives had turned out to be different from their parents’ lives. These people wanted to read about lives not unlike their own, and to be entertained. Franzen would transform himself from an angry young man into their trusty bard. Or try.
In 2001, Franzen delivered The Corrections, a novel that submerged his long-standing postmodernist concerns with systems (e.g., the pharmaceutical industry, the Soviet Union’s aftermath, gender politics) beneath the story of a dispersed midwestern family. A British reviewer observed that, in light of the book, the Harper’s essay read like “market research,” and Franzen would later admit that the reviewer wasn’t wrong. “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” That’s his first rule for writing fiction. The Corrections brought Franzen lots of new friends. One of them was Oprah Winfrey, which, as he infamously told interviewers, made him uncomfortable: It didn’t fit with his notion of himself as a practitioner of high art, and he worried that the corporate OPRAH insignia on the cover of his books would put off male readers. He wanted to accommodate the pleasure-principle desires, and perhaps the sociological narcissism, of his readers, but he also wanted to make it clear to those readers who now loved him that he wouldn’t always be likable. Loving him meant accepting that he was kind of a prick.
In retrospect, the fiasco that ensued when Oprah disinvited him from her show can now be viewed as an inadvertent masterstroke. It garnered him more ink than a mere appearance would have, turned his ambivalence about his straddling the high- and middlebrows into a national story, and set the table for a reconciliation with Oprah on the publication of his 2010 novel, Freedom. By then, Franzen had appeared on the cover of Time, Wallace had died, Philip Roth had published what turned out to be his final novel, and the safe answer to the question “Who’s on top?” in American lit was Franzen. “There are about 20 great American novelists in the generations that follow me,” Roth said in a blurb for Franzen’s 2012 essay collection, Farther Away. “The greatest is Jonathan Franzen.”
It’s The Corrections that gives Franzen his claim on this title. The novel is a map of the anxieties afflicting two generations of the Lambert family, under the shadow of a pharmaceutical industry that offers some of the book’s many dubious corrections. Here was a systems novel — those bombed-up books of the ’60s and ’70s like End Zone and Gravity’s Rainbow — subordinated to a rich saga of domestic psychological realism. Franzen was operating under the spell of his earliest and still-unabandoned hero Don DeLillo — the illicit drug in White Noise that offered relief from the fear of death was a harbinger of the racks of pills available by prescription a decade and a half later. Franzen’s narration was at once majestic, playful, and on most pages very funny. In his first two books, he’d been both too serious and too absurd. Here he’d hit the balance. Think of Caleb Lambert, the boy who wants to put the family kitchen under surveillance, his new “hobby.” The idea frightens his depressed father, Gary, because that’s where the liquor cabinet is. And if any of this seemed too of the moment — the about-to-expire long 1990s — Franzen always had recourse to the archetypal material from the past: “Lad … I don’t see you eating your dinner.”
“I could see, already in the late ’90s,” Franzen tells Philip Weinstein in his not-quite biography, Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage, “that there was going to be a dearth of public writers as the previous generation (Mailer, Vidal, Updike, Sontag, Bellow, Roth, etc.) waned.” Wallace wasn’t “temperamentally suited” to fill the gap, he understood. But “I was ambitious enough and ego-driven enough to want that … It’s nice to know that if I want to bring something to public attention, whether it’s the work of Paula Fox or the environmental havoc wreaked by free-roaming cats, I have some power to do it. Weird, but nice.”
It has been weird watching Franzen become the heir to Mailer and Roth, a role that was never sought by DeLillo. His new phase is marked by his conviction that novels be animated by causes, and oddest of all might be his choice of crusades: against the cats that prey on migratory birds, for example, or the irresistible intrusions and distractions of the internet, which has come to obsess him. His political causes come with a whiff of connoisseurship (and of futility); he rarely raises his voice too loudly in the liberal chorus against outrages like torture or drone killings. His “I’m not a Luddite, but …” statements, on the other hand, are distinguished by their generic (and also futile) technophobia, mitigated only by his nostalgia for obsolete hardware and software: Whither WordPerfect 5.0? Whenever he surfaces as a critic of the internet, it’s hard to tell whether he’s stumbled into the fight blindly — or whether he’s just trolling. But his complaints are so commonplace they must be from the heart, which isn’t to say he doesn’t take a perverse pleasure in trolling.
In his self-appointment as America’s moralist, Franzen has suffered from the lack of a worthy female foil, as Mailer had in Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and Germaine Greer. Oprah was too big for him; when he was talking about her, he was talking to himself. Perhaps because he’s lonely at the top, Franzen elevated Jennifer Weiner — the best-selling but subliterary novelist who’s led the #Franzenfreude charge, claiming that he’s sucked up the oxygen of review attention in a sexist literary culture — by accusing her of “freeloading” on a good cause with the aim of self-promotion. It was the best favor he could have given her. With every interview, often with obscure campus magazines, Franzen seems always to forget he has a habit of confusing his mouth with a shoe. Promoting Purity, he told an interviewer that he’d entertained the idea of adopting an Iraq War orphan, in part to learn about the way young people think.
He can’t really believe that he’ll ever put a stop to online distraction or rein in those pesky cats, but his literary statements do carry weight, especially when he goes to bat for an unknown pen pal like Nell Zink. In Farther Away, Franzen says of Roth: “For a while, Philip Roth was my new bitter enemy, but lately, unexpectedly, he has become a friend.” Franzen has always conceived of writing as a competition, with all writers everywhere, living or dead, aligned either with him or against him, or both at once. His critical writings often read like peace treaties or declarations of war, or like the posturings of a permanent undergraduate at pains to take a side. They frequently contain eccentric statements about what it means to read a novel, like this one: “My small hope for literary criticism would be to hear less about orchestras and subversion and more about the erotic and culinary arts. Think of the novel as a lover: Let’s stay home tonight and have a great time; just because you’re touched where you want to be touched, it doesn’t mean you’re cheap.”
It was with this passage that I fell out of love with Jonathan Franzen. His notion of the novel as a lover echoes Sontag’s famous call for an “erotics of art” but manages to be less aspirational, less radical, less sexy. It comes from his 2002 essay on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” the story of how Franzen fell out of love with the author of The Recognitions halfway through his second novel, JR. It was too frustrating of pleasure, it wasn’t touching him where he wanted to be touched. I’m no hard-core Gaddisite, but it seemed to me that Franzen was bent on tossing aside the pleasures to be had in reading a difficult writer, dismissing a book like Carpenter’s Gothic as an “exercise in style” with “paint-by-numbers” content while ignoring the way Gaddis renders a familiar experience like watching an Orson Welles movie on late-night television entirely strange with the power of his style.
Style and strangeness were things missing from Franzen’s next novel, Freedom (2010). It signaled that Franzen had developed too acute a sense of his own audience and where they wanted to be touched, that he’d hit on a method — obscured, if present at all, in The Corrections — of absorbing a decade’s reading of the New York Times and listening to NPR and then dramatizing it in the story of a family that all too perfectly embodied imagined readers of the New York Times and NPR. The love between Franzen and his readers is also the love of the mirror image filtered through the prism of the nation’s upmarket media. Since The Corrections, Franzen’s novels have been answers to the question “What’s wrong with us?” And they do offer answers — see the Berglunds in Freedom as their neighbors do: “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege” — but it’s the asking, I think, that readers found most appealing. The mirror image isn’t always pretty, and there’s an element of mutual self-loathing in the writer-reader love affair.
But something had changed between those books, as eager as many critics were to see Freedom as The Corrections’ successor. In his 2011 Paris Reviewinterview, Franzen explained a very noticeable, and quite conscious, change in style:
“I said to myself, ‘This feels nothing like the writing I did for 20 years — this just feels transparent.’ I wasn’t seeing in the pages any of the signs I’d taken as encouraging when I was writing The Corrections. The sentences back then had a pop. They were, you know, serious prose sentences, and I was able to vanquish my doubts simply by rereading them … [T] he sentences had a level of effulgence that left me totally defended. But here, with Freedom, I felt like, Oh my God, I just wrote however many metaphor-free pages about some weird days in the life of a college student, I have no idea if this is any good. I needed validation in a way I never had before.”
It’s sad to see a writer of Franzen’s talent surrender that pop, even sadder to find it missing in his prose.
“The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character,” Franzen wrote in a 2012 essay on Edith Wharton, in which he argued that a reader needs to sympathize with a novel’s author as much as with its characters. I don’t subscribe to this logic — I’m perfectly happy to love books without sympathy for their authors, e.g., the Nazi collaborator Knut Hamsun, even if the mirror image is there — but what if we were to apply it to Franzen? He’s long been a generous teller of his own life story. Child of prosperous Midwesterners, the father distant and the mother a bit overbearing, the two of them permanently bickering about the thermostat. Never too cool at school, embarrassed to be wearing his band uniform at football games, a late bloomer sexually. Midwestern simpleton among sophisticates at an East Coast college, anticipating that he’ll be a perennial loser in the coolness contest, nurturing an ambition to dethrone them in a way that would redeem his own midwesternness without sacrificing sophistication. Prisoner of a too-early, too-idealistic marriage premised on mutual artistic success, a taste of which he got and she didn’t. En route to a divorce colored by his wife’s failure to sell a book, confusing the end of love with rage against environmental devastation, trying in vain to sell out with a dud of a screenplay that sublimated his marital crack-up. Depressed and penniless divorcé, coping with writer’s block and his own competitive instincts in the face of his friend’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, by trying to figure out what it means to be a reader. Resurgent literary champion, reaping the rewards of a decade’s struggle but always prone to media gaffes. Advocate and lover of birds, even if it sometimes seemed the ornithologist-novelist was copping a move from the lepidopterist Nabokov. Time cover boy with a net worth reported to be in the eight figures, but always generous to younger writers as well as select literary forebears. Failed television writer (when HBO preemptively canceled a series adapted from The Corrections) and pained bystander to his brilliant friend’s suicide, an awful thing to endure, however muddled Franzen’s public response (“suicide as career move”?) has sounded. Scourge of online culture, an endearingly Sisyphean self-appointment. I confess I find Franzen the man sympathetic at every turn. I only wish that next time he returns with a novel that isn’t a bad date.
The earliest reviews of Purity — by Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republicand Caleb Crain in the Atlantic — have been rapturous. Elaine Blair in Harper’shas brought some skepticism to the dizzy proceedings, and I’m inclined to apply a bit more. Purity reinforces the sense that Franzen is committed to his method of showing middle-class America itself in the mirror, but this time the execution is shoddier — the novel’s topicality is relentless. The Occupy movement, online privacy and state surveillance, predatory banks, radical feminism, agribusiness — Franzen’s treatment of them will flatter liberal prejudices: Occupy was well-intentioned but ineffective; the NSA is bad but Google could be worse; radical ideologies can go too far in the service of just causes, etc. Franzen remains a moralist, and those who suspect the moral of a story called Purity might be that it’s dangerous to be too pure won’t be disappointed. Franzen has been praised for the way he incorporates contemporary information in his novels, for the way his details paint a convincing now. In Purity, the effect is the opposite: Bits of sociology break the spell of a convincing present that they’ve been dragged in for the sole purpose of shoring up.The result is a kind of elite populism: topical melodramas stuffed with symbols and allusions that are never too difficult to catch, the way prestige TV is just smart enough to remind you it’s not trash.
Franzen’s lost work of the past decade are the scripts for HBO, which he was developing with Noah Baumbach until the network pulled the plug on it in 2012. Franzen describes the problems with the pilot and the series to Weinstein: There was no showrunner. “It never would have occurred to me that I could be that person. I think if I had seized it … we might have gotten picked up.” Also, he says, the arcs of the backstory and the present action didn’t “match up,” and “the pilot sucked.” Franzen tells Weinstein that he did cartwheels when HBO pulled the plug because the job made him miserable. It’s surprising that Franzen’s scripts failed at the structural level, because as a novelist he remains a master of structure. In The Corrections, Franzen hit on a form — the novel as a series of novellas told from different points of view with backstories linking to an overarching present — that still serves him well, but the risk of a novel in seven parts, as Purity has, is that some will be better than others.
The heroine of Purity is Pip, a 23-year old woman living in Oakland with a dead-end job. Pip’s connected to Occupy Oakland through its anti-nuke arm and thinks of her relationship with her dotty mother in terms of “moral hazard.” The three sections from Pip’s point of view are the weakest in the book — she’s characterized by her good intentions and naïveté on every page. (Her one almost-saving grace is a sarcastic streak.) After she’s launched on an unexpected political odyssey, as an intern for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-like organization based in Bolivia, Franzen sketches the backstory of its leader, a charismatic middle-aged German named Andreas Wolf. Andreas grows up in East Berlin, the child of a pair of Communist Party hacks, an Oedipal rebel against them and the state. An incendiary student poem gets him thrown out of the house and he becomes a church youth counselor, a position he exploits by sleeping with teenage girls. He’s slept with 53 of them, none of them underage, by the time he falls for Annagret, a girl of 15 who tells him of her abuse at the hands of her stepfather, who works for the Stasi. Before they’ve even slept together, Andreas and Annagret decide to kill her stepfather. Franzen proves adept at telling an old-fashioned murder story, even if he pounds the notes of guilt and shame a little too hard with his Victorian hammer.
The Big Idea in Purity belongs to Andreas: his theory that Google and Facebook constitute the new Stasi. So anti-communism has morphed into technophobia, and the internet is the new totalitarianism. Even if it’s put in the head of a lecherous murderer, we know from Franzen’s interviews and the rants about Twitter (distracting and antithetical to narrative), Facebook (encourages a bogus cult of likability), and Amazon (bad for authors) in his previous bookThe Kraus Project that it’s not too far from what he thinks. That doesn’t make it easy to take seriously. He may not be wrong, but most of his opinions on these subjects could be expressed in 140 characters or less.
With the totalitarian internet as its Big Idea and an absurd subplot about sex pics with a nuclear warhead as a prop, Purity makes many nods to systems novels. But as in Freedom, and even more than was the case in The Corrections, his characters’ politics can be traced back to parent-child resentments and old grudges between friends, so what often looks like a systems novel, in consistently reducing the political to the personal, is actually the opposite. The reversal is another element of Franzen’s popular appeal: It’s the impulse to see your politics played out in intimate family squabbles, or to lend your grudges the grandeur of politics. And unlike the systems novelists, and those who share their paranoia, most readers prefer not to imagine their lives are in the hands of forces beyond their control, preferring instead to feel like they’re in attendance at the pageant they read about in the newspaper. In Purity, a caricature of a novelist who starts out as “the heir to Barth and Elkin” and ends up an embittered, unloved, alcoholic, and paraplegic failure indicates that Franzen still has it in for his former postmodern heroes. But who are Franzen’s allies in Purity, aside from Dickens? The novel’s strongest section is narrated by Tom Aberant, a journalist and thwarted novelist who cites Bellow as his hero. His confession, about the failure of his marriage to the agribusiness heiress and radical feminist artist Anabel Laird, suggests the equal influence of Roth.
Franzen has never been shy about sex in his novels: There’s the abortive blow job between Enid and Alfred Lambert in The Corrections, and their children are in various ways captive to their desires; in Freedom, we read of one character’s “firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity” and another’s awareness of the “clairvoyance of the dick.” In Purity, male characters are afflicted with uncontrollable erections at climactic moments; Pip is haunted by the memory of a brief act of cunnilingus; an act of anal sex results in pregnancy. From the male point of view, sex is always attended by feelings of guilt and hypocrisy. For the women, sexual desire, though not without its joys, is never far from feelings of resentment, victimization, entrapment, or defilement. The overall impression is of Roth’s project of erotic frankness filtered and rehabilitated through an ethics Franzen seems to conceive of as feminist, in that the moral calculus renders the men the guilty parties: guilty of lechery, porn addiction, and indifference to the imperatives of women’s biological clocks. In effect, it’s a set of standards, defining sexual encounters as opportunities for abuse by men, that is not altogether empowering to his women. You might even call it Victorian.
Such is Franzen’s idea of “ordinary love.” The novel’s bookend sections have the structure of a comedy of manners, reuniting Pip with a young man she meets at a café, where they both read the Sunday Times “actual paper edition,” odd for millennials and one of the book’s glaring clichés. And if the man who once was to be the future of fiction is retreating to the 19th century, it’s all of a piece with his nemesis John Barth’s notion that writers are constantly “re-enacting a cyclical correction in the history (and the microhistories) of literature and of art in general.” The value of Franzen’s books is that they’re a theater to watch him swinging, a self-hating acrobat, from Pynchon and Gaddis back to Dickens and Austen. He’s a microhistory unto himself.
*This article appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.