Can Jonathan Franzen Handle the Scrutiny?

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, finally goes on sale tomorrow. He must be relieved that people will finally be discussing the book itself, because for the last few weeks, all anyone has been talking about is Franzen, scrutinizing his fame, resistance to fame, possible snobbery, and critical privilege. In other words, it’s the past eight, post-Corrections years all smashed into one promotional cycle. Here’s a brief rundown of the fame/scrutiny spiral so far:

• He became the first novelist in ten years to appear on the cover of Time, and probably the most “serious” one since Toni Morrison.

• Book folks summoned up a solid, non-hater sense of humor about all Franzen’s press, including things like Bookslut’s Michael Schaub referring to him as “Cover Boy” and the book as Freedom ’90. (Note to Bookslut’s under-30 readers: that’s a George Michael reference.)

• Writers like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner raised the question of why, in a world where most of fiction’s readers (and a huge proportion of its writers, publishers, and critics) are women, our most celebrated literary lions still always turn out to be white guys with glasses, to an extent where you almost wonder if Time’s ’90s staff jumped to conclusions when they saw the name “Toni” and were shocked when Morrison’s photos came in.

• The internet talked this issue over for a while, dissecting the argument to find various truths and various inaccuracies.

• People looked joyously back at a 2003 Guardian article where Franzen’s writer ex talked about how annoying it is when your partner is way more successful than you, but at least you get a check from the Guardian out of it.

Newsweek tried to trump Time by labeling Franzen “the writer we love to hate,” and the New York Times acted faintly surprised that all this chatter was happening before the book even came out.

• Some enterprising soul set up the “Emperor Franzen” Twitter feed, where a cloaked Franzen offers high-handed, condescending, and egomaniacal advice from the Dark Side. (“I publish with FSG as an act of charity, you understand.”)

Back in 2002, if someone had told people that a youngish literary writer would appear on the cover of the magazine, and it wouldn’t be David Foster Wallace, this might have been predicted. Franzen has basically been marked as the guy who would appear there since The Corrections came out in paperback, if not slightly longer. This is the mission he’s always been on: He wants to help restore Serious Literary Fiction to some place of importance in our culture, the kind of place where a Time cover isn’t so notable. He’s just finicky about how, exactly. He wasn’t up for doing it via Oprah’s Book Club, so it’s quite likely that he’s not thrilled about being chattered about in a way we normally reserve for, say, Jon Gosselin.

Still, you have to count the past decade as a ridiculously huge win for the guy, and we expect winners to behave as one of his characters, Patty Berglund, does in the early pages of Freedom: with shruggy modesty and generosity, the kind that makes you feel like someone’s genuinely nice, and not just condescending to the less fortunate. Franzen, however, is not always the greatest at being on top. He once called Times critic Michiko Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York,” which is poor friend-making and demonstrably untrue. A little before that, he wrote a piece for Harper’s grousing about experimental fiction, which he seemed to think threatened literature’s ability to be an important part of our culture. Poor Ben Marcus was forced to write a response wondering why Franzen, one of the most respected and successful writers going, felt a need to bitch about a handful of people, off in a corner, getting paid nothing to read and write weird books nobody cares about anyway. Could the guy not enjoy success with a bit more grace?

Franzen — who cares about fiction, earnestly and passionately! — clearly cares enough that he wants to exhort the universe to handle literature the way he’d prefer. Shockingly enough, that’s a kind of passion that works better when you’re a lone voice in the wilderness. These days, whether he’s comfortable with it or not, he’s in the position of needing to lead by example and wish everyone else good luck doing his or her own thing. We’re about to see if he’s gotten better at it.

Can Jonathan Franzen Handle the Scrutiny?