How Jonathan Franzen Became America’s Leading Public Moralist

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He may not be wrong, but most of his opinions on these subjects could be expressed in 140 characters or less. Photo: Moe Dern
Jonathan Franzen’s Great Expectations
How America’s foremost novelist became its leading public moralist.
Illustration by Moe Dern

Love may not be the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name Jonathan Franzen, but it’s a word that’s become more and more important to him over the years. “You have to love before you can be relentless.” That, whatever it means, is the last of Franzen’s rules for writing fiction, published in the Guardian in 2010. In 2011, Franzen told the graduating seniors of Kenyon College that “trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships.” His point was that it’s better to love, say, a spouse or birds than to spend too much time on Facebook. Franzen has also lamented “the near-perfect absence” in the fiction of his late friend David Foster Wallace “of ordinary love.” The paradox was that Wallace’s readers felt loved when they read his books, and in turn came to fiercely love their author. 

Do you love Jonathan Franzen? Does America? Does the world? These questions sound ridiculous, but they’re the ones Franzen has been posing over the past two decades, as he has, against long odds, made himself the kind of public figure about whom they aren’t entirely ridiculous or even unusual. He started asking them in the mid-’90s in a series of essays — most famously, one published in Harper’s as “Perchance to Dream” in 1996 — that lamented the novelist’s diminished role in the culture; the burned-out state of “the inner city of fiction”; and the failure of his first two novels, despite critical acclaim, to connect with a wide readership. Yet he knew that, even if it had been a while since a writer more challenging than Scott Turow or Stephen King had appeared on the cover of Time, E. Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy were still selling lots of books. Many of their readers, a sociologist informed him, were women; many were people who’d grown up, like Franzen, as social isolates (not necessarily nerds, Franzen took pains to point out); many were people whose lives had turned out to be different from their parents’ lives. These people wanted to read about lives not unlike their own, and to be entertained. Franzen would transform himself from an angry young man into their trusty bard. Or try.

 In 2001, Franzen delivered The Corrections, a novel that submerged his long-standing postmodernist concerns with systems (e.g., the pharmaceutical industry, the Soviet Union’s aftermath, gender politics) beneath the story of a dispersed midwestern family. A British reviewer observed that, in light of the book, the Harper’s essay read like “market research,” and Franzen would later admit that the reviewer wasn’t wrong. “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” That’s his first rule for writing fiction. The Corrections brought Franzen lots of new friends. One of them was Oprah Winfrey, which, as he infamously told interviewers, made him uncomfortable: It didn’t fit with his notion of himself as a practitioner of high art, and he worried that the corporate OPRAH insignia on the cover of his books would put off male readers. He wanted to accommodate the pleasure-principle desires, and perhaps the sociological narcissism, of his readers, but he also wanted to make it clear to those readers who now loved him that he wouldn’t always be likable. Loving him meant accepting that he was kind of a prick.

In retrospect, the fiasco that ensued when Oprah disinvited him from her show can now be viewed as an inadvertent master­stroke. It garnered him more ink than a mere appearance would have, turned his ambivalence about his straddling the high- and middlebrows into a national story, and set the table for a reconciliation with Oprah on the publication of his 2010 novel, Freedom. By then, Franzen had appeared on the cover of Time, Wallace had died, Philip Roth had published what turned out to be his final novel, and the safe answer to the question “Who’s on top?” in American lit was Franzen. “There are about 20 great American novelists in the generations that follow me,” Roth said in a blurb for Franzen’s 2012 essay collection, Farther Away. “The greatest is Jonathan Franzen.”

It’s The Corrections that gives Franzen his claim on this title. The novel is a map of the anxieties afflicting two generations of the Lambert family, under the shadow of a pharmaceutical industry that offers some of the book’s many dubious corrections. Here was a systems novel — those bombed-up books of the ’60s and ’70s like End Zone and Gravity’s Rainbow — sub­ordinated to a rich saga of domestic psychological realism. Franzen was operating under the spell of his earliest and still-unabandoned hero Don DeLillo — the illicit drug in White Noise that offered relief from the fear of death was a harbinger of the racks of pills available by prescription a decade and a half later. Franzen’s narration was at once majestic, playful, and on most pages very funny. In his first two books, he’d been both too serious and too absurd. Here he’d hit the balance. Think of Caleb Lambert, the boy who wants to put the family kitchen under surveillance, his new “hobby.” The idea frightens his depressed father, Gary, because that’s where the liquor cabinet is. And if any of this seemed too of the moment — the about-to-expire long 1990s — Franzen always had recourse to the archetypal material from the past: “Lad … I don’t see you eating your dinner.”

“I could see, already in the late ’90s,” Franzen tells Philip Weinstein in his not-quite biography, Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage, “that there was going to be a dearth of public writers as the previous generation (Mailer, Vidal, Updike, Sontag, Bellow, Roth, etc.) waned.” Wallace wasn’t “temperamentally suited” to fill the gap, he understood. But “I was ambitious enough and ego-driven enough to want that … It’s nice to know that if I want to bring something to public attention, whether it’s the work of Paula Fox or the environmental havoc wreaked by free-roaming cats, I have some power to do it. Weird, but nice.”

It has been weird watching Franzen become the heir to Mailer and Roth, a role that was never sought by ­DeLillo. His new phase is marked by his conviction that novels be animated by causes, and oddest of all might be his choice of crusades: against the cats that prey on migratory birds, for example, or the irresistible intrusions and distractions of the internet, which has come to obsess him. His political causes come with a whiff of connoisseurship (and of futility); he rarely raises his voice too loudly in the liberal chorus against outrages like torture or drone killings. His “I’m not a Luddite, but …” statements, on the other hand, are distinguished by their generic (and also futile) technophobia, mitigated only by his nostalgia for obsolete hardware and software: Whither WordPerfect 5.0? Whenever he surfaces as a critic of the internet, it’s hard to tell whether he’s stumbled into the fight blindly — or whether he’s just trolling. But his complaints are so common­place they must be from the heart, which isn’t to say he doesn’t take a perverse pleasure in trolling.

In his self-appointment as America’s moralist, Franzen has suffered from the lack of a worthy female foil, as Mailer had in Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and Germaine Greer. Oprah was too big for him; when he was talking about her, he was talking to himself. Perhaps because he’s lonely at the top, Franzen elevated Jennifer Weiner — the best-selling but subliterary novelist who’s led the #Franzenfreude charge, claiming that he’s sucked up the oxygen of review attention in a sexist literary culture — by accusing her of “freeloading” on a good cause with the aim of self-promotion. It was the best favor he could have given her. With every interview, often with obscure campus magazines, Franzen seems always to forget he has a habit of confusing his mouth with a shoe. Promoting Purity, he told an interviewer that he’d entertained the idea of adopting an Iraq War orphan, in part to learn about the way young people think.  

He can’t really believe that he’ll ever put a stop to online distraction or rein in those pesky cats, but his literary statements do carry weight, especially when he goes to bat for an unknown pen pal like Nell Zink. In Farther Away, Franzen says of Roth: “For a while, Philip Roth was my new bitter enemy, but lately, unexpectedly, he has become a friend.” Franzen has always conceived of writing as a competition, with all writers everywhere, living or dead, aligned either with him or against him, or both at once. His critical writings often read like peace treaties or declarations of war, or like the posturings of a permanent undergraduate at pains to take a side. They frequently contain eccentric statements about what it means to read a novel, like this one: “My small hope for literary criticism would be to hear less about orchestras and subversion and more about the erotic and culinary arts. Think of the novel as a lover: Let’s stay home tonight and have a great time; just because you’re touched where you want to be touched, it doesn’t mean you’re cheap.”

It was with this passage that I fell out of love with Jonathan Franzen. His notion of the novel as a lover echoes Sontag’s famous call for an “erotics of art” but manages to be less aspirational, less radical, less sexy. It comes from his 2002 essay on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” the story of how Franzen fell out of love with the author of The Recognitions halfway through his second novel, JR. It was too frustrating of pleasure, it wasn’t touching him where he wanted to be touched. I’m no hard-core Gaddisite, but it seemed to me that Franzen was bent on tossing aside the pleasures to be had in reading a difficult writer, dismissing a book like Carpenter’s Gothic as an “exercise in style” with “paint-by-numbers” content while ignoring the way Gaddis renders a familiar experience like watching an Orson Welles movie on late-night television entirely strange with the power of his style.

Jonathan Franzen in 1996. Photo: Marion Ettlinger/Corbis Outline

Style and strangeness were things missing from Franzen’s next novel, Freedom (2010). It signaled that Franzen had developed too acute a sense of his own audience and where they wanted to be touched, that he’d hit on a method — obscured, if present at all, in The Corrections — of absorbing a decade’s reading of the New York Times and listening to NPR and then dramatizing it in the story of a family that all too perfectly embodied imagined readers of the New York Times and NPR. The love between Franzen and his readers is also the love of the mirror image filtered through the prism of the nation’s upmarket media. Since The Corrections, Franzen’s novels have been answers to the question “What’s wrong with us?” And they do offer answers — see the Berglunds in Freedom as their neighbors do: “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege” — but it’s the asking, I think, that readers found most appealing. The mirror image isn’t always pretty, and there’s an element of mutual self-loathing in the writer-reader love affair.

But something had changed between those books, as eager as many critics were to see Freedom as The Corrections’ successor. In his 2011 Paris Review interview, Franzen explained a very noticeable, and quite conscious, change in style:

“I said to myself, ‘This feels nothing like the writing I did for 20 years — this just feels transparent.’ I wasn’t seeing in the pages any of the signs I’d taken as encouraging when I was writing The Corrections. The sentences back then had a pop. They were, you know, serious prose sentences, and I was able to vanquish my doubts simply by rereading them … [T] he sentences had a level of effulgence that left me totally defended. But here, with Freedom, I felt like, Oh my God, I just wrote however many metaphor-free pages about some weird days in the life of a college student, I have no idea if this is any good. I needed validation in a way I never had before.”

It’s sad to see a writer of Franzen’s talent surrender that pop, even sadder to find it missing in his prose.

“The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character,” Franzen wrote in a 2012 essay on Edith Wharton, in which he argued that a reader needs to sympathize with a novel’s author as much as with its characters. I don’t subscribe to this logic — I’m perfectly happy to love books without sympathy for their authors, e.g., the Nazi collaborator Knut Hamsun, even if the mirror image is there — but what if we were to apply it to Franzen? He’s long been a generous teller of his own life story. Child of prosperous Midwesterners, the father distant and the mother a bit overbearing, the two of them permanently bickering about the thermostat. Never too cool at school, embarrassed to be wearing his band uniform at football games, a late bloomer sexually. Midwestern simpleton among sophisticates at an East Coast college, anticipating that he’ll be a perennial loser in the coolness contest, nurturing an ambition to dethrone them in a way that would redeem his own midwesternness without sacrificing sophistication. Prisoner of a too-early, too-idealistic marriage premised on mutual artistic success, a taste of which he got and she didn’t. En route to a divorce colored by his wife’s failure to sell a book, confusing the end of love with rage against environmental devastation, trying in vain to sell out with a dud of a screenplay that sublimated his marital crack-up. Depressed and penniless divorcé, coping with writer’s block and his own competitive instincts in the face of his friend’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, by trying to figure out what it means to be a reader. Resurgent literary champion, reaping the rewards of a decade’s struggle but always prone to media gaffes. Advocate and lover of birds, even if it sometimes seemed the ornithologist-novelist was copping a move from the lepidopterist Nabokov. Time cover boy with a net worth reported to be in the eight figures, but always generous to younger writers as well as select literary forebears. Failed television writer (when HBO preemptively canceled a series adapted from The Corrections) and pained bystander to his brilliant friend’s suicide, an awful thing to endure, however muddled Franzen’s public response (“suicide as career move”?) has sounded. Scourge of online culture, an endearingly Sisyphean self-appointment. I confess I find Franzen the man sympathetic at every turn. I only wish that next time he returns with a novel that isn’t a bad date.

The earliest reviews of Purity — by Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic and Caleb Crain in the Atlantic — have been rapturous. Elaine Blair in Harper’s has brought some skepticism to the dizzy proceedings, and I’m inclined to apply a bit more. Purity reinforces the sense that Franzen is committed to his method of showing middle-class America itself in the mirror, but this time the execution is shoddier — the novel’s topicality is relentless. The Occupy movement, online privacy and state surveillance, predatory banks, radical feminism, agribusiness — Franzen’s treatment of them will flatter liberal prejudices: Occupy was well-intentioned but ineffective; the NSA is bad but Google could be worse; radical ideologies can go too far in the service of just causes, etc. Franzen remains a moralist, and those who suspect the moral of a story called Purity might be that it’s dangerous to be too pure won’t be disappointed. Franzen has been praised for the way he incorporates contemporary information in his novels, for the way his details paint a convincing now. In Purity, the effect is the opposite: Bits of sociology break the spell of a convincing present that they’ve been dragged in for the sole purpose of shoring up. The result is a kind of elite populism: topical melodramas stuffed with symbols and allusions that are never too difficult to catch, the way prestige TV is just smart enough to remind you it’s not trash.

Franzen’s lost work of the past decade are the scripts for HBO, which he was developing with Noah Baumbach until the network pulled the plug on it in 2012. Franzen describes the problems with the pilot and the series to Weinstein: There was no showrunner. “It never would have occurred to me that I could be that person. I think if I had seized it … we might have gotten picked up.” Also, he says, the arcs of the backstory and the present action didn’t “match up,” and “the pilot sucked.” Franzen tells Weinstein that he did cartwheels when HBO pulled the plug because the job made him miserable. It’s surprising that Franzen’s scripts failed at the structural level, because as a novelist he remains a master of structure. In The Corrections, Franzen hit on a form — the novel as a series of novellas told from different points of view with back­stories linking to an overarching present — that still serves him well, but the risk of a novel in seven parts, as Purity has, is that some will be better than others.

The heroine of Purity is Pip, a 23-year old woman living in Oakland with a dead-end job. Pip’s connected to Occupy Oakland through its anti-nuke arm and thinks of her relationship with her dotty mother in terms of “moral hazard.” The three sections from Pip’s point of view are the weakest in the book — she’s characterized by her good intentions and naïveté on every page. (Her one almost-saving grace is a sarcastic streak.) After she’s launched on an unexpected political odyssey, as an intern for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-like organization based in Bolivia, Franzen sketches the backstory of its leader, a charismatic middle-aged German named Andreas Wolf. Andreas grows up in East Berlin, the child of a pair of Communist Party hacks, an Oedipal rebel against them and the state. An incendiary student poem gets him thrown out of the house and he becomes a church youth counselor, a position he exploits by sleeping with teenage girls. He’s slept with 53 of them, none of them underage, by the time he falls for Annagret, a girl of 15 who tells him of her abuse at the hands of her stepfather, who works for the Stasi. Before they’ve even slept together, Andreas and Annagret decide to kill her stepfather. Franzen proves adept at telling an old-fashioned murder story, even if he pounds the notes of guilt and shame a little too hard with his Victorian hammer.

The Big Idea in Purity belongs to Andreas: his theory that Google and Facebook constitute the new Stasi. So anti-communism has morphed into technophobia, and the internet is the new totalitarianism. Even if it’s put in the head of a lecherous murderer, we know from Franzen’s interviews and the rants about Twitter (distracting and antithetical to narrative), Facebook (encourages a bogus cult of likability), and Amazon (bad for authors) in his previous book The Kraus Project that it’s not too far from what he thinks. That doesn’t make it easy to take seriously. He may not be wrong, but most of his opinions on these subjects could be expressed in 140 characters or less. 

With the totalitarian internet as its Big Idea and an absurd subplot about sex pics with a nuclear warhead as a prop, Purity makes many nods to systems novels. But as in Freedom, and even more than was the case in The Corrections, his characters’ politics can be traced back to parent-child resentments and old grudges between friends, so what often looks like a systems novel, in consistently reducing the political to the personal, is actually the opposite. The reversal is another element of Franzen’s popular appeal: It’s the impulse to see your politics played out in intimate family squabbles, or to lend your grudges the grandeur of politics. And unlike the systems novelists, and those who share their paranoia, most readers prefer not to imagine their lives are in the hands of forces beyond their control, preferring instead to feel like they’re in attendance at the pageant they read about in the newspaper. In Purity, a caricature of a novelist who starts out as “the heir to Barth and Elkin” and ends up an embittered, unloved, alcoholic, and paraplegic failure indicates that Franzen still has it in for his former postmodern heroes. But who are Franzen’s allies in Purity, aside from Dickens? The novel’s strongest section is narrated by Tom Aberant, a journalist and thwarted novelist who cites Bellow as his hero. His confession, about the failure of his marriage to the agribusiness heiress and radical feminist artist Anabel Laird, suggests the equal influence of Roth.

Franzen has never been shy about sex in his novels: There’s the abortive blow job between Enid and Alfred Lambert in The Corrections, and their children are in various ways captive to their desires; in Freedom, we read of one character’s “firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity” and another’s awareness of the “clairvoyance of the dick.” In Purity, male characters are afflicted with uncontrollable erections at climactic moments; Pip is haunted by the memory of a brief act of cunnilingus; an act of anal sex results in pregnancy. From the male point of view, sex is always attended by feelings of guilt and hypocrisy. For the women, sexual desire, though not without its joys, is never far from feelings of resentment, victimization, entrapment, or defilement. The overall impression is of Roth’s project of erotic frankness filtered and rehabilitated through an ethics Franzen seems to conceive of as feminist, in that the moral calculus renders the men the guilty parties: guilty of lechery, porn addiction, and indifference to the imperatives of women’s biological clocks. In effect, it’s a set of standards, defining sexual encounters as opportunities for abuse by men, that is not altogether empowering to his women. You might even call it Victorian. 

Such is Franzen’s idea of “ordinary love.” The novel’s bookend sections have the structure of a comedy of manners, reuniting Pip with a young man she meets at a café, where they both read the Sunday Times “actual paper edition,” odd for millennials and one of the book’s glaring clichés. And if the man who once was to be the future of fiction is retreating to the 19th century, it’s all of a piece with his nemesis John Barth’s notion that writers are constantly “re-­enacting a cyclical correction in the history (and the microhistories) of literature and of art in general.” The value of Franzen’s books is that they’re a theater to watch him swinging, a self-hating acrobat, from Pynchon and Gaddis back to Dickens and Austen. He’s a microhistory unto himself. 

*This article appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.