Friday, Susan Lerner posted a link to her interview with the incredibly polarizing author Jonathan Franzen in the literary magazine, Booth. His comments immediately and unsurprisingly sent the Twitterverse* into a not-so polarizing backlash as Franzen, once again, seemed to firmly claim his place as the writer everyone loves to hate.
If you have no idea who Jonathan Franzen is — he is, as mentioned, an author, most known for 2001’s The Corrections, selected to Oprah’s Book Club right on publication. Franzen was ambivalent about the choice, didn’t appear on her show, and said some decidedly awkward things about the situation to the press.** Since then, he’s retained his reputation as both a writer of serious books and collector of serious dislikes.***
I jumped into the complicated world of Jonathan Franzen with his 2002 essay collection How To Be Alone, followed by The Corrections on recommendation, The Twenty-Seventh City on loan from the public library, and most recently, the behemoth Freedom. I’ve even read his memoir(ish) The Discomfort Zone and a second book of essays Farther Away — both of these patiently, grudgingly, determinedly as they were heavy on the subject of bird-watching. I do this because at this point, with one exception, I’ve read ’em all: I’m a book-carrying, legitimate Franzen fan.
The Booth interview didn’t reveal anything Franzen hasn’t basically said in the past and if I’m honest, I’ve filed these types of comments and opinions away into a things-I’d-like-to-forget folder in my mind. You know those, right? The pesky thing about that is the suckers don’t stay there, and it can make for a complex relationship between the author, the narrative, and the reader. As a reader, I really dig eccentric, layered stories from eccentric, layered writers. So why is the Lerner/ Franzen exchange so frustrating?
Here are a few of his comments:
On YA (Young Adult lit):
Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day.
The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes. That’s exactly what you want if you’re having a hard life. Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?
On social interaction:
It takes a while for artistic media to mature—I take that point—but I don’t know anyone who thinks that social media is an artistic medium. It’s more like another phone, home movies, email, whatever. It’s like a better version of the way people socially interacted in the past, a more technologically advanced version. But if you use your Facebook page to publish chapters of a novel, what you get is a novel, not Facebook. It’s a struggle to imagine what value is added by the technology itself.
Probably the most surreal moment – in terms of its pure, unabashed vitriol – was the veritable attack on writer Jennifer Weiner, a subject on which he has opined for years:
JF: She is asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits. To me it seems she’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically. And that seems like a dubious project that is ideally suited to social media, where you don’t actually have to argue, you just tweet. Where is her long essay about this, where she really makes a case? She has no case. So she tweets. [. . .]
SL: Have you read any of her books?
These are not the most offensive comments I’ve ever read, but they are elitist, sexist and, since they’re not necessarily new, a little trite and boring. The comments show Franzen for who he is: a 55-year-old man confused by the seeming explosion of interest in the YA genre, skeptical of the influence of digital technology, and dismissive of sexism since, you know, Alice Munro. It reads a little like my Dad trying to explain what bae means.
The interview makes me roll my eyes. I don’t want to read books by assholes. Or listen to them. And I don’t want to recommend them either. Yet, even as I type this, my plans to devour his forthcoming novel Purity haven’t changed. If this is the beginning of what is likely to be a full-scale marketing blitz in promotion of the book (there’s even going to be a biography!), it’s a tired effort, though by even posting about this interview, I realize I’m now doing the work of injecting his name back into a conversation from which he’d basically faded.
Ultimately, I want to say this: Jonathan Franzen, stop being a jerk. I want to believe you are better than this. Your perspective is not better or more significant because of who you are or what you’ve achieved. I resent that you perpetuate sexism by constantly latching onto Jennifer Weiner as an icon of less important writing, so stop it. You’re a smart guy, we all get it, but your attitude and these ideas are truly beneath you.
* I think this is the first time I’ve ever used the word Twitterverse. I don’t hate it but I can’t type it and not feel firmly on the blue edge of millennial-hood.
*** Not an exhaustive list but a few outlets have chronicled Franzen’s dislikes: Vulture in 2013, The Daily Beast in 2012, Flavorwire in 2013, etc. Sidenote: There is something incredibly appealing about media outlets publishing lists of dislikes, and on this subject I am genuinely curious if Franzen is delighted or annoyed.