U.S. Intellectual History Blog

I don’t know, maybe it’s the glasses.

I have a confession to make. I love Jonathan Franzen.

US writer Jonathan Franzen smiles during a press conference at the International Book Fair of Guadalajara, Mexico, on November 24, 2012, in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. AFP PHOTO/Hector Guerrero        (Photo credit should read HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)

According to Christian Lorentzen, the question of love is what Franzen has been asking me, and wants me to answer. And I’m happy to answer it, even if, as suggested by framing it as a “confession,” I’m aware that I’m setting myself up to probably fall in line with a million clichés about Stuff in Our High-Brow Hipster Culture That People Don’t Like. And I don’t blame them for not liking them. I dislike a lot of them as well. But I also can’t help that the fact remains: I love Jonathan Franzen.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I am going to tell my story, as succinctly as possible and without unnecessary details, as to why I love Jonathan Franzen. I suspect that this story could raise a million speculations about many things in many directions – some small and idiosyncratic and some important and broad – but I’m not going to do that. I’ll let readers draw whatever connections or have any reflections they want to, or not. Because I don’t really think I’m fit to do that. Yet, as apparently our “top American novelist” is also someone whom it has become increasingly popular to despise, I feel like just the story itself, somehow, is relevant for this blog. Not because I am special, but rather because I suspect I am typical. So consider it a primary document for a future reception history.

Alright. So I first became aware of Jonathan Franzen when I was a dating a deeply kind, but also deeply sad person. He liked to read novels, something I didn’t, and still don’t, do very often. He knew about Franzen and David Foster Wallace. So one weekend, while I was away by myself trying to remember what that felt like, I read all of Freedom in two days in a coffee shop and in my hotel room. In Santa Cruz, of all places.

The book was full of flawed, sad people who, for the most part, deserved love anyway. At that point in my life, I was still recovering from being, to put it bluntly, a moralistic, judgmental person who had based her hopes and idealism on a notion of human nature that is cruel in its inability to accept people for who they are. But my relationship with my boyfriend had helped me make it to the other side of that, to a place where I could connect my idealism and my passions to the realization that a solid, worthy world of humanity existed outside of myself and my own obsessions. Freedom, to me, was a small little case study in how to do that. According to Lorentzen, Franzen operates as our leading moralist, and he’s not entirely wrong; but in my case, Franzen helped me get over moralism. In other words, he helped me grow up.

Fast-forward almost a year later. I am in line at UC Davis to have Franzen sign his latest essay in the New York Times, titled “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” My boyfriend and I had broken up 7 months earlier, and Franzen’s essay had done the impossible and captured for me, in words that were not my own, almost everything of value I had learned from that relationship. At the time, I was still in occasional contact with him, so I had printed him a copy as well. When I reached the front of the line, the first thing Franzen did was cross out the title. It wasn’t the one he chose, he said. The Times had changed it. (I wish I could remember what he replaced it with, but in one of those awkward moments of honest story telling, I don’t.) I asked him to address one of them to my ex-boyfriend. (I said his name instead, of course, but obviously am not going to do that here.)

His brows wrinkled and he looked up at me. “I’m not getting involved in some kind of thing, am I?” I smiled broadly and replied cheerfully, “Of course you are!” And then he laughed, and went ahead and signed the copies of his article. I thanked him and headed towards the door, where my future husband, who I had just started dating, was waiting for me. I turned around to say goodbye to the evening and he was still looking at me, slightly smiling.

Let me back up just a bit. I know this sounds like a pathetic tale of an infatuated reader getting her brief fix of flattery that she would be charming and witty enough to be smiled upon by a Great American Novelist. And I would be arrogant indeed to claim that there was none of that. But that was not what gave the moment meaning for me. A few minutes before in line, another friend of mine was telling me how much he had enjoyed the talk Franzen gave. He hadn’t read any of his novels, and had known nothing about him before that night. I told him I had read Freedom, so he asked me, “Really? So what was that like?” I gave it a second’s thought. “It was like finding a new friend,” I replied.

So, when Franzen laughed at my amusement that he could hope to write an essay about love and empathy and not get involved in “some kind of thing,” and when we seemed to get along well enough in such a short span of time, what I felt was not so much fascination or the thrill of celebrity attention, but a simple and calm confirmation: Yes, we’re friends. You would be my friend. I wasn’t totally delusional those nights in Santa Cruz. You were my friend during those difficult times.

Since then, I have learned that Jonathan Franzen is a sexist who can’t “write women” save his life, is deeply elitist and self-indulgent, blindingly white in his perspective, and a moralistic reactionary who hates technology for no good reason other than it threatens his self-importance. In short, as Lorentzen put it, he’s a prick. And some of the above are undoubtedly true, and all are at least partially so. I don’t love Jonathan Franzen because I admire him, or because I think his novels are the most brilliant of this generation of literature (I’ve hardly read enough to even to begin to form an opinion), and I’m sure there are ugly sides to the politics of his writing. I love Jonathan Franzen because in a very difficult time for me, he spoke for me, and to me. He articulated what I was learning, and had learned, from one of the most difficult times in my life. And, in a weird twist, this reader felt like the author had listened to her. Just like a good friend would have.

So, make of that what you will. The relevant sociological information, as far as reception history might go, is that I am a 32 year old white female from an upper middle-class background, have enjoyed a host of privileges I never earned, have a PhD in American history, am an atheist, a feminist, and a leftist who loves dogs (but not birds, which bore me), baseball, and Monty Python. And somehow, someway, I’ve come to have a somewhat silly notion that Jonathan Franzen is my friend. Whatcha gunna do; purity isn’t possible for everyone.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this, Robin. As you already know, there are a number of what I’ll call “canon issues” surrounding and underlying this post. The designation of a “great book” involves reader ability, insight, and circumstance as much as any objective or formal criteria in relation to the writer. And of course the “popularity” of book is a mix of that relationship and circumstance. What do we want from the text in front of us?

    Sometimes a book supplies things the writer never intended. How does a text “speak” to one’s inmost needs? And it’s amazing how much an author’s attitude or circumstances of production have little to do with the popularity or greatness of the text she/he produces.

    Finally, as a reader, I’m willing to acknowledge the “greatness” of a text I may never read, or that just never engages me. I’m willing to concede that my personal preferences and attitude, at any one time, affect my judgment. As your post makes explicit, these things are connected to time, place, and circumstance. – TL

    • Thanks for those larger points, Tim! I was reminded of one of the many things my high school English teacher said that always stuck with me; she was talking about interpretation and intent, and argued that an author cannot expect to control the reception of their work — “once you put it out into the world, it is no longer only yours, anymore,” she said. That has always stayed with me, and quite frankly, influence my approach to historical texts as well; I care much much less about what an author intended to do with a text, and much much more about what it actually ended up doing.

  2. Robin,
    I really enjoyed this post–I, too, am a fan of Franzen, warts and all. I honestly don’t know why his work incites such controversy–maybe because he is a white male who openly wants to be a Great American Novelist? I’m not sure why it’s so unfashionable to be ambitious these days, and overall Franzen has had a pretty good run without too many egregious errors. I suppose his main error is simply _being_ white and male in an era that is justifiably fatigued with such an obvious p.o.v. But a man has to live somehow.

    I, too, read Franzen at a crucial moment in my life–it was _the Corrections_, sitting on the porch of the family beach house rental without my wife for the first time since we got married. If you know that book, the ironies will not be lost on you.

    In any case, very grateful for this reflection. I don’t know quite what to make of the fact that you’re willing to ignore the “ugly sides to the politics of his writing” other than to say that I am also willing to let it go, for the most part, without really quite understanding why. Do we give novelists a pass on their politics that we would never give historians? And if so, why? Because these books can reach us in a more personal way–in those hotel rooms in Santa Cruz–in a way that historical writing usually doesn’t? (I’d love to see a series of posts to counter this thesis–“where and when I first read book x by historian y”). Because we turn to novels for existential edification rather than responsible narration of a shared history, as if the only history that matters in _Freedom_ is the one that ends with us?

    • Those are good questions, Patrick. When I ask myself why I “give the pass,” so to speak, I guess it has to do with the difference between making a positive argument for something or just being yourself. At the same talk I mentioned in this post, someone basically asked Franzen in the Q&A, hey, what’s up with all the white people? Why no black people, for example? Franzen gave what I thought was a pretty honest answer — he said that while he had had black friends, he had never been close enough to a black person to feel comfortable with writing a character from that vantage point; he said, “I’ve never loved a black person,” so, black people don’t appear in his fictional imagination so much.

      Now we can draw a lot of fair but harsh conclusions based on that, but as far as I can tell they would apply to a ton of white people (most, actually) in America, not just Franzen in particular. And at the least, he was being honest (he was not at all defense about the question) and, considering how critics assess his ability to write female characters, who knows what they might say about what would be an arguably tortured attempt to write something from a POV he has little to no experience with. In any case, he wasn’t saying it was “politically correct” to include non-white characters, or that the question was stupid, or anything; he said he didn’t feel competent to do it. I think that’s about as good an answer as he could have given.

  3. Patrick, the series of posts you’re looking for is running at this blog: Classic Book Reviews.

    Can’t speak to the caliber of Franzen’s work, as I haven’t read it. This isn’t a boycott. This is 1) I never heard of him until two or three years ago, and 2) I have read precious little in the past 2-3 years that wasn’t directly connected to my coursework/research. We did discuss Franzen’s aversion to the Oprah Book Club in one of my courses, his idea that the imprimatur of Oprah and her unsophisticated followers would make his Great American Novel less great.

    My guess would be that a lot of people find this objectionable — maybe that sort of contempt for readers (or for certain kinds of readers?) comes through in his work somewhere? Somebody who has read him can best answer that. It will be a long while before I get around to being able to answer it myself — too many other things ahead of Franzen on my must-read list.

    • Doesn’t one write the great American novel for Americans? And not for critics or the literary establishment? I am reasonably certain he didn’t turn down the money that resulted from those book club sales.

      Anyway I would argue that the novelistic form hasn’t meant much since the early 1960s. The early new journalism of capote, wolfe, mailer, talese, etc., was a brief glimmer but more kinetic and fluid forms received the attention once these eve for the novel.

      The great American novel has yet to be written and may never be.

    • Hi LD —

      As far as the “Oprah incident” goes, I think it’s a smidget more understandable than pure contempt, although I’m not at all excluding the possibility of that. I read an essay Franzen wrote about this, and the main impression I got was that he was being asked to perform a certain image of himself, and that ended up making him too uncomfortable. Originally he had agreed to do the Oprah Book Club, but this involved meeting up with the production staff to do a “montage of the man” kind of thing for the episode. They had him go to places he grew up and were asking him to walk here, walk there, stand thoughtfully over by this tree, etc. This weirded him out, according to my memory of the essay. Both Franzen and Wallace have/had complicated relationships with their desire for recognition in a culture they are not very comfortable with. As for not being comfortable with the culture, is some of that snobbery and contempt? Absolutely. But as someone who can hardly get through a commercial break without feeling despairing about this fucked up world we live in based on lies and exploitation (I mean, commercials just kill me, man) I sympathize with that. Likely I have some snobbery to deal with too, but the funny thing about Franzen is that he’s basically complaining about stuff that everyone complains about; celebrity culture, short attention spans, junk TV, etc. Yet when he does it, he’s so good at articulating this horror that it comes across as more contempt than despair. Anyone, I’m blabbering. My point is not to deny that contempt is there, but that that contempt is also wrapped up in stuff most of us are most likely sympathetic with to at least some degree.

  4. Robin,

    I’ve had an experience similar to yours, but with other books. By the time I got to Franzen, my feelings were colored by those experiences, and my feelings about The Corrections, which I read when it came out, have changed over time. I like Lorentzen in part because his reactions to Franzen’s writing are similar to mine, but other reactions are perfectly valid, I think. When a writer has been very upfront about his contempt for (parts of) his audience, I think it’s still up to readers to decide how they feel about it. I go back and forth myself. There’s a limit to how much a person can comfortably admit liking an author who’s said horrible things about readers like her, I think.

    To LD’s point, something that does make me uncomfortable is when the contempt really doesn’t come through in the author’s “primary” writing, but public statements make it clear that the contempt was there. In today’s world, somehow, the writer stays on the scene long after publication, in a way that once was unthinkable,

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