An Open Letter to Jonathan Franzen

It looks like all this is coming up again. Jodi's smartly staying out of this one, it seems, but Jennifer Weiner is being both logical and hilarious about the whole thing. Of course your name is coming up. Your name is front and centre because you're now the boy everyone loves to hate. Even the boys hate you*, for being so ubiquitous, for being the projected Great American Novelist, for being so successful based on one (in my opinion) really great book. That book, of course, was not Freedom. Maybe your picture is on the dart-board because you failed to deliver?

When I wrote my letter to Jodi Picoult, I said this:
So maybe I just don't know enough of your work. But have you read Franzen? He's really, really good. So is Lethem. Some of the Wonderboys the NYT loves aren't all that, but those two? They kinda are. You are not now and will never be in the same league.
While she is still horrible, I no longer feel like calling you great. You got all the attention and the hype and the Time cover, and I admit, I was really, really excited about Freedom. But boy-o, you sure let me down.

I've steered people away from Freedom. People who only marginally liked The Corrections I've told that they won't see anything better with your follow up. Those who liked The Corrections I've warned that Freedom is a great big comedown. I had a post half-written about it, but it stuck in the queue for a long, long time. Finally, I deleted it. Perhaps I shouldn't have, so I could now expound the ways in which Freedom failed to live up to the hype. All I can say now, is that it's full of stupid awful cliches, and even if that's the point (if given "freedom" people will still fall into predictable habits) it's no good in the overlong trip getting there. The fetishisation of the Oriental Other, the younger woman, the brainy-yet-earthy antidote to the ol' slag wife, was a particularly egregious touch. Perhaps I was hasty saying you and Picoult would never be in the same league.

Freedom fell into that special snowflake area; we gave you all the accolades and magazine covers just for coming out. You were supposed to be the great bespectacled hope, and you fizzled. After the initial rush of "OH THE NEW FRANZEN!" how many people have good things to say about it**? In retrospect, is anyone loaning out their copy of Freedom saying "You have to read this!" like I do with The Corrections? You have your money, like Jennifer Weiner, so you don't need to care, or so the articles say. But you lost me, man, and I'm pissed off I ever stuck up for you.

Further Reading.
Further Reading pt II.
*Text of the relevant bits:
First things first: Murder is wrong, OK? But let's say, hypothetically, that you're considering committing one anyway: how would you do it? Practically everyone wants to murder someone. That jerk that got the job you want. That guy who gets all his books reviewed while your books don’t even get published. That handsome, horrible dude everyone loves when only you know he is a complete fraud who must be exposed. Jonathan Franzen. Maybe you want to murder novelist Jonathan Franzen. Let’s say you do. You want to stand over Jonathan Franzen's wrecked body as it bubbles over with his own blood. You’re laughing and he’s just kind of lying there, gurgling. You beat him to death with an iPad and now there won’t be any more sprawling family angst novels from Mr. Handsome Fake Genius Man. Maybe that is who you want to murder. Maybe you would really enjoy wringing his skinny Brooklyn neck. His skinny, pretentious, overrated, Brooks Brothers neck. Hypothetically. Here are some things to think about while you're totally planning the fake murder you have no intention of actually doing and by reading this sentence you hereby absolve the writer of any complicity in the crimes you will in no way go out and commit here comes the period and Jim is absolved.

**That's a real question. Do you have good things to say about Freedom? Tell me in the comments.
Doing some link jumping, it looks like popular opinion is starting to sour on The Corrections too. It would be worth a reread because it definitely is fashionable to hate on Franzen just now, and that probably colours things.

And maybe some of this...

1 comment:

Robert said...

I tried to read The Corrections and was completely ungripped. Most modern "literary" novels are still so infected with the post-modern belief of the meaninglessness of existence or the scientifically mechanistic view of the universe and man that I find them not worth reading. On the other hand, there's genre fiction that suffers the opposite problem of trying to make everything mean something grand and heroic. I tend to the think the best novels walk the fine line between those two views.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (which transcends the detective genre) is a good example of a gritty, bleak story that nevertheless is incredibly romantic (as is the hero Marlowe). As for modern literary wunderkind, I really admire Michael Chabon for investing heroism and romance and mystery in his modern stories. He is a fine literary writer who not only doesn't turn his nose up at romantic/genre fiction, but flirts with the boundary between it and "literary" stories and has even acknowledged Fritz Leiber as having a huge influence on him (Yay Michael! Fritz is one of my literary heroes).

Who wants to read stories about people whose lives don't matter? Everyone's life matters. And maybe that's partly what literature should reveal. But, hey, that's just my two cents.

Thanks for your post. You're an insightful writer and reader.