For nearly thirty years, Jonathan Franzen has been telling the same story: not—or not only—the multigenerational Midwestern saga with its rigid or rudderless parents, its children messily fledging, but another story, about fiction.
In 1996, speaking on a televised roundtable about the “Future of American Fiction,” Franzen sketched a culture in which “people who read books, who seriously read books, who read a lot of books, nowadays, are just like a priori not of the mainstream,” such that novelists address “a weird audience who is defined in large part by their nonparticipation in mass entertainments of that kind.” This stands in contrast to “a golden hundred years before TV and movies had fully taken over,” during which “the novel was the only game.” “So, what,” cuts in David Foster Wallace, Franzen’s poptimistic copanelist on the segment, “the only people who read, like, serious fiction are people who don’t watch TV?”
Construing the readership for fiction as a counterculturally backwardlooking bunch who yearn for antan with its deeper, downier nieges, Franzen commits in turn “to just basically keep on doing the same old kind of book, making little subtle nods to the fact that it’s now 1996 and not 1896.”
As he wrote that year in Harper’s, The Twenty-Seventh City’s limelit media junket, modest compared with those that were to follow, had taught Franzen that “the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t fringe benefits” but “the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to a culture.” Strong Motion cemented his certainty that “there was no place in the world for fiction writers.”1
There were, though: places, plural. With the appearance of The Corrections, there was space for Franzen on the chaises of Oprah Winfrey and Terry Gross, in the columns of Michiko Kakutani’s Times copy, on best-of-the-aughts lists and in the dissertations of freshly minted PhDs. Bookstores made room, provided lecterns to prop up the tome and microphones to project Franzen’s sonorous, pause-laden speech; rows of chairs from which audience Qs would issue, to which authorial As would be addressed; square footage through which signing lines could snake. There were spots on the calendars, and in the armchairs, of readers who paged solo and book groups that congregated to discuss. Library shelves opened a gap in PS3556 and 813 to house the plastic-slickered hardbacks. The Pulitzer shortlist, the National Book Award’s dais— these, too, welcomed him.
Asked by the author Donald Antrim, in 2001, what “large preoccupations” might arc across his career, Franzen named “the sense of being a threatened writer with a threatened sense of importance, and therefore a threatened sense of personhood.” “From my perspective,” he expands, “I feel like I’m part of an embattled, retreating cultural minority,” one “that cares about books and about the values that have been traditionally associated with literature.”
To coincide with Freedom’s 2010 release, Franzen stared dolefully out from Time’s August 23 issue. “The magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce,” whose shift over his lifetime’s course from featuring Baldwin and Cheever to Turow and King had signaled, in Harper’s, the novel’s decline, now showed Franzen. “Great American Novelist,” the cover’s header pronounced.2
The same week, while vacationing with his family on Martha’s Vineyard, Barack Obama procured an advance reader’s copy of Freedom from Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, along with copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and Steinbeck’s The Red Pony; the shopping trip itself reached national news outlets. In October, the president—who, in an interview with the novelist Marilynne Robinson, would later reflect that “when I think about how I understand my role as citizen . . . the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels”—hosted Franzen at the White House.6
Upon Purity’s publication in 2015, Franzen told the Financial Times that “I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center,” but “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.” “I’m a poor person who has money,” he dared add.
“How did a person so extremely fortunate,” muses Franzen, “become the Great Hater?” It’s his central query for Karl Kraus, the fin-de-siècle Viennese satirist, and a fair question for this bilious U.S. novelist of a latter sièecle’s fin. “I was a white male heterosexual American with good friends and perfect health,” he tallies, “and yet, for all my privileges, I became an extremely angry person.”3
So, not yet; because, not despite. “I wonder if he was so angry,” Franzen hazards, of Kraus, “because he was so privileged.” The essayist’s “anger,” in Franzen’s diagnosis, “relieved some of the discomfort of his own privilege, by reassuring him that he was also a victim,” satisfying his yearning, “like any artist . . . to be an individual” via “a violent shrugging-off of categories that threatened his individual integrity,” of which “his privilege” was “just one.”4
“One day the victim of the market,” he extrapolates, “turns out not to be a trivial thing, like a rotary phone or a vinyl disc, but a thing of life-and-death importance to me, like the literary novel.” To the Mercer Museum’s display of obsolescent devices, imagination affixes a case for fiction, now just another “of the tools that American industrialization was rendering useless,” defunct triple-deckers stacked like slabs atop eight-track tapes, Franzen’s treasured “copies of Singer and Gaddis and O’Connor” utterly discarded, “as on the ash-heap of history.”5
Throughout Franzen’s life in public, he has figured himself as embattled, enemy-beset.
Not that a person who spends four years and forty thousand words accounting for his relationship with Jonathan Franzen’s fiction should, necessarily, offer any opinion on the codependent pains Franzen takes to accommodate his rotary phone.
Throughout Franzen’s life in public, he has figured himself as embattled, enemy-beset. The metaphors he uses are powerful; most conversations about him enter their universe—accept, even in disagreement, their terms. The oppositional framing of Franzen’s career—the opinions Franzen holds, his means of expressing them, the positions they invite others to take with respect to his work and persona—flatten nuance, entrench stances, limit exchange. They “leave little room for ambiguity or contradiction” and, over time, stand to “incrementally entomb” many conversations about Franzen and—perhaps most of all—the author himself.
According to a long and very unflattering story he’d assembled from the author’s nonfiction dossier, Franzen had made quite a mess of his professional life as an essayist. His reader had some difficulty reconciling this Franzen—arrogant, high-handed, ethically compromised—with the measured, ambivalent novelist he remembered describing the Lamberts and Berglunds so sympathetically. It seemed strange that Franzen, who reviled the internet and whose preference was for third-person prose, should be in trouble now for click-baiting readers and interring himself in an inflexible “I.” Then again, there had always been something not quite right about Jonathan Franzen.6
“Radio: now that’s a medium I can get behind,” rhapsodizes Frank Navasky, a columnist in Nora Ephron’s film You’ve Got Mail, who dreams of writing about “something really relevant for today, like the Luddite movement in nineteenth-century England.” Forgetting his name, one character calls to mind “that nut from the Observer, the one who’s so in love with his typewriter,” a contraption called the Olympia Report Deluxe Electric—that’s “‘report,’ as in gunshot,” he gushes. The precision of the script’s satire lances Navasky’s provocative, metaphor-replete defense of the indie bookstore at the film’s center: “If this precious resource is killed by the cold cash cow of Foxbooks,” he bloviates, its closure will portend “the end of Western civilization as we know it”—as will computerized solitaire, according to his lines in the film’s opening scene.7
In The Friend, Sigrid Nunez’s narrator rehearses the “various gripes” of the novel’s unnamed addressee, a writer who has killed himself, leaving his Great Dane in her care: while living, he’d lamented “how books were dying, literature was dying,” how “no novel, no matter how brilliantly written or full of ideas, was going to have any meaningful effect on society, when it was impossible to imagine anything like” the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 meeting with Harriet Beecher Stowe.8 “Haven’t you wondered,” mansplains a louche party guest in Natasha Lyonne’s series Russian Doll, “why visual art no longer carries the weight it did thirty years ago?” “I’ve literally never wondered that,” his addressee responds.9 If Franzen’s self-conception resembles, in Frank Navasky’s words, “a lone reed, standing tall, waving boldly in the corrupt sands of commerce,” each of these texts has its own method of sidestepping the pompousness and polarity of that persona.10
Franzen Makes Nice
In adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy—both a praxis-oriented toolkit inspired by and a philosophical inquiry into the Earthseed principles of Octavia Butler’s Parable novels—the author notes that “the natural world actually supports any worldview—competitive, powerless, isolationist, violent.” “Humans so far,” she observes, “have generally deified and aligned with the ‘king’ of the jungle or forest—lions, tigers, bears,” which, “for all their isolated ferocity and alpha power, are going extinct.” In place of these reflexive assumptions, brown advocates for conscious, reflective realignment with and revaluing of “the adaptation of small, collaborative species,” among them “roaches and ants and deer and fungi and bacteria and viruses and bamboo and eucalyptus and squirrels and vultures and mice and mosquitoes and dandelions and so many other more collaborative life forms” that, as these hierarchy-topping predators perish, “continue to proliferate, survive, grow.”11
Given the cultural purchase of his doomsday prophesies for fiction, it’s easy to forget the dissatisfaction Franzen has expressed with common metaphors for fiction writing, especially those that mythologize the novelist as a solitary, detached genius. “My small hope for literary criticism,” he wrote in 2002, “would be to hear less about orchestras and subversion and more about the erotic and culinary arts.” He enjoins fellow critics to “think of the novel as lover”—one concerned with readerly pleasure, aware that “before a book can change you, you have to love it”—or to picture “the novelist as a cook who prepares, as a gift to the reader, this many-course meal.”12 These acts of generosity and care portray the relationship between author and reader in starkly different terms than the novel’s with other storytelling forms, occupy other imaginative worlds altogether than the hellscapes where novel writing faces annihilation.
In “a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative,” the former “routinely valorized, not to mention masculinized,” the latter often “unrecognized, because it has no part in ‘progress,’ ” Jenny Odell sees maintenance arts as one potential “antidote to the rhetoric of growth.”13 In some modes, at some moments, Franzen sounds this note: the essayist who submits for fiction the working definition of “the transmutation of experiential dross into linguistic gold,” alchemically “taking up whatever the world had abandoned by the road and making something beautiful out of it.” Viewed this way, his “triumphant return home with scavenged loot—snow shovels, the business end of a broken rake, floor lamps, still-viable poinsettias, aluminum cookware—was as much a part of writing fiction as the typing up of final drafts,” “an old phone . . . as much a character in a narrative as an appliance in a home.”14
“Use and abandonment,” he writes, in a sentence from the essay “Scavenging” that could have been pulled from How to Do Nothing, “are the aquifer through which consumer objects percolate, shedding the taint of mass production and emerging as historied individuals.” In obsolescence, “the leading product of our national infatuation with technology,” the author has come to see “not a darkness but a beauty: not perdition but salvation.” For this writer, his determination to “just keep doing the same old kind of book” expresses not—or not only— aesthetic conservatism but care for, conservation of, what is, whether a beloved literary form or a discarded but refurbishable article of furniture. “My rotary was losing its ability to cope with the modern world,” as he puts it, poignantly, “but I continued to cover for it and to keep it on display downstairs, because I loved it and was afraid of change.”15
Excerpted from Freedom Reread by L. Gibson. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
- Jonathan Franzen, How to Be Alone (New York: Picador, 2002), 61, 63. ↩
- Franzen, How to Be Alone, 61. ↩
- Jonathan Franzen, The Kraus Project (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 110, 112. ↩
- Franzen, The Kraus Project, 110, 111. ↩
- Franzen, How to Be Alone, 195, 199. ↩
- Freedom, 3 ↩
- You’ve Got Mail, dir. Nora Ephron (1998). ↩
- Sigrid Nunez, The Friend (New York: Riverhead, 2018), 115. ↩
- Russian Doll, season 1, episode 5, “Superiority Complex,” created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, aired February 1, 2019, Netflix. ↩
- You’ve Got Mail. ↩
- adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy (Oakland, CA: AK, 2017), 4. ↩
- Franzen, How to Be Alone, 261. ↩
- Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2019), 25, 26, 25. ↩
- Franzen, How to Be Alone, 198. ↩
- Franzen, How to Be Alone, 205, 204, 196. ↩