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Hating Jonathan Franzen

Kevin Power

The End of the End of the Earth: Essays, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, 230 pp, ISBN: 978-0008299224

It’s OK to hate Jonathan Franzen. Exhibit A: In November 2018, to mark the publication of The End of the End of the Earth, his new collection of nonfiction pieces, the bookchat website Lithub republished “10 Rules for the Novelist”, a list that Franzen originally composed for a 2010 Guardian feature. Franzen’s rules are as useful as these things generally are – that is to say they are as useful as you find them to be. “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.”

Unexceptionable stuff, you might think. But the online response was virulently hostile. According to the Lithub commenting fraternity, Franzen was “an unbearably arrogant, pretentious twat” and “a massive, self-important douche”. His rules were “Pretentious drivel”; “pretentious, privileged nonsense”; “self-indulgent, elitist nonsense with no basis in fact”; “completely tangential to good writing”. Meanwhile, over on Twitter, users ginned up parody lists: “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Being an Absolutely Mediocre White Guy Who Writes Forgettable Books About Mediocre White Guys Who Are Depressed About Modern Existence and Also Birdwatching”. Or, if they weren’t in the mood for gags, they denounced “jonathan’s franzen’s latest piece of arrogant bullshit”. Jeff Pearlman, a novelist, opined: “God, Jonathan Franzen is one arrogant fuck.”

The writer Chuck Wendig – author of the 2015 New York Times bestseller Star Wars: Aftermath – accumulated many thousands of likes for a point-by-point refutation of Franzen’s precepts. Wendig was particularly exercised by Rule 7 (“You see more sitting still than chasing after”). “what the crap does that even mean,” he tweeted. “how does it relate to writing a story/are the characters sitting/is the author sitting, I mean, I’m usually sitting/should I be chasing something/should something be chasing me/what the fuck, franzen”.

So: Jonathan Franzen is arrogant. He is privileged. He is mediocre. He is also – to step backwards in time and quote the author of a lengthy Medium essay (“Jonathan Franzen: The Great American Misogynist”, 2015) – a misogynist: “For years,” this author writes, Franzen has “slathered his white maleness across the pages of such venerable publications as Harper’s and The New Yorker,” and his books – the products of a “rich male life” (perhaps not quite les mots justes, but never mind) – deserve only to be caricatured:

His works are so varied and intense, in fact, that it’s unreasonable for me to expect you to read through them all, so let me sum them up for you: A man runs into trouble with some woman (or women) in his life, thinks back to his college days in an attempt at self-reflection, fails miserably but misremembers a lot of nondescript sex to make it tantalizing, gets upset about technology for no discernible reason, then comes to the conclusion that being an upper middle-class white man really is the truest tragedy of all.

I could, if I were feeling sadistic, catalogue numerous further examples of anti-Franzen sentiment – not all of them, by any means, culled from the trashier precincts of social media or from the comment sections of literary websites. But I think my point is made. It’s OK to hate Jonathan Franzen. Everybody else is doing it. There is, in fact, a list of prefabricated terms that you can borrow in order to bolster your animus: elitism, arrogance, white male privilege, misogyny. It’s the full charge sheet of contemporary crimes. On the evidence of the Medium essayist’s precis of Franzen’s fiction, it isn’t even necessary to read his books. You can hate him without putting in the work.

Whence this hostility? It may in part be Franzen’s own fault. His response to Oprah Winfrey’s choice of The Corrections for her book club in 2001 (he said that appearing on Oprah’s show might consort oddly with his status as a representative of “the high-art literary tradition”) did him no favours. “[I]nstead of rallying to Mr. Franzen,” The New York Times remarked at the time, “most of the literary world took her side, deriding him as arrogant and ungrateful.”

In Martin Amis’s The Information, the literary agent Gal Aplanalp advises the failed writer Richard Tull that “The public can only keep in mind one thing per writer. Like a signature. Drunk, young, mad, fat, sick: you know.” In the aftermath of the Oprah kerfuffle, Franzen’s signature was established. He was arrogant. Almost two decades later, the familiar neurons still fire whenever his name is mentioned. Franzen = arrogant. He serves as a convenient shorthand for a certain kind of popular bogeyman: the smug elitist who disparages mass culture in the name of a snootily exclusive “tradition”.

There is, as it happens, a certain amount of textual evidence to support this view – for instance, his remark in a 1995 essay (“The Reader in Exile”, collected in How to Be Alone [2002]) that “I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compson, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld,” or his suggestion, in “Pain Won’t Kill You” (collected in Farther Away [2012]) that “Consumer-technology products” are “great allies and enabler of narcissism”. It is certainly possible to construe these remarks as “arrogant”, especially if you take the precautionary step of divorcing them from their original contexts (respectively, an essay about how reading assuages loneliness and a commencement address about how difficult, and how essential, it is to truly love another human being).

But in fact what is remarkable about the opprobrium heaped on Franzen by the online literati is that it seems to have very little to do with his actual work. The author of the Medium essay I quoted above clearly has not read Franzen’s fiction (or if she has she has failed to understand it). But she knows how she feels about the man. And this is typical. Successive waves of online Franzen-hatred have generally taken the form of ad hominem responses to essays, or to remarks made in interviews, or to his occasional appearances on television. That Franzen’s opinions – expressed in forms, very much including the essay, that he has not mastered and that tend to serve him poorly – so often go against the contemporary grain (for instance his distrust of social media) or situate him squarely in a trainspotterish cul de sac of hobbyism (all that birdwatching) mean that he is, from the point of view of the virtue-signalling culture warriors of Twitter, a soft target. Here, once again, Franzen may have to take some of the blame. It’s difficult to think of another contemporary novelist who is served so poorly by out-of-context quotation, or by his own inability to craft acceptable soundbites.

There is also Franzen’s whiteness. Here perhaps his critics (those of them, at any rate, who have actually read his work) are on firmer ground. His novels rarely feature non-white characters, and in a literary climate that has elevated “representation” to the status of an aesthetic principle, this makes him look either obsolete or purblind, if not actively (the literary thoughtcrime of the moment) “exclusionary”. But there is no point in defending Franzen’s work on the grounds that writers are allowed to write about whomever and whatever they choose, in whatever fashion they prefer. Large swathes of the literary community no longer believe in this elementary principle of intellectual liberty, and saying that it doesn’t matter that Franzen only writes about middle-class white people – that it only matters how well he writes about them – will only get me in trouble with the commissars of literary Twitter.

And then there is Franzen’s maleness, which may get us closer to the heart of the matter. Franzen is a man – oh dear me, yes, he is a man – and he is also a novelist. For many of his enemies, this appears to be enough to damn him irretrievably on both moral and aesthetic grounds, as if he were the sort of male novelist who went around shooting African megafauna (like Ernest Hemingway) or stabbing his wife (like Norman Mailer) or stalking his ex-girlfriends (like David Foster Wallace); or as if he were the sort of male novelist who wrote about tortured love affairs in such a way as to conclusively demonstrate his own sexual potency (like James Frey). But Franzen isn’t like that. In actuality, he has repeatedly called himself a feminist in essays and interviews and is at least as conflicted about maleness and male sexuality as the fieriest social justice warrior. The fact that he finds unfettered male sexuality both funny and creepy is attested to in all three of his major novels (look at Chip Lambert in The Corrections, humping his chaise longue in search of an olfactory memory of Melissa Paquette, or Andreas Wolf in Purity, telling himself that having sex with troubled teenage girls counts as an act of political subversion).

The problem, of course, is that all the male novelists who actually did terrible things, and then wrote about them, are now dead (or, as with James Frey, have subsided into irrelevance). You can’t be angry at these guys on Twitter – what would be the point? Jonathan Franzen, on the other hand, is neither dead nor irrelevant – his books are bestsellers, his essays are widely disseminated. That he doesn’t happen to fit the mould of “toxic male writer” is, for many of his critics, beside the point. Certain intellectuals and other literati (and we might remember, at this point, that the original literati, in ancient Rome, were slaves who copied out official documents, often without understanding what they wrote) are conducting a campaign against an extinct generation of white male novelists, with Jonathan Franzen as their proxy target. The sense of cognitive dissonance produced when a reader familiar with Franzen’s work encounters the online commentary about him derives, in large part, from the gap between what Franzen actually is and what people want (or need) him to be. If he were, in fact, a Norman Mailerish self-promoter, he might very well make some interesting art out of this crux. But Franzen is Franzen: an altogether more inward, and inwardly riven, figure.

In a larger sense, of course, the nature of the online discourse about Franzen means very little. As an interesting example of how corporate-owned social media outlets have mired our culture in a bitter and irresolvable Gramscian war of position over who gets to say what and how, it is certainly worth examining. But really, it falls under the heading of local phenomena, and will almost certainly have very little impact on what posterity makes of Franzen’s work. There are more interesting questions, to wit: How good is Franzen, as a novelist? And, more to the immediate point, how good is he as an essayist?

Here’s a summary (and very provisional) judgement: The first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), are no good. The Corrections (2001) is great, and should last. Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) are gripping, flawed, rich, memorable, occasionally great, and probably not destined to endure. Franzen’s essays – collected in How to Be Alone (2002), The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2006), Farther Away (2012), and now The End of the End of the Earth – are, by turns, cogent, cranky, shapeless, brilliant, bewilderingly slight, sharply observed, fascinatingly confessional, beset by scruples, oddly informal, and weirdly weightless. For a writer who has published four volumes of essays – five if you count The Kraus Project (2013), in which he swamped two slender essays by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus in three hundred pages of anecdotal footnotes – Franzen has, rather surprisingly, not developed either a consistent essayistic style nor a particularly distinctive set of preoccupations (unless you count birdwatching, which, alas, you must).

This isn’t necessarily a fault – a novelist is not, if the novel happens to be his or her thing, obliged to master other literary forms – but it does mean that Franzen’s nonfiction volumes make for unsatisfactory reading experiences. Like the curate’s egg, they are good in parts. Even individual essays ricochet disconcertingly between the sharply pertinent and the flatly circumstantial. Take “Why Birds Matter”, from The End of the End of the Earth. Half of it sounds like an ornithology textbook: “To survive in so many different habitats, the world’s ten thousand or so bird species have evolved into a spectacular diversity of forms.” There is, for the merely-averagely-interested-in-birds reader, only so much of this stuff you can take. The essay is almost over before Franzen does any actual writing – which is to say, any actual thinking:

The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. They’re the other world-dominating animals that evolution has produced, and their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things.

In The End of the End of the Earth’s opening piece – a reflection on essays called “The Essay in Dark Times” – Franzen makes some large claims for (explicitly) the essay as a literary form and (implicitly) the essays of his own that follow. Essays, Franzen says, “force me to take my measure”. “For the writer, an essay is a mirror.” “I’d come to think of the essayist as a firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames of shame, is to run straight into them.” These are admirable sentiments, and they prepare us for a volume of pieces that will expose the essayist in the act of self-scrutiny – that will allow us to watch him watching himself in the mirror, and behold the intricacies of his shame as he rushes toward it like (in that rather self-flattering image) a heroic emergency responder.

But this isn’t the book we get. Instead, we get a sequence of essays that aren’t quite in the polemical mode and that aren’t quite in the confessional mode but are more often something uneasily in between. There is, in The End of the End of the Earth, no extended treatment of shame as such (and we can infer, from the frequency with which he uses the word, that shame is one of the key elements in Franzen’s writerly self-conception), though there are repeated avowals that shame has been felt (whenever he visits a bar, for instance, Franzen tells us, “I become miserable with self-consciousness and thrift and shame and shyness and etiquette anxiety”). But to say that one has felt ashamed is not the same as to write about shame. If the essayist must, as Franzen avers, set a collision course with his own shame, then Franzen has largely shirked that duty, in favour of a general, and rather pro forma, invocation of shame as the emotion that accompanied the writing of certain essays. In other words, despite his assertions, shame isn’t really Franzen’s subject in The End of the End of the Earth.

So what is his subject? Well in one sense it’s birds. Of the sixteen essays collected here, eight of them are largely or exclusively about birds and birdwatching. Of those eight, six follow a recurring template, vide Jonathan Franzen travels to a place and looks at birds. In “Postcards from East Africa” he goes to Tanzania and looks at birds. In “May Your Life be Ruined” he goes to Egypt and Albania and looks at birds. In “Missing” he goes to Jamaica and looks at birds. In the title essay, “The End of the End of the Earth”, he goes to Antarctica and looks at birds. (This template was first set in “The Ugly Mediterranean”, collected in Farther Away, in which Franzen goes to Italy and Greece and looks at birds.)

We know – because he has told us repeatedly, for instance in “Pain Won’t Kill You” (Farther Away), where he says, “it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher” ‑ that being a birdwatcher (or, if you must, a “twitcher”) causes Franzen to experience a certain amount of shame. Whether or not he is right to feel ashamed of his passion for birds – and really, who cares if he’s a birdwatcher? – we might legitimately expect him to realise that birds are what he’s writing about, and that the shame he experiences in doing so is either an interesting subject in itself (in which case, he should write about it properly), or is entirely irrelevant and should not be mentioned. This might seem like a small point, but in fact it brings up a larger issue with Franzen-as-essayist: he often doesn’t seem absolutely clear about what his subject is.

This has always been an issue with his nonfiction. His most famous essay, “Perchance to Dream” (revised for publication in How to Be Alone and retitled “Why Bother?”), is a never-entirely-coherent discussion of several different, and not necessarily, related things: the fate of literature in a consumer-capitalist world; Jonathan Franzen’s depression; the value of the “social novel”; and so on. But this endemic lack of focus – this tendency to yoke together disparate topics and call the result an essay – is especially evident in The End of the End of the Earth. The pieces collected here tend to be about several things at once, and finally about no one thing in particular. There is a notional unifying theme: several essays feint in the direction of ecological polemic, most notably, and most successfully, “Save What You Love”, a lengthy critique of the Audubon Society’s focus on climate change as “the number one threat to the birds of North America,” perhaps the collection’s most focused and coherent piece.

Here Franzen makes the entirely reasonable point that regional conservation projects are both more manageable and more effective ways of delaying climate change than doomed efforts to reduce world carbon emissions (the essay was, when it first appeared in The New Yorker, greeted with near-unanimous scorn from environmental activists and from the usual mob of Franzen-haters). In its clarity of argument and its idiosyncratic passion, “Save What You Love” hints at the sort of book The End of the End of the Earth might have been: a book about climate change, seen through the lens of a single species (birds) and through the eyes of a single, largely depressive, sensibility (Franzen’s). Franzen’s thinking about climate change is interestingly lateral. It is also deeply pessimistic – a short squib appended to the book notes that “our reigning political and economic systems reward short-sightedness”. But at no point does he put together a Unified Field Theory of Climate Change According to Jonathan Franzen. Like other subjects raised but not really discussed in The End of the End of the Earth, climate change appears as simply one more item in Franzen’s writerly rucksack – taken out when occasion demands and otherwise ignored.

But here, perhaps, I’m guilty of the same error that Franzen’s detractors make when they call him out as a toxic patriarch – that of mistaking his nature as a writer. Climate change per se isn’t Franzen’s subject – he isn’t George Monbiot or Bill McKibben. He’s under no obligation, in his nonfiction, to write about climate change coherently or at length. He is, in fact, obliged only to tell stories (if we grant him, as I think we should, the status not of essayist but of novelist-on-holiday: telling stories is what novelists, as opposed to essayists, traditionally do). And the best essays in the book are the ones that make use of his remarkable narrative gift. The title essay, in which he recounts both an Antarctic cruise and the life and death of the uncle who bequeathed him the money to pay for it, is an exemplary bit of storytelling. Here Franzen’s true preoccupations (that is, the preoccupations that animate his fiction) work superbly in concert: the essay deals with nature, social and financial anxiety, and, most centrally, the meaning of family. In linking a memoir of his Uncle Walt – who was, like Franzen’s mother, “an optimistic lover of life, long married to a rigid and depressive Franzen” – to a tragicomic history of his efforts to see an Emperor Penguin from the deck of a luxury liner, Franzen does what he does best: he situates a family history in the context of a guiltily superabundant, apocalypse-haunted, nature-defined modernity.

It is, I would argue, Franzen’s extraordinary powers of narrative organisation that make him an excellent novelist and a so-so essayist. The most remarkable thing about The CorrectionsFreedom and Purity is how beautifully they choreograph their multi-strand plots; the most notable thing about his essays is how often they default to a narrative mode, forgetting, in the process, their ostensible focus on argument or idea. Writing about his ideal novel in “Perchance to Dream” back in 1996, Franzen said: “I like maximum diversity and contrast packed into a single exciting experience […] I still like a novel that’s alive and multivalent like a city.” As a form, the novel is well-served by maximum diversity and contrast. But the same isn’t necessarily true of the essay – or, at least, it isn’t true of the not-quite-narrative essays that Franzen tends to write.

What holds maximum diversity and contrast together is, of course, story. Franzen-as-essayist appears to realise this only intermittently. It isn’t a coincidence that “The End of the End of the Earth” is the longest essay in the book. Franzen needs space in which to organise his grab-bag of materials. He is a marathon runner, never at his best in the hundred-yard dash. If it’s never entirely clear what he’s writing about, that may be because, in a ten-page essay, he has barely had time to begin figuring out what his subject is. If his essays rarely assemble a coherent argument, that may be because he thinks through and with story – unlike the more traditional essayist, who thinks through and with ideas.

All of which is to say that Franzen’s essays are epiphenomenal to his work as a novelist – occasionally interesting, sometimes spikily individual, but more often unsatisfactorily haphazard or dutifully fact-bound. The real Franzen is to be found elsewhere: in the pages of his fiction, with its omnivorous sympathies, its richly satisfying plots and its profound comic vision of the contemporary world. There, his divergent interests cohere into meaning. In his essay collections, we must make do with mere assemblages of interesting fragments: sometimes illuminating, sometimes lively, but never, in the end, quite enough.


Kevin Power is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock. He teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.



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