(AP/Mary Altaffer)

Could Jonathan Franzen be more complicated than we thought?

Some of his statements are hard to take, but he's not just a caricature


Scott Timberg
September 1, 2015 8:25PM (UTC)

Jonathan Franzen is a sexist. Jonathan Franzen is an out-of-touch highbrow snob. Jonathan Franzen is an entitled, narcissistic oddball.

Even with the insane road show of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the arms race of outrageousness that was this year’s Video Music Awards, some of the public utterances that have become the most notorious in recent weeks have come not from Rebel Wilson or Miley Cyrus but from the novelist whose new book, “Purity,” has just been released today.

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Franzen, whose writing tends to be very careful, has a gift for putting his foot in his mouth when he speaks publicly. His most recent cringe-worthy statement, given to New York magazine, involved his onetime wish to adopt a war orphan from Iraq as a way of dealing with what he called his “alienation from the younger generation.” He’s been involved in feuds, with various degrees of heat, with several female writers, and he’s been roasted because of an exaggerated feminist character in “Purity.” He famously snubbed Oprah Winfrey years back because her book selections were not sufficiently literary.

Social media – from which he abstains – routinely eats him alive.

But if you look at Franzen’s taste in writing, it’s clear that he isn’t quite as one-dimensional as his bad press would lead readers to believe. (And while it’s hard to tell from the interview, it sounds like it dawned on him pretty quickly how ridiculous the war-orphan idea was: “Oh, it was insane,” he said of it. “The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.”)

The best way to get a sense of a writer’s literary values is to look at his or her taste in books, and here the story is a bit more complicated. To the notion that he only likes highbrow novels (especially big, manly postmodern tomes), it’s interesting to see that the books that shaped him as a kid include Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy” and a bunch of science fiction and fantasy. “Everything I loved as a young person I read three or four times,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “This included The Lord of the Rings and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.” He also mentions “A.A. Milne, the Narnia novels, Doctor DoolittleWind in the Willows, and the great collections of Peanuts strips.” A major turning point for his reading came not with “Ulysses” or “Gravity’s Rainbow,” but with Arthur C. Clarke’s aliens-come-to-earth novel “Childhood’s End.” (Maybe Franzen is looking forward to Syfy’s adaptation?)

And after growing up digging Charlie Brown, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom and the centuries-spanning story of psychohistory (Asimov’s pulpy, wonderful series is not terribly fashionable today, though Paul Krugman is a fan), he found himself as an adult failing to get into Moby Dick and disliking E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End.”

His inability to engage with classic novels doesn’t make Franzen sound smarter or more virtuous. But it does kind of complicate the picture of him as a joyless literary scold.

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It’s worth remembering, too, that he was a major force in digging Paula Fox’s distilled and sharp-eyed work out of obscurity. “There’s hardly an extraneous or arbitrary word to be found in the book,” he wrote in his introduction to “Desperate Characters,” her slender depth-charge of a novel from 1970. “Rigor and thematic density of such magnitude don’t happen by accident, and yet it’s almost impossible for a writer to achieve them while relaxing enough to allow the characters to come alive and the novel to be written, and yet here the novel is, soaring above all the other American realist fiction since the Second World War.”

Franzen, for what it’s worth, has been a longtime booster of short-story master Alice Munro, and he became a teacher and booster of “Flamethrowers” novelist Rachel Kushner.

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Perhaps his championing of Fox’s books in the 1990s was a calculation for the future when he would be assailed for sexism? Could the large number of genre novels and books by women in his personal hall of fame be an attempt at damage control? Maybe.

Does any of this disprove any of the charges made against this writer so many people love to hate? Does any of this mean that Franzen is not a sexist, highbrow snob who says strange, self-regarding things?

Of course not. But it does suggest that goofy statements aside, Franzen deserves to be treated as more than just a punchline.

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Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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