Jonathan Franzen of America

Jonathan Franzen’s much-awaited novel Freedom hits bookstores tomorrow morning.

I’m about to start reading this book, and will be reviewing it for another publication. I’ve also been enjoying (for whatever humor value it can provide) a nascent Franzen backlash including a gender-minded protest by Jennifer Weiner and a Twitter parody that pokes fun at the author’s perceived arrogance.

Well, it’s hard not to be arrogant when you get fawned over by the likes of Lev Grossman of Time or Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Book Review, who says:

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction.


I appreciated The Corrections, mostly for its moving portrait of a patriarch brought down by senility, but I wouldn’t quite call the book a masterpiece. It just didn’t bowl me over, though Oprah Winfrey liked it more. At his best, I think of Jonathan Franzen as a sharp writer of psychological family dramas, in the proud tradition of John Updike and John O’Hara. He’s not quite as glorious as Updike, not quite as wicked as O’Hara, but bold and dishy in a way that recalls both. I read an excerpt from Freedom recently published in The New Yorker, disguised as a short story and titled Good Neighbors. I loved it, was immediately intrigued by the characters and the setup, am very eager to read more. It’s fun, incisive, compelling. That doesn’t mean the novel is going to change my life, or cure America of its moral ills.

A Chicago Sun-Times Review by Mark Athitakis calls the author out on this very point — the perceived attitude of moral arrogance that seems to accompany his every appearance:

… there’s no denying that as a writer Franzen cultivates a slyly superior tone. He assumes the persona of somebody who hardly knows you but still wants to get a little too close into your personal space, asking, “You know what your damn problem is?”

Meanwhile, we all know what the literary fiction industry’s damn problem is. There aren’t many wildly successful novelists in this space, and for that reason we can be glad that Freedom is making big waves in 2010. A masterpiece? Let’s give it ten years, and see if anyone’s still talking about Freedom in 2020.

5 Responses

  1. Right on Levi, way too much
    Right on Levi, way too much press for a topic that’s not so incredibly important. Important, sure, but not cover of Time/two NYTimes reviews in a week/jealous women writers important. in 2020 I don’t think we’ll be talking about this book at all. At least I won’t be, maybe industry-wise publishers will be pointing to the wonderful press it received before its release which lead to people becoming angry that they couldn’t get it early like the president did. You know, in terms of sales and marketing, but not moral or social importance.
    Eamon

  2. I’m glad to see that a
    I’m glad to see that a contemporary fiction writer who does compelling characterizations
    is getting credit in mainstream American culture.

  3. Good grief! I have a copy of
    Good grief! I have a copy of The Corrections in my bookcase that I’ve never read. I feel terrible about it now. I better read it I guess. But I hate family dramas. It’ll be a struggle.

  4. Alessandro — if you hate
    Alessandro — if you hate family dramas, Franzen is not the writer for you.

  5. The excerpt I read in the NY
    The excerpt I read in the NY Times was loathsome, to me. It read like some sort of high-minded NPR story on a bad day, or maybe something Garrison Keillor would read aloud on his show with his ironic tone on high. But that’s just me, apparently.

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