Jonathan Franzen is Not Fine with It
The White Male Great American Literary Novelist for the 21st Century is not a fan of modern realities.
It’s not quite obvious what the New York Times Magazine feature “Jonathan Franzen Is Fine With All of It” is about. One thing, though, is for sure: Jonathan Franzen is not fine with it. With anything, really.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s profile is interesting enough but it presumes a lot more background knowledge of Franzen than I possess. I don’t read much literary fiction and know him in passing mostly from the occasional magazine profile and graduation speech. I probably first heard of him when he famously declined to go on the Oprah Winfrey show when she selected his first novel for her book club, a marketing boost most authors would kill for. Apparently, though, he’s much beloved by professional critics and increasingly disliked by the masses, leastwise those on the Internet.
This observation, several paragraphs in, captures the spirit of things:
When he speaks, he enunciates down to the soul of every single letter. He takes this lingual habit and out of his mouth he erects complete cities — rigorously formed ones, with firehouses and railroad stations and schools and coffee joints and community centers. He makes no points that are complete at the usual magazine-article quotable size. He makes no points that can be distilled to a few words and still be understood in their breadth. The breadth is the point.
There’s a lot of color at the beginning of the essay but what captured my interest were these musings several paragraphs in, about the challenges of adapting his novels for television:
He should have known that the bigger the production — the more people you involve, the more hands the thing goes through — the more likely that it will never see the light of day resembling the thing you set out to make in the first place. That’s the real problem with adaptation, even once you decide you’re all in. It just involves too many people. When he writes a book, he makes sure it’s intact from his original vision of it. He sends it to his editor, and he either makes the changes that are suggested or he doesn’t. The thing that we then see on shelves is exactly the thing he set out to make. That might be the only way to do this. Yes, writing a novel — you alone in a room with your own thoughts — might be the only way to get a maximal kind of satisfaction from your creative efforts. All the other ways can break your heart.
There was also the book of essays that Susan Golomb, his agent, wanted to sell — a collection of the nonfiction he had recently published. It would take considerable time to edit them, and even do some rewriting. He’d been surprised at how some of those essays were received in the world — that his Edith Wharton essay in The New Yorker that mentioned her self-consciousness about her looks could be misconstrued as sexist when she herself was so obsessed with appearances (“His depiction of Edith Wharton was so mean-spirited and off-key that I tossed and turned,” Victoria Patterson wrote in The Los Angeles Review of Books), or that his New Yorker essay on threats to birds more immediate than global change — like the proliferation of glassy buildings that blindside birds in flight — had resulted in the vitriol it did. (“It’s not clear what the Audubon Society did to piss off Jonathan Franzen,” the editor of the Audubon magazine wrote in response to the essay, which itself was a response to the Audubon Society.) Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He had to look at those essays again. A writer doesn’t write to be misunderstood.
And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five. This is a problem, because as much as he (to some controversy) is the symbol (to some controversy) of the White Male Great American Literary Novelist for the 21st Century (to much controversy), he is also someone who has to sell books. And lately, Golomb, a maternal figure whom he privately calls the “tawny lioness of publishing,” had been wringing her hands over the fact that people don’t seem to understand him or his good intentions — that she can’t figure out when exactly they all turned on him. It was the kind of thing that Franzen would like to ignore, but in addition to being a process guy, he is also a team guy. He likes to fulfill his obligations. He likes to go on book tours. He likes to do right by his publisher.
And, well, sales of his novels have decreased since “The Corrections” was published in 2001. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1.6 million copies to date. “Freedom,” which was called a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph of its New York Times review, has sold 1.15 million since it was published in 2010. And 2015’s “Purity,” his novel about a young woman’s search for her father and the story of that father and the people he knew, has sold only 255,476. The Los Angeles Times called it “consuming and extraordinarily moving.”
What had he done that was so wrong? Here he was, in his essays and interviews, making informed, nuanced arguments about the way we live now — about anything from Twitter (which he is against) to the way political correctness has been weaponized to shut down discourse (which he is against) to obligatory self-promotion (which he is against) to the incessant ending of a phone call by saying, “I love you” (which he is against, but because “I love you” is for private) — and though critics loved him and he had a devoted readership, others were using the very mechanisms and platforms that he warned against (like the internet in general and social media in specific) to ridicule him. Hate-pieces, mean hashtags, reductive eye-rolling at his various stances, a nit-picking of every quote. Accusations that he is willing to pontificate but not to listen. Accusations that he’s too fragile to face his accusers! Him! Too fragile!
This is why you shouldn’t explain yourself. There’s no profit in it. With each disembodied quote, with each one-way transmission, he is reduced to a Luddite and a curmudgeon and a hater and a snob and worse.
Which eventually circles back to the first passage I highlighted:
Novels are complex. Novels are absorbing. Novels have an interiority that TV can’t touch. Novels are comfortable with the basic human fact that people don’t really change. And, what’s more, with a novel comes an expenditure of effort. Gratuitous haters don’t want to read a whole book. “Most of the people who have complaints with me aren’t reading me,” he said. A novel, particularly a Jonathan Franzen novel, is too long to read just so you could find ways to hate it. That was right. That was the way to look at this. “A big part of me would be very proud never having anything of mine adapted, because if you want the real experience, there’s only one way to get it. You’re going to actually have to be a reader.”
There’s a lot more to the essay and I won’t excerpt more of it here. But what I’ve highlighted interests me considerably.
Franzen is just a few years older than me and, certainly, more accomplished. Most of us who write publicly have had these sorts of experiences but they’re more amplified for Franzen, given the bigness of his name. And one suspects the personality traits that make him so good as a writer of characters makes him more sensitive than those of us who are primarily analysts.
Certainly, though, I’ve had the experience of getting vilified, mostly by people who don’t read me in context or know anything about me, for things I’ve written that struck me as completely innocuous or even rather progressive. One presumes this is magnified considerably for someone of Franzen’s stature; it’s more fun to bandwagon against a big name.
At least in my case, the Internet is where I’ve built most of whatever name recognition I have. Most of my writing is published online and that track record, plus my blog and other social media connections, led directly to my last three jobs. Franzen, by contrast, wrote his breakthrough novel just before blogs took off in a big way and well before Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest came into being. For him, it’s almost all downside.
While challenging to deal with, it’s of course much easier if you’re an affluent straight white guy. Writers who are women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ experience the vitriol in substantially amplified fashion.
This seems to be especially true in an era where so many people barely read beyond a headline and don’t care to take an argument in context.
I started reading the article but found the archness off putting. I’ve never read anything by Franzen and so don’t know how much the tone resembles him (which I assume was the purpose), but to follow that tone for the whole of a lengthy article just seemed snarky.
There are always people whose most satisfying moment in life is to tell off some perceived wrong-doer in a self righteous moment of glory, and so go looking for ways to be offended. This is neither a left nor a right thing. (Cultural Appropriation. The Ware on Christmas.) And anyone who has ever been involved with the religious recognizes the (literally) holier-than-thou when they get on their high horse. It is not limited to any specific religion, including the almost religion of the atheistic zealot.
I’ve been (am) in a very similar situation, albeit at a lower wattage. I have tendency when dealing with a stupid person to call them stupid, (OTB regulars will be shocked, shocked) and in the mutual stroke-fest that is much of the literary world, calling an idiot an idiot is frowned upon, especially if the idiot in question is a minority. Personally I would think it condescending to treat POC any differently than I treat white people, but the current assumption is that any criticism or defense by a white male is proof of privilege and thus assumed to be unfair if not racist.
My daughter has said two very useful things for me to remember when interacting with the literary world. First, she says that my life is non-generalizable, that I am so much of an outlier in so many directions that I cannot expect to extrapolate from my life to life in general. (High School drop-out, ex-burglars, ex-waiters, ex-janitors who manage to prosper as writers for 30 years are a population of one.) And second, she pointed out that I wrongly assume everyone has at least some of the basic knowledge base to debate abstract issues. Smart kid.
What’s happened is that authors, long-immune to right-wing attacks which they dismiss as bigoted or religious in nature, are now being attacked from behind. Like being a Russian soldier who realizes the NKVD behind him are as much of a problem as the Wehrmacht before him. The lines is not simply left/right but in/out.
People don’t hate Franzen for what he writes, they hate him for what he is: a white male who sells a lot of books and makes a lot of money (similar to my position) and is not reluctant to criticize (ditto) . In the end, as always in American society, it comes down to money and status within the ‘writing community.’ Much of the heat in kidlit at least is about who gets invited to speak at conferences and who does not. Here again, my approach is non-generalizable since I am very happy to give 100% of my speaking opportunities to someone else, and I give zero fcks about the ‘writing community.’
Franzen and his publisher need to accept reality. For the next couple of years at least white writers need to reject invitations. Stop doing interviews, stop making appearances, and just write. This too shall pass. And even though I am one of those adversely affected it’s hard to work up too much sympathy for Franzen or for me.
It’s “cool” to hate Nickelback and Jonathan Franzen.
I would think this, too, is accurate:
Probably not. They heard, or read, somewhere that the cool kids don’t like Jonathan Franzen and they want to be cool too.
@Michael Reynolds: I don’t think it’s the white male aspect so much as that he’s an intelligent person who refuses to dumb things down to sound bites and insists that his readers THINK. There are probably people who rail at him because he represents the White Evil Oppressor, but if Franzen happened to be female or non-white, he’d be getting squawked at by a whole other clump of idiots.
(James–Thanks for introducing me to another writer who sounds very interesting. I think I’ll get Franzen’s collection of essays.)
Also, at the risk of “villifying” you, I have to ask: How many affluent straight white people have to commit suicide or die from drug overdoses before we stop telling ourselves this particular lie?
@James Pearce: I’m talking about a specific phenomenon: people being ganged up on via social media, particularly Twitter. It’s just insane what happens to women, Jews, and open LGBTQ folks in particular.
Social media is awful for nearly everyone.
Franzen is an idiot, and his publishers are worse. He is the quintessential example of a mediocre white man far beyond his capabilities.
I’ve read some of his novels. They’ve put me off reading novels forever. He can’t write women. He has no concept of anyone outside his own head.
It’s not that he’s complicated. He’s not. His novels deal with stereotyped people in stereotyped situations.
I hope he takes the advice above to just disappear for a few years. Nobody will know him after that, and his disappearance will continue.
I’ve never read any Franzen, but he is on The List, a text file I maintain of things I need to get to. A few months ago it got oppressively large so I deleted it and started a fresh one. Currently it just says:
I only read like 1-2 fiction books a year and I thought I’d take a shot at one of his.
BTW if you need nonfiction book recommendations, check out Bill Gates’s site. Good stuff there.
@teve tory: Go with Bad Blood. Truly amazing, especially when it comes to all the Great Republican Sages who fell for this conwoman despite being given evidence time and again simply because she was a good salesperson. George Schultz. Kissinger, Mad Dog Mattis — all rolled for millions.
I find this to be….implausible. A single novelist put you off reading novels forever?
There are a lot of dudes who “can’t write women,” and some who shouldn’t even try and yet, they are all still expected to write for women and pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
Can these dudes write for men or even boys? Nope. It’s “disappear for a few years” and come back when you’re all fixed and conforming.
I found Corrections good, not great. Freedom was extremely moving, and I was deeply touched by it. Purity is good, but a bit of a letdown. These are the personal views of a guy who reads a lot, thinks novels are important, and knows that he doesn’t understand the entire world.
I realize, James, that your point is to use Franzen to talk about the dark side of the internet, and I confess I read this to find out who the heck is Jonathan Franzen. In the OP and 13 comments, only Cheryl Rofer and Slugger appear to have actually read him, and only Slugger likes him. Facebook attacks aside, this might explain his flagging sales. Having been impressed by Cherly Rofer’s well thought out posts on nuclear security at Balloon Juice, I believe I’ll go with her and avoid Franzen in future.
Do you, bud.
But stuff like “a mediocre white man far beyond his capabilities” and “can’t write women” don’t strike me as very sophisticated, or useful, criticisms, or that related to the work at all.
Can a “mediocre white man far beyond his capabilities” still write a good book? Of course he can. Complete shitheads, of both sexes, have written great books.
This is a good piece on the Franzen-Winfrey flap.:
I’ve known two writers who were Oprah’s guests, and it elevated them to a peak of fame and money they’d never dreamed was attainable. Franzen thought that by appearing on Winfrey’s show, he’d be granting her his imprimatur as a literary artist, and he didn’t want to do so. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was not pleased.