Jonathan Franzen Oprah Essay

Jonathan Earl Franzen (born August 17, 1959) is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earned Franzen a National Book Award, was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, earned a James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. His novel Freedom (2010) garnered similar praise and led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline "Great American Novelist".[3][4]

Franzen writes for The New Yorker magazine. His 1996 Harper's essay Perchance to Dream bemoaned the state of contemporary literature. Oprah Winfrey's book club selection in 2001 of The Corrections led to a much publicized feud with the talk show host. In recent years, Franzen has become recognized for his opinions on everything from social networking services such as Twitter ("the ultimate irresponsible medium")[5] and the proliferation of e-books ("just not permanent enough")[6] to the disintegration of Europe ("The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers. The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people") and the self-destruction of America ("almost a rogue state").[7]

Early life and education[edit]

Franzen was born in Western Springs, Illinois,[8] the son of Irene (née Super) and Earl T. Franzen.[9][10] His father, raised in Minnesota, was an immigrant from Sweden of Swedish and Norwegian descent.[11] Franzen grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German in 1981.[12] As part of his undergraduate education, he studied abroad in Germany during the 1979-80 academic year with Wayne State University's Junior Year in Munich program. Here he met Michael A. Martone, on whom he would later base the character Walter Berglund in Freedom.[13] He also studied on a Fulbright Scholarship at Freie Universität Berlin in Berlin in 1981-82.[14] From these experiences, he speaks fluent German. Upon graduation Franzen got married and moved with his wife to Boston to pursue a career as a novelist. When this plan fell through, they moved to New York in 1987, where Franzen managed to sell his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.[15]

Early novels[edit]

The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is set in Franzen's hometown, St. Louis, and deals with the city's fall from grace, St. Louis having been the "fourth city" in the 1870s. This sprawling novel was warmly received and established Franzen as an author to watch.[16] In a conversation with novelist Donald Antrim for Bomb Magazine, Franzen described The Twenty-Seventh City as "a conversation with the literary figures of my parents' generation[,] the great sixties and seventies Postmoderns.",[17] adding in a later interview "I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable middle-aged writer."[18]

Strong Motion (1992) focuses mainly on a dysfunctional family, the Hollands, and uses seismic events on the American East Coast as a metaphor for the quakes that occur in family life (as Franzen put it, "I imagined static lives being disrupted from without—literally shaken. I imagined violent scenes that would strip away the veneer and get people shouting angry moral truths at each other."[18]). A 'systems novel', the key 'systems' of Strong Motion according to Franzen are "[...] the systems of science and religion—two violently opposing systems of making sense in the world."[18] The novel was not a financial success at the time of its publication. Franzen subsequently defended the novel in his 2010 Paris Review interview, remarking "I think they [critics and readers] may be overlooking Strong Motion a little bit."[18]

The Corrections[edit]

Main article: The Corrections

Franzen's The Corrections, a novel of social criticism, garnered considerable critical acclaim in the United States, winning both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction[19] and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.[20] The novel was also a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction,[20] the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award,[21] and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (won by Richard Russo for Empire Falls).[22]

In September 2001, The Corrections was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Franzen initially participated in the selection, sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah and appearing in B-roll footage in his hometown of St. Louis (described in an essay in How To Be Alone titled "Meet Me In St. Louis"). In October 2001, however, The Oregonian printed an article in which Franzen expressed unease with the selection. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he expressed his worry that the Oprah logo on the cover dissuaded men from reading the book:

So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I'm sorry that it's, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.[23]

Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded. Winfrey announced, "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book."[24][25]

These events gained Franzen and his novel widespread media attention. The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction. At the National Book Award ceremony, Franzen said "I'd also like to thank Oprah Winfrey for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections."[26]

Following the success of The Corrections and the publication of The Discomfort Zone and How to Be Alone, Franzen began work on his next novel. In the interim, he published two short stories in The New Yorker: "Breakup Stories", published November 8, 2004, concerned the disintegration of four relationships; and "Two's Company", published May 23, 2005, concerned a couple who write for TV, then split up.[27]

In 2011, it was announced that Franzen would write a multi-part television adaptation of The Corrections in collaboration with The Squid and The Whale director Noah Baumbach for HBO.[28][29] HBO has since passed on Corrections, citing "difficulty" in "adapting the book's challenging narrative, which moves through time and cuts forwards and back": that would be "difficult to sustain in a series and challenging for viewers to follow, hampering the potential show's accessibility."[30]


Main article: Freedom (Franzen novel)

On June 8, 2009, Franzen published an extract from Freedom, his novel in progress, in The New Yorker. The extract, titled "Good Neighbors", concerned the trials and tribulations of a couple in St. Paul, Minnesota. On May 31, 2010, a second extract — titled "Agreeable" — was published, also in The New Yorker.[31]

On October 16, 2009, Franzen made an appearance alongside David Bezmozgis at the New Yorker Festival at the Cedar Lake Theatre, reading a portion of his forthcoming novel.[32][33] Sam Allard, writing for North By Northwestern about the event, said that the "…material from his new (reportedly massive) novel" was "as buoyant and compelling as ever" and "marked by his familiar undercurrent of tragedy". Franzen read "an extended clip from the second chapter."[33]

On September 9, 2010, Franzen appeared on Fresh Air to discuss Freedom in the wake of its release. Franzen has drawn what he describes as a "feminist critique" for the attention that male authors receive over female authors—a critique he supports. Franzen also discussed his friendship with David Foster Wallace and the impact of Wallace's suicide on his writing process.[34]

Freedom was the subject of a highly unusual "recall" in the United Kingdom starting in early October 2010. An earlier draft of the manuscript, to which Franzen had made over 200 changes, had been published by mistake. The publisher, HarperCollins initiated an exchange program, but thousands of books had been distributed by that time.[35]

While promoting the book, Franzen became the first American author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King in 2000. Franzen appeared alongside the headline "Great American Novelist".[4] He discussed the implications of the Time coverage, and the reasoning behind the title of Freedom in an interview in Manchester, England, in October 2010.[36]

On September 17, 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be an Oprah book club selection, the first of the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show.[37] On December 6, 2010, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote Freedom where they discussed that book and the controversy over his reservations about her picking The Corrections and what that would entail.[38]

Franzen has stated the writing of Freedom was deeply impacted by the death of his close friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace.[39]


Main article: Purity (novel)

In an interview with Portland Monthly on December 18, 2012, Franzen revealed that he currently had "a four-page, single-spaced proposal" for a fifth novel he was currently working on,[40] although he went on to suggest that while he had a proposal there was no guarantee that what was proposed would make the final cut, saying of similar proposals for previous novels, "I look at the old proposals now, and I see the one part of them that actually got made into a book, and I think, 'How come I couldn't see that? What is all this other stuff?'".[40] Franzen also hinted that the new novel would probably also be long, adding "I've let go of any illusion that I'm a writer of 150-page novels. I need room to let things turn around over time and see them from the whole lives of other characters, not just the single character. For better or worse, one point of view never seems to do it for me."[40] In October 2014, during a discussion at Colgate University, Franzen read a "self-contained first-person narrative" that is part of a novel that he hopes will be out in the summer of 2015.[41]

On November 17, 2014, The New York Times Artsbeat Blog reported that the novel, titled Purity, would be out in September.[42] Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, described Purity as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents. The story centers on a young woman named Purity Tyler, or Pip, who doesn't know who her father is and sets out to uncover his identity. The narrative stretches from contemporary America to South America to East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and hinges on the mystery of Pip's family history and her relationship with a charismatic hacker and whistleblower.[42]

In 2016, Daily Variety reported that the novel was in the process of being adapted into a 20-hour limited series for Showtime by Todd Field who would share writing duties with Franzen and the playwright Sir David Hare. It would star Daniel Craig as Andreas Wolf and be Executive Produced by Field, Franzen, Craig, Hare & Scott Rudin.[43]

However, in a February 2018 interview with The Times London, Hare said that, given the budget for Field’s adaptation (170 million), he doubted it would ever be made, but added “It was one of the richest and most interesting six weeks of my life, sitting in a room with Todd Field, Jonathan Franzen and Daniel Craig bashing out the story. They’re extremely interesting people.”[44]

Other works[edit]

In 1996, while still working on The Corrections, Franzen published a literary manifesto in Harper's Magazine entitled Perchance to Dream. Referencing manifestos written by Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, among others, Franzen grappled with the novelist's role in an advanced media culture which seemed to no longer need the novel. In the end, Franzen rejects the goal of writing a great social novel about issues and ideas, in favor of focusing on the internal lives of characters and their emotions. Given the huge success of The Corrections, this essay offers a prescient look into Franzen's goals as both a literary and commercially minded author.[45]

In 2002, Franzen published a critique of the novels of William Gaddis, entitled "Mr. Difficult", in The New Yorker. He begins by recounting how some readers felt The Corrections was spoiled by being too high-brow in parts, and summarizes his own views of reading difficult fiction. He proposes a "Status model", whereby the point of fiction is to be Art, and also a "Contract model", whereby the point of fiction is to be Entertainment, and finds that he subscribes to both models. He praises The Recognitions, admits that he only got halfway through J R, and explains why he does not like the rest of Gaddis's novels.[46]

In 2004 Franzen published "The Discomfort Zone", a personal essay about his childhood and family life in Missouri and his love of Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts, in The New Yorker. Susan Orlean selected it for the subsequent volume of The Best American Essays.[47]

Since The Corrections Franzen has published How to Be Alone (2002), a collection of essays including "Perchance To Dream", and The Discomfort Zone (2006), a memoir. How To Be Alone is essentially an apologia for reading, articulating Franzen's uncomfortable relationship with the place of fiction in contemporary society. It also probes the influence of his childhood and adolescence on his creative life, which is then further explored in The Discomfort Zone.

In September 2007, Franzen's translation of Frank Wedekind's play Spring Awakening (German: Frühlings Erwachen) was published. In his introduction, Franzen describes the Broadway musical version as "insipid" and "overpraised." In an interview with New York magazine, Franzen stated that he had in fact made the translation for Swarthmore College's theater department for $50 in 1986 and that it had sat in a drawer for 20 years since. After the Broadway show stirred up so much interest, Franzen said he was inspired to publish it because "I knew it was a good translation, better than anything else out there."[48]

Franzen published a social commentary on cell phones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space, "I Just Called To Say I Love You" (2008),[49] in the September/October 2008 issue of MIT Technology Review.

In 2012 he published Farther Away, a collection of essays dealing with such topics as his love of birds, his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on technology.[50]

In 2013, Franzen published The Kraus Project. It consists of three major essays by the "Perennially [...] impossible to translate"[51] Austrian "playwright, poet, social commentator and satirical genius"[51]Karl Kraus – ""Heine and the Consequences" a takedown of the beloved German poet, "Nestroy and Posterity" which established that playwright's reputation in Austria to this day, and "Afterword to Heine and the Consequences"".[51] The essays are accompanied by "Franzen's [own] plentiful, trenchant yet off-beat annotations"[51] taking on "... Kraus' mantle-commenting on what Kraus would say (and what Franzen's opinion is) about Macs and PCs; decrying Twitter's claim of credit for the Arab Spring; and unfurling how media conglomerates influence politics in their quest for profits."[51]

Franzen is set to publish his third essays collection, The End of the End of the Earth: Essays, in November 2018 [52] According to advance press for the book, the collection "gathers essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years, [and] Jonathan Franzen returns with renewed vigor to the themes—both human and literary—that have long preoccupied him. Whether exploring his complex relationship with his uncle, recounting his young adulthood in New York, or offering an illuminating look at the global seabird crisis, these pieces contain all the wit and disabused realism that we’ve come to expect from Franzen. Taken together, these essays trace the progress of a unique and mature mind wrestling with itself, with literature, and with some of the most important issues of our day, made more pressing by the current political milieu. The End of the End of the Earth is remarkable, provocative, and necessary."[52]

Philosophy of writing[edit]

During a lecture on autobiography and fiction, Franzen discussed four perennial questions often asked to him by audiences, all of which annoy him or bother him in some way. These are: (1) Who are your influences? (2) What time of day do you work, and what do you write on? (3) I read an interview with an author who says that, at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters "take over" and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too? (4) Is your fiction autobiographical? In the lecture he said of the third question in particular "This one always raises my blood pressure" and quoted Nabokov in response.

In February 2010, Franzen (along with writers such as Richard Ford, Zadie Smith, and Anne Enright) was asked by The Guardian to contribute what he believed were ten serious rules to abide by for aspiring writers.[53]

Personal life[edit]

Franzen married Valerie Cornell in 1982; they separated in 1994 and are now divorced.[54] Franzen now lives part of the year on the Upper East Side of New York City and part in Boulder Creek, California.[55] When in California, Franzen lives with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich.[56][57]

In 2010, at an event at the Serpentine Pavilion in London celebrating the launch of Freedom, Franzen's glasses were stolen from his face by a gate-crasher, who jokingly attempted to ransom them for $100,000 before being apprehended by police elsewhere in Hyde Park.[58][59][60]

Awards and honors[edit]

Honors and other recognition
  • 1996 Granta's Best Of Young American Novelists
  • 2001 New York Times Best Books of the Year for The Corrections
  • 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for The Corrections)
  • 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist (Fiction)[22]
  • 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist
  • 2003 International Dublin Literary Award (short list)
  • 2009 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor American Academy in Berlin
  • 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for Freedom)
  • 2010 New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2010 list (for Freedom)
  • 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) finalist (for Freedom)
  • 2012 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters[67]
  • 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) shortlist for The Kraus Project[68][69]
  • 2017 International Dublin Literary Award long-list for Purity
  • In January 2011, The Observer named him as one of "20 activists, filmmakers, writers, politicians and celebrities who will be setting the global environmental agenda in the coming year".[70]
  • On May 21, 2011, Franzen delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College to the class of 2011.[71]
  • The first international academic symposium solely dedicated to Franzen's work took place at Glasgow University, UK, 22 March 2013.[72] Another one, "Jonathan Franzen: Identity and Crisis of the American Novel", was scheduled to take place at the University of Córdoba, Spain, 18–19 April 2013, but later has been cancelled due to the lack of submitted papers.[73]



Short stories and novel excerpts[edit]

  • "Somewhere North of Wilmington". Blind Spot 8. (1996):116.
  • "How He Came to Be Nowhere." Granta 54 (1996):111-23
  • "Chez Lambert." The Paris Review 139 (1996): 29-41
  • "At the Party for the Artists with No Last Name." Blind Spot 14 (1999): n.pag.
  • "When the new wing broke away from the old mansion." The Guardian. 25 March 2003: n.pag.
  • "Breakup Stories." New Yorker. 6 October. 2004.: 85-99
  • "Two's Company." New Yorker. 23 May 2005.: 78-81
  • "Good Neighbors." New Yorker. 8 June 2009.: n.pag.
  • "Agreeable." New Yorker. 31 May 2010: n. pag.
  • "The Republic of Bad Taste." New Yorker. 8 June 2015: n.pag.



Television appearances[edit]


  1. ^"Time 100 Candidates: Jonathan Franzen". Time Magazine. April 4, 2011. Retrieved 2014-11-19. 
  2. ^Hayden East (November 18, 2014). "New Jonathan Franzen novel Purity features Snowden-like hacker". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-11-19. 
  3. ^"Freedom: A Novel". Macmillan. Retrieved 2010-09-10. 
  4. ^ abFehrman, Craig (August 16, 2010). "The Franzen Cover and a Brief History of Time". The Millions. 
  5. ^Flood, Alison (2012-03-07). "Jonathan Franzen: 'Twitter is the ultimate irresponsible medium'". The Guardian. London. 
  6. ^Flood, Alison (2012-01-30). "Jonathan Franzen warns ebooks are corroding values". The Guardian. London. 
  7. ^Manzoor, Sarfraz; Healey, Alex; Tait, Michael (2010-10-25). "Jonathan Franzen: 'America is almost a rogue state'". The Guardian. London. 
  8. ^"Jonathan Franzen Biography – Bio of Jonathan Franzen". Contemporary Literature. 
  9. ^Matassa Flores, Michele (September 15, 2010). "A sweaty-palmed night with Jonathan Franzen". Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-20. 
  10. ^"Jonathan Franzen's struggle for 'Freedom'". Star Tribune. 
  11. ^"IRENE EARL FRANZEN". Google Books. 
  12. ^"Jonathan Franzen '81 First Living American Novelist on Time Cover in Decade". Swarthmore. Archived from the original on 2012-08-05. Retrieved 2010-10-02. 
  13. ^Ferguson, Mark. "75 Years of the Junior Year in Munich." Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching of German 40.2 (Fall 2007): 124-132; p.132.
  14. ^"Jonathan Franzen". PEN American Center. 
  15. ^Willdorf, Nina. "An author's story: How literary It Boy Jonathan Franzen spun himself into a tornado of controversy". The Phoenix. 
  16. ^Laura Shapiro, "Terra Not So Firma," Newsweek, January 20, 1992. (Shapiro: "A huge and masterly drama of St. Louis under siege, gripping and surreal and overwhelmingly convincing." Shapiro also noted The Twenty-Seventh City's "brilliance," and the author's "prodigious gifts," concluding, "The news that he is at work on a third [novel] is welcome indeed."]
  17. ^Antrim, Donald. "Jonathan Franzen". Bomb Magazine. Fall 2001. Retrieved 2011-07-27.
  18. ^ abcdStephen J. Burn (Winter 2010). "Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fiction No. 207". The Paris Review. 
  19. ^ ab"National Book Awards – 2001". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.(With acceptance speech by Franzen and essays by Mary Jo Bang, David Ulin, and Lee Taylor Gaffigan from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  20. ^ ab"Book Prize Information – The Corrections". Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  21. ^"PEN / Faulkner Foundation Award For Fiction Previous". Archived from the original on 2010-03-02. Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  22. ^ ab"Fiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
  23. ^Gross, Terry (October 15, 2001). "Novelist Jonathan Franzen". Fresh Air. NPR. 
  24. ^"You go, girl… and she went". The Age. 2006-01-21. Retrieved 2007-04-04. 
  25. ^"Oprah's Book Club user communication, October 22, 2001". 
  26. ^"National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches: Jonathan Franzen". National Book Foundation. 2001. Retrieved 2007-04-04. 
  27. ^"jonathan franzen: Contributors". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  28. ^O'Neal, Sean (September 6, 2011). "Noah Baumbach developing Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections as HBO series". A. V. Club. 
  29. ^Rose, Lacey (2011-09-02). "Noah Baumbach to Take on Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' for HBO". The Hollywood Reporter. 
  30. ^Andreeva, Nellie (May 1, 2012). "HBO Drama Pilot 'The Corrections' Not Going Forward". Deadline. 
  31. ^Jonathan Franzen (May 31, 2010), Agreeable, The New Yorker 
  32. ^"Festival". The New Yorker. 2009-01-07. Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  33. ^ ab"The Franzen Interface". North by Northwestern. Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  34. ^"Franzen On The Book, The Backlash, His Background". Fresh Air. NPR. 2010-09-09. Retrieved 2010-09-10. 
  35. ^Flood, Alison; Davis, Rowenna (2010-10-01). "Jonathan Franzen's book Freedom suffers UK recall". The Guardian. London. 
  36. ^Haslam, Dave (October 3, 2010). "Onstage interview with celebrated American novelist Jonathan Franzen". Dave Haslam, Author and DJ – Official Site. 
  37. ^Kellogg, Carolyn (September 18, 2010). "Oprah's book club christens Franzen's 'Freedom'". Los Angeles Times. 
  38. ^"Author Jonathan Franzen Appears on 'Oprah' Show". ABC News. 
  39. ^Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Franzen: 'Modern life has become extremely distracting', The Guardian, 2 October 2015.
  40. ^ abc"Q&A: Jonathan Franzen". Retrieved 3 June 2015. 
  41. ^Rice, Jessica. "Author Jonathan Franzen visits Colgate as part of Living Writers course". Colgate University. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  42. ^ abAlter, Alexandra. "New Jonathan Franzen Novel, 'Purity,' Coming in September". Colgate The New York Times Blog. Retrieved 17 November 2014. 
  43. ^Wagmeister, Elizabeth (2016). "Showtime Lands Daniel Craig, Scott Rudin Limited Series 'Purity'". Daily Variety. 
  44. ^Maxwell, Dominic (2018). "David Hare: 'I am sick to death of hearing about the need for strong women as protagonists

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is partly set in Santa Cruz, a Californian town 70 miles south of San Francisco, where the novelist lives with his partner, Kathy. Their house is in the U-bend of a crescent, on the edge of a suburban housing estate, overlooking a wooded conservation area to the Pacific Ocean beyond. It is, for one of America’s foremost literary novelists, a modest property, overlooked on three sides by neighbours in a way that, say, Philip Roth’s grand pile in Connecticut is not. However, it affords good views from the deck (the novelist is an avid birdwatcher) and the low overheads that permit Franzen to let five years go by without delivering a novel. “I’m not used to talking about this book,” he says of Purity, which, like his preceding two novels, is a 600-page doorstopper. There is a long, Franzonian pause: “I’m trying to figure out how much I should say and how much I should not say.”

Jonathan Franzen 'considered adopting Iraqi orphan to figure out young people'

That question, as central to the writing as to the publicising of the novel, is one that Franzen has frequently struggled to answer. At 55, he has the earnest, slightly puggish look of a younger man, and the occasional intemperance of one, too. On a refresher driving test he took recently, the novelist scored high on the scale for susceptibility to road rage. (“There are 11 things that are warning signs of road rage, and I had, like, nine of them.”) His fame has as much to do with the fights he has picked – or has had foisted upon him – as with the quality of his fiction; Franzen riles people in a way that is unusual, and perhaps reassuring for a novelist, given the endless debate about the relevance of that role. He has attracted the scorn, over the years, of users of social media, environmentalists, certain stripes of feminist critic, lesser novelists, the lead book reviewer of the New York Times and fans of Oprah Winfrey.

Franzen says he is “hurt” and “ashamed” to be the target of such ire, but he is also unrepentant. No sooner has one controversy died down than another pops up in its place, most recently in the wake of a long piece he wrote in the New Yorker in April, suggesting that, contrary to research published by the bird charity the National Audubon Society, climate change was not the greatest threat to avian welfare – it was more immediate dangers such as hunting and collision with glass. The society accused him of “intellectual dishonesty”, and its members attacked him online, an unpleasant, but also, perhaps, a bleakly satisfying experience: the incident foreshadowed the themes of Franzen’s new novel.

'I was cripplingly ashamed of The Corrections. I was embarrassed to still care about family'

Purity is the story of Pip, a girl in her early 20s, and a Julian Assange-type character called Andreas Wolf, who runs a rival organisation to Wikileaks called the Sunlight Project. Internet culture is, in some ways, perfect fodder for Franzen, who is never stronger than when calling out the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us – a gap wherein so much of online life now resides. But it is also an odd fit; a novel about technology by someone who avowedly doesn’t like using it. Many years ago, Franzen spoke about jamming the USB port on his computer in order to get stuff done, and more recently scolded Salman Rushdie for wasting time on Twitter. This distaste is in part aesthetic – the very brevity of Twitter offends Franzen – and partly a reaction against what he calls the “totalitarianism” of online culture, wherein retribution by the mob can be vast, swift and violently misinformed.

The irony of all this is that Franzen, a white male novelist frequently accused of elitism, is, in this scenario, something of an underdog, the nerd repeatedly beaten up by the cool kids online – although he identifies the real villain of the piece as the internet itself, which he compares in Purity to communist East Germany. “You can’t not have a relation to, in the case of East Germany, the socialism of the state,” Franzen says. “In the case of the internet, you can ignore it, or you can abet it. Either way, you are in a relation to it. And that’s what’s totalitarian.”

As for social media, “it feels like a protection racket. Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations.” There is a long pause. “Why would I want to feed that machine?”


Reading Jonathan Franzen on form is like watching a baseball star toss a ball, knowing that behind the casual gesture is a virtuoso talent and 10,000 hours of practice. Franzen’s prose is deadpan, unexcitable, almost aggressively rational, made up of long, finely planed sentences that quiver with the sarcasm that is at the root of his comedy. Unlike his friend, the late David Foster Wallace, he has never been fashionable – he isn’t avant-garde and takes everything too seriously for the postmodern style. Neither does he fall easily into a literary rat pack. “I look at McEwan and Amis and Hitchens,” he says. “They seemed like a pack. And I don’t think that’s how it works so much here [in the US]. It’s not a generational divide. At least in my experience, what separates people into packs is not age, it’s taste.” He allies himself with writer friends such as Paula Fox, Don DeLillo, David Means and Jeffrey Eugenides. “[Jonathan Safran] Foer,” he says, “I’m friendly with him. And even if I’ve never met the person – I met Edward St Aubyn once, at a reading, but he’s part of the pack. Dead people can be part of the pack.”

These friends are also “loving competitors”, and for a long time Franzen felt angry at his relative lack of progress. At the age of 40, having spent a decade writing two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, both of which were well-reviewed and little-sold, he resigned himself to a certain amount of cultural irrelevance, which he attributed not to any failing in himself, but to a failing in the culture. He was, he says, experiencing a “disillusionment” with the American reading public, the kind of grandiose attitude that the reviewer Michiko Kakutani was perhaps trying to puncture when she called him a “jackass” in the New York Times. Franzen, smiling, allows that he may at times have been a little insufferable. (Inevitably, he fought back and called Kakutani “tone deaf and humourless”.) “You adopt a certain attitude when you feel like you have something that’s not appreciated. You have to generate some sense of bigness on your own; that’s an insufferable activity.”

It is important here to note Franzen’s Midwestern background – he was raised in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, a part of the US with a regional identity strongly rooted in humility, so Franzen’s arrogance is in some ways a performance. Once he achieved success, he says, “I could revert to my native Midwestern modesty.”

His shyness is not to be overlooked, either. Franzen is pained and baffled when he hears himself described as misanthropic. “I don’t dislike people; I love people,” he says to me at one point, and there is a line in Purity, applied to a character called Anabel, that could be the author addressing himself: “She kept alienating people with her moral absolutism and her sense of superiority, which is so often the secret heart of shyness.”

Everything changed with The Corrections, Franzen’s novel of the family Lambert: Enid and Alfred, the warring old couple, and their three dysfunctional adult children. The fictional family bore strong similarities to Franzen’s own, his father a railway engineer, his mother a housewife, although, he says, as “writing becomes more autobiographical, the less it hews to actual lived experience. The text takes on meaning when you start to depart from experience. Because then it starts to tap into the writer’s nature.”

Franzen had no great hopes for The Corrections. “I thought I would write for a small audience. And had put all the stuff that was really shameful to me... it’s hard to conceive of now, that I was ashamed of writing a book, deeply ashamed, cripplingly ashamed of writing a book that turned on a mother’s wish to have the family together for Christmas.”

Because you felt it was too small a canvas?

“It was small, and I was embarrassed to have come from the innocent Midwest. And I was embarrassed to still care about family. And there were many other things. Chip’s freakishness, that drew to some extent from my own sense of freakishness. You explore the shameful things for people who… that’s what they go to fiction for. That’s why they’re reading Kafka, or Dostoevsky. But that’s a small audience.”

'There is no way to make myself not male. There is a sense there is nothing I can really do, except die – or retire'

John Updike and to some extent Philip Roth had, for decades, been writing novels with domestic settings that hadn’t stopped them being taken seriously, but Franzen couldn’t conceive of Enid and Alfred winning him the same kind of respect. They were too weird, too pitiful, too specific to his own family and his disastrous adolescence (a period Franzen revisits in his essay Then Joy Breaks Through, in which, memorably, he goes to church camp and on the way does everything he can to avoid being consigned to the car of Social Death).

“And to discover that these things that I thought were freakish parts of my history and my personality – people were saying, ‘Oh, someone’s writing about me! And this is my family.’ I thought, oh my God, I’ve been so embarrassed my whole life about my family. And here people are telling me that they recognise it. I felt deeply grateful, but I also realised that my contempt for the non-hardcore readers – the softer core readers... not contempt, but my writing them off, had been premature. In fact, there was a whole lot more people looking for a certain kind of novelistic experience than I had any idea.”

The Corrections, which was published in 2001, when Franzen was 42, sold more than three million copies. “It was simply no longer appropriate to be angry.”


Good relationships make for boring novels. For the last 13 years, Franzen has lived with Kathryn Chetkovich, a writer and editor whom he persuaded to move in with him four months after The Corrections came out, and with whom, says Franzen, “I’m never bored.” As an editor, Chetkovich mostly works with social scientists. “She helps them think better. She knows a lot of stuff. And it’s hard to get away with a specious argument in her presence. I don’t think I could live with someone that I didn’t have an intellectual friendship with. Maybe a dog.”

Against this background of domestic harmony – halfway through the interview, Franzen gets a call from the garage, informing him that Chetkovich’s long-awaited VW Golf has arrived, and he is buoyantly excited for her – the novelist revisits, in his fiction, terrible relationships of the past. For 14 years, from his early 20s onwards, he was married to another writer, Valerie Cornell. With all the caveats about autobiography in place, elements of the experience clearly inform parts of Purity. While sections of the new novel (and Franzen’s previous one, Freedom) read like an intellectual exercise, the car crash of Tom and Anabel’s marriage is straightforwardly brilliant, captivating, unbearable.

“A little bit funny?” he says, anxiously.



It struck Franzen that no one had really done “the entire slow-motion train wreck in all its brutality”. He is terrific at arguments – that terrible, slow suck into someone else’s version of reality, wherein, as Tom says, “every utterance of hers gave me multiple options for response, each of which would prompt a different utterance, to which, again, I would have multiple options in responding, and I knew how quickly I could be led eight or ten steps out on to some dangerous tree branch and what a despair-inducingly slow job it was to retrace my steps back up the branch to a neutral starting point”.

The fact that Anabel is a feminist so warped and fanatical that she forces Tom to, for example, atone for his maleness by sitting down on the toilet to pee, will be received by Franzen’s feminist critics as an aggressive act, a deliberate ridiculing of the cause, which he concedes is somewhat the case. “There’s a certain degree of glee in putting that stuff in the book. Because I know that if you are hostile, you will find ammunition. I wrote this deliriously praising celebration of Edith Wharton. People managed to find a way to make it sound like I was hating on Edith Wharton. So why not just let it all rip and: have fun with that, guys.” (Criticism of the Wharton essay rounded on Franzen’s observation that Wharton “wasn’t pretty”, something he suggested, not unreasonably, fed into her fictional disquisitions on the complicated currency of female beauty.)

“I’m not a sexist,” he says. “I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section is that he’s really trying to not be male.” His ex-wife did not try to get him to pee sitting down. But “there’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again”.

Dying wouldn’t help, I suggest: then he would be a dead white male novelist, a category even more problematic than a living one. “Yes, even worse. So I was attracted to a story of someone trying to do reparations. And trying really hard and really sincerely, and lovingly, and finally not being able to. The comedy of that.”

He has written some great female characters – Enid Lambert; Patty Berglund; in Purity, Tom’s mother Clelia, her name a nod to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse Of Parma – these hard, awkward, embarrassing women who turn out to have been heroes. Franzen’s real crime, one suspects, is not one of content, but of presentation; his propensity for feeling hard done by doesn’t play well with those who face greater barriers just to get to the start line. “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book,” tweeted the US novelist Jodi Picoult when Freedom was published in 2010. “Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” The novelist Jennifer Weiner made similar remarks, to which Franzen replied, earlier this year, that she was “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon” to promote her novels.

'I didn't scream when Oprah called me. I said, "Oh, hey." And she didn't know what to do with that'

But there is also something courageous in Franzen’s willingness to step up to the fight. It takes nerve, these days, to criticise social media, as it does to piss off Oprah, as the novelist famously did in 2001. In the essay Franzen wrote after the incident, he cleared up a lot of the misconceptions, namely that he turned down Oprah when she invited him to be on her show. In fact, she disinvited Franzen after he made some equivocal remarks about being on the show during publicity and was a brat when the crew came to St Louis to film background. (“This is so bogus!” he exclaimed, when they asked him to stand in front of an old haunt and look soppy.)

“It was a tragic misunderstanding,” Franzen says. “I blame myself, because I said things that were stupid. And hurt a number of people.” There is a pause, during which one feels Franzen leaning inexorably, and rather endearingly, in a direction that can do him no good. “I also blame Oprah,” he says. “Because, from our very first conversation, it was clear we were not speaking the same language. I didn’t scream when she called me. I said, ‘Oh, hey.’ And was trying to talk like a media professional to a media professional. And she didn’t know what to do with that.”

She treated him like a competition winner?

“Oh, totally. Yes. And what is the one thing a competition winner has to do? They have to show abject gratitude. And I was, like, well, I don’t think you’d be doing this if it weren’t good for you, too. So let’s work together. And the answer was no. So I blame her, too.”

She couldn’t break persona for him?

“That’s the thing. And I think the fact that I was a white guy made that harder. And I think she was sensitive to any suggestion that I might be dissing her. And, of course, then I did diss her. But not before I’d had that experience.”


Towards the end of 2006, Franzen started to feel a certain lack in his life. He was approaching his late 40s, he was immensely successful, well remunerated and in a good relationship. The thing that he lacked was access to young people.

“I had a brief period of questioning whether I should perhaps adopt a child,” he says. “And my New Yorker editor, Henry Finder, was horrified by the notion. We were in a bar. He picked up a pair of toothpicks and made the sign of the cross and held it in front of him and said, ‘Please don’t do that.’ And then he paused and said, ‘But maybe we can rent you some young people.’”

For a year, Franzen checked in regularly with a group of new graduates from Berkeley, who were part of a semi-longitudinal study into kids who’d just graduated from college, eventually writing a piece for the New Yorker about the experience, out of which, many years later, Pip, the 20-something heroine of Purity, was born. Pip is smart, funny, awkward, all the things Franzen likes in a person. “I knew her. She was easy.”

Did hanging out with the young people nix his desire to have a baby?

“Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks. And was finally killed by Henry’s response. He made a persuasive case for why that was a bad idea. The main thing it did … one of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me. And part of what journalism is for me is spending time with people who I dislike as a class. But I became very fond of them, and what it did was it cured me of my anger at young people.”

The anger moved on to new targets, the greatest of which, of course, was the internet. There is a danger for Franzen, that an author who is not a native user of the internet will be exposed in the way in which he writes about it, and there are a few false notes in Purity; an off use of the term “going viral”, a tin-eared reference to Jeff Bezos, and the overwrought phrase “moused and clicked” to describe the activity of industrious interns at their desks.

Cannily, given how much of the storyline he is made to shoulder, the Andreas Wolf character is positioned as a pre-internet creature, born and raised in communist East Germany, with a commensurate understanding of how systems that claim to liberate human potential can actually constrain it. The apex of the book is an extraordinary rant Wolf goes on against what he calls the New Regime – coincidentally, an echo of remarks made by Assange himself in his 2012 book of essays, in which the Wikileaks founder warned that the internet could be turned into a “dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism”.

Assange was mainly talking about surveillance technologies. In Purity, Franzen’s critique is much broader. “Smart people were actually far more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less-smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA,” rages Wolf in the novel. “It was straight from the totalitarian playbook, disavowing your own methods of terror by imputing them to your enemy and presenting yourself as the only defense against them – and most of the would-be Snowdens kept their mouth shut.”

Who is the Stasi, in the East German analogy?

'It becomes very hard to be creative, because you're worried about what you might be called, and whether it's fair'

“Technology itself is the Stasi. Technology is the genie out of the bottle. And the Stasi didn’t actually need to do that much. It didn’t arrest that many people. Even with all its resources, it couldn’t do that many full operations. So it counted on people censoring themselves. And controlling their own behaviour for fear of the Stasi, without their needing to lift a finger.”

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