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