When Jonathan Franzen came to town

I wanted to be the perfect host for the Great American Novelist. Instead I saw how strange literary celebrity is

Published June 22, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen

For the dinner in honor of the Great American Novelist the guest list is made up months in advance. Nobody asks whether the visiting writer wants a dinner. Nobody considers the possibility that giving a lecture on a full stomach and after a glass or two of wine might be difficult. The dinner is not about what the writer wants; it's about what we want. And we want to meet the writer. Are we highbrow sycophants competing for the chance to say forever after that we had dinner with the Great American Novelist? Or are we faithful readers grateful to hear more from a writer we admire? When Jonathan Franzen came to Kenyon College, I was hoping we'd be the latter.

The denizens of a small liberal arts college have a twitchy, uneasy relationship to fame. Those who once hoped to be literary stars themselves will often take a defiantly unimpressed stance. Having somehow been tapped to be Jonathan Franzen's host, I bent over backward to invite a certain English professor to the dinner, seating him next to the guest of honor, only to learn later that he was "not a fan." Bringing in a writer you admire is very much like bringing a new boyfriend home to meet the family. While you hope that they like him, and vice versa, you are resigned to being embarrassed.

In the weeks before Franzen's visit, a sort of magical thinking took hold of the campus. A student told me with a "phew" that he'd just finished "The Corrections," as if Franzen would somehow know who had and hadn't read his books, indeed who had finished the books. I read "Freedom" over Christmas break, allowing enough time to finish the lengthy book but without reading it so far in advance of Franzen's visit that I would forget things, the way I'd largely forgotten what happened in "The Corrections," a book I'd loved years before. His are not disposable novels but all writers might be humbled to learn that however much a reader enjoys a novel, she soon forgets the characters' names as if they were people she'd gone to middle school with. At the last minute, I ordered his memoir "The Discomfort Zone" and his translation of "Spring Awakening," as if the act of ordering them offered a kind of partial credit.

I agonized over the writing of Franzen's introduction, even though the times I'd been a visiting writer I never paid much attention to whoever introduced me. Wanting to introduce myself to Franzen before his visit, I was told to correspond through his agent. This was alienating but understandable, and I wrote to Franzen with an East Berliner's awareness that a third person would be reading our correspondence. I labored mightily to appear neither stalker-esque nor obsequious, but he never wrote back, no doubt because he was busy doing his own writing rather than focusing on another writer's oeuvre.

The night of Franzen's talk, looking out the window at my car in the driveway, I suddenly noticed its distressed, muddy state and had a sudden urge to wash it. It would have taken 30 minutes to run to town for a car wash; Jonathan Franzen would likely be in my car for a minute and half. Still, I tried to reach my husband, who was planning to run to the hardware store, to see if he'd take my car in. Fortunately, he didn't answer his cell and I tried to quickly forget this embarrassing evidence that I was not immune to the dizzying power of celebrity.

As it turned out, Franzen didn't have the chance to be appalled by my car. It was a nice night and Franzen and I walked from the college inn to the dinner at the Parish House. Franzen's ability to attract controversy was belied by his Clark Kent demeanor. He presented as a rumpled, mild-mannered reporter who only occasionally revealed hints of his superpowers. Adjusting to his thoughtful, deliberate processing time, and feeling outclassed intellectually, I stripped myself of my default comic rhythms and became suddenly earnest, discussing Thomas Mann and the best translations of Rilke.

I told him that, according to Wikipedia, we were born in the same month of the same year -- indeed our fathers had been born in the same year. Perhaps this search for common ground informs every first meeting, but I noticed that other people that night reached across the canyon of celebrity in a similar way. A student named Caleb briefly bonded with Franzen during the book signing over the fact that he shared a name with a character from "The Corrections." (Admiring the student's signed copy afterward, with its gloriously rococo version of Franzen's initials, I wondered if Franzen had practiced the signature as an aspiring novelist.)

I introduced Franzen around during drinks, emphatically calling him Jonathan before catching on to the fact that he went by "Jon." He displayed a brief moment of self-deprecating panic when I suggested he meet the film and drama faculty. He joked about how square he must look in his Oxford shirt next to the young acting teacher's stylish jacket. The group asked whether he truly put Krazy Glue into his Internet port to prevent himself from looking at email while he was writing. When I confessed to being weak when it came to the temptations of email, Franzen earnestly told me there was no shame in avoiding the source of addiction. I resolved to look into the Internet-blocking software a friend had recommended, called, appropriately enough, Freedom.

For all my agonizing over the guest list and the final seating arrangement, once we sat down to dinner it soon became apparent that the acoustics of the Parish House were so dreadful that you could only hear the person sitting immediately to your right or left, and even then, just barely. Because of a last minute substitution Franzen ended up beside a feisty poli-sci professor who insisted on locking horns over writer Kazuo Ishiguro. Trying to save him, I asked about his translation of "Spring Awakening," wondering what had annoyed him about the Broadway musical. He hesitated, saying that he'd best articulated his complaints in his introduction to the play. I thought of the crisp, new script sitting unopened on my desk, and felt like a student who had vigorously studied chapters 1-10 only to discover the exam was actually on Chapters 11-20. I smiled wanly and told him I looked forward to reading it.

Franzen wasn't a high-maintenance guest but he had asked to have 40 minutes in advance of his talk to prepare. On the way into the building I offered to show him the stage where he'd be speaking, but he demurred. I was taken aback, as theater people place an almost holy emphasis on "the space." Expecting him to warm up or to pull out his notes, I was somewhat surprised that his preparation consisted of taking a nap in the Green Room. After I'd roused him and we huddled behind the curtain waiting for our cue, I realized that given the cacophony of the full house, Franzen wouldn't even hear the introduction I had slaved over.

At the podium, I turned to welcome him and saw that he was crossing the stage still hanging on to his leather briefcase, which suggested either a charming geekiness or a spy headed to a drop. I scurried down the stairs and into the front row, where the pounding of my heart finally began to subside. He opened by saying that he'd been told that he wasn't allowed to read from his novels but instead had to give a talk. I flushed with shame because I was the one who, when given the choice by his agent, had voted for a talk.

Franzen admitted upfront that this would be a recycled talk, one that he hadn't looked at since giving it at a conference in Germany a year ago. Would the audience, which consisted largely of students, be charmed by this slacker admission? In fact, a prim article appeared later that week in the college paper, gently reminding the reader of the Tenets of Public Speaking, the first of which was: Be prepared. If you are invited to speak in front of any group -- from your local Girl Scout troop to a huge convention -- consider it an honor. The article seemed to fault him, not for giving the same talk again, but for not having readied it.

His was not the first recycled talk to be given at Kenyon. Many have done it, and most have confessed to it. But some have finessed it better than others; Tony Kushner framed his recycled speech with the playful description of a nightmare he'd had in which he realized he was about to give a talk he'd already given here. When Tim O' Brien came, there was a village-wide blackout just as the audience of 700 people was gathering in Rosse Hall. O'Brien asked for a flashlight and soldiered on, thereby engendering a tremendous sense of event and solidarity. Franzen customized his opening by outing himself as a bird watcher, claiming to have just seen some special black vulture on the village's water tower.

Then he began reading, and the tempo, unlike his own conversational rhythm, was very, very fast. His sentences were elegant and complex and they were difficult to grasp upon first hearing, even without the added velocity. I tried to telepathically urge him to slow down, but I saw that, for all his formidable intellect, for all his "awkward," as the students called it, he was enjoying himself. He enjoyed being onstage. He enjoyed the hair-trigger laughter he got every time he critiqued one of his own sentences or acknowledged a passage that only made sense in Germany. Behind the podium, he would periodically kick up a back leg, as if he were Doris Day giddily kissing Rock Hudson.

Franzen began by impatiently dispatching the four perennial questions that writers were asked: Who are your influences? What time of day do you work and what do you write on? Do your characters take over and tell you what to do? Is your fiction autobiographical? As he settled and slowed, he went deeper into the complicated relationship between autobiography and fiction, talking about the honesty and self-exposure demanded of writers. He conflated his breakthrough as a writer with breaking out of a confining marriage, describing how he'd made the mistake of censoring himself to the point where it affected the organic outcomes of his early novels. He drove home the liberating point that fiction wasn't meant to be nice.

During the question and answer period, the questioners had to climb out of their row in order to speak into microphones standing in the aisles. This setup attracted a certain kind of questioner, almost exclusively young men in flannel shirts given to provocation and self-promotion. The first two students asked about David Foster Wallace, which implied that the students were less impressed by Franzen's writing than by his association with Wallace. Neither student seemed to allow for the possibility that it was painful for him to talk about his dead friend.

One question took the form of a throwdown. Franzen had agreed to return to Kenyon to give the commencement speech for his nephew’s graduation. Was Franzen up to the task of giving a graduation speech at the college where Wallace gave what’s considered the finest graduation speech ever written? (Wallace’s commencement speech was posthumously published as "This Is Water.") There was an excruciating pause before Franzen graciously said that he'd be satisfied with being second best.

We were witnessing a sort of adolescent acting out as the students tried to tangle publicly with a writer they admired. I was sympathetic to their mixed-up impulses, remembering myself in a college drama class taught by a handsome, Oxbridge Ph.D. candidate. Instead of writing the paper I was supposed to write about Ibsen, I perversely wrote a parody of an Ibsen play, showboating my budding dramatist's awareness of his structural mannerisms. In my head I argued that this was a valid exploration of Ibsen's techniques but at the same time I knew it was a desperate attempt to get the attention of the teacher. Keeping me after class to ask why I hadn't turned in the paper, my tutor had the same forbearing expression that Franzen wore now.

One student asked about obscure '90s bands, another wanted Franzen to agree that genre novels were as good as literary novels, and another student sincerely asked why the cerulean warbler, at the heart of an environmental battle in "Freedom," never appeared in the book. Franzen replied simply: "What would it do?" But the somewhat disastrous question and answer period climaxed with a question from a young man with a known Oprah obsession, who was excited about Franzen's visit largely because the writer had once sat in a chair across from his idol.

The Oprah fan, a quirky campus character, was aggrieved because Franzen had refused to appear on his campus Web-show, which might be described as a cross between "Sprockets" and "La Cage Aux Folles." It was ostensibly a talk show but, in the clips I'd seen, it was the student host who did most of the talking before cheerfully urging his guest to dance. I'd worried that Franzen, wanting to be a sport, might say yes to the interview only to have his embarrassment live on forever in cyberspace. So the invitation had never reached him. Now, having seized the microphone, the student was determined to get his interview despite the lines of students forming behind him. The mortified audience slunk down in their seats.

The students later discovered that Franzen's talk was already circulating on YouTube; he'd given a portion of it last fall at the National Book Festival. Instead of Germany, Franzen had begun by saying that he hadn't looked at the talk since he'd given it in Seattle. He used the same kind of comic asides, pausing after a given sentence to announce that it would be rewritten. Or he'd say "good evening" and then correct it to "good morning," in order to bring the audience into the joke of the recycled talk. I thought of something Anna Deavere Smith had written: "Public figures are so expert at ... performance that they have a greater gift than actors for making what they have said before seem as though they are saying it for the first time." The students pointed to this clip as evidence that they'd been had, and their mortification morphed into indignation. They began to speak of Franzen as if he were a freshman friendship that they were so over.

The next morning, I found Franzen in the lobby of the Kenyon Inn, hanging out with his nephew, Eric, who had just rolled out of bed. Both the formidable writer and the literary celebrity had disappeared, leaving behind the fond, sardonic uncle. As I politely asked Eric tiresome middle-aged questions about what he was studying, Franzen mocked his nephew's lightweight liberal arts courses. One in particular sounded bogus to Franzen, and he playfully snarled: "College architecture!" In that moment, it was Franzen who became the slightly embarrassing relative, acting up in front of a professor, and Eric shrugged at me, as if to say: "What can you do?" 

By Wendy MacLeod

Wendy MacLeod's plays have been produced Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons and at The Goodman and Steppenwolf Theaters in Chicago. Her play "The House of Yes" was made into a Miramax film. Her prose has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Awl, NPR’s All Things Considered and POETRY magazine. She is the James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence at Kenyon College. Her new play "Women in Jep" will premiere in July at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia.

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