Jonathan Franzen considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan to understand young people better

Franzen opens up about sexism and his Oprah beef in a new Guardian interview

Published August 21, 2015 2:32PM (EDT)

  (Dapd/Katja Lenz)
(Dapd/Katja Lenz)

Jonathan Franzen is both one of our greatest contemporary American novelists and our most irritating public figures, prone to beefing with female novelists, bloviating about the hazards of the Internet, and just generally rankling people’s feathers with assertions of his moral and literary superiority (not to mention that whole bird thing).

And in a new interview with the Guardian, the “Purity” author offers up plenty of fodder for his critics, telling writer Emma Brockes that he once considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan to understand young people better.

“Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea las ted maybe six weeks,” Franzen explained. “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.”

Fortunately, his New Yorker editor Henry Finder had a simpler solution — introducing Franzen to some university graduates. “It cured me of my anger at young people,” Franzen said. (Hey, that was easy!)

Franzen also addressed the long-running assertion that he is a misogynist, saying: “I’m not a sexist. I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male.”

Regarding the 2001 incident where Oprah Winfrey disinvited Franzen from her show after he criticized the “schmaltzy, one-dimensional novels” in her book club, Franzen said both himself and Winfrey were to blame for the spat. As he put it: “From our very first conversation, it was clear we were not speaking the same language.”

“What is the one thing a competition winner has to do? They have to show abject gratitude,” Franzen added of his inclusion into Winfrey's book club. "And I was, like, well, I don’t think you’d be doing this if it weren’t good for you, too. So let’s work together. And the answer was no. So I blame her, too.”

“I think the fact that I was a white guy made that harder," he continued. "And I think she was sensitive to any suggestion that I might be dissing her. And, of course, then I did diss her. But not before I’d had that experience.”

Read more excerpts from the interview, which is out in full this weekend, over at the Guardian.

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

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Books Jonathan Franzen Purity