A Writer’s Odyssey: Jonathan Franzen

At one point during his January 22 lecture “Becoming Jonathan Franzen: A Writer’s Odyssey,” English professor Phil Weinstein launched into a vigorous dramatic reading of a great passage from Franzen’s essay “Two Ponies,” a transcription of an argument between Franzen’s two very different parents: “LEAVE THE GOD-DAMNED THERMOSTAT ALONE!” “Earl, I didn’t touch it!” “You did! Again!” Weinstein’s voice took on an edge, somehow both submissive and angry: “I didn’t think I even moved it, I just looked at it, I didn’t mean to change it.” Weinstein got that “looked” just right: desperate, whiney, absurd. A dramatic reading is indispensable for such a lecture: an hour of Franzen-dissection would have been so much duller without a real sense of Franzen’s sensibility. It is rather too easy and too popular—particularly, I would argue, in the academy—to imagine that we conquer books, that we interpret them and figure them out and triumphantly write up our reports after wiping our hands of the mess of reading, when perhaps the most true and difficult reading goes the other way: books read us, make us transparent to ourselves, expose our hypocrisies and sadnesses. The critic or academic who quotes at length, who can in effect let Franzen into the room, knows this. Professor Weinstein understands reading.

He is also pretty obviously right to focus on Franzen’s parents in his examination of who, exactly, Franzen is, and how he came to be. (After all, one of the big themes of “The Corrections” is that kids never really do outgrow their parents.) The story Professor Weinstein told, in essence, is that Franzen, the youngest son of an ascetic father and self-consciously emotional mother, grew up awkward but invincible, and while a student at Swarthmore convinced himself that the problems of “monopoly capitalism” (a phrase Franzen says he used to use)—its “negative moments” (another even worse one)—were his chief concern as a novelist and largely the source of his own personal problems, such as the collapse of his marriage. Then, in the 1990s, he rethought his approach, rejected the notion of the “status” novel—a book that bullies the reader into submission with its show of intellect and difficulty and thus ends up on the reading lists of prestigious colleges—in favor of the “contract” novel—a book that is really for its reader, and wrote the magnificent and best-selling “The Corrections,” a decidedly contract novel that presents a flailing midwestern family in painfully human terms. (Franzen is a master of “the sound of daily family struggle,” in Professor Weinstein’s words.) Since then, he has revealed much about his personal life in a series of nonfiction books, which Weinstein drew on extensively, and published another bestselling novel, “Freedom,” also about a midwestern family.

In some quarters Franzen’s criticism of “status” novels has drawn condescension and even vehement anger. Certainly Franzen’s criticism is pointedly anti-academic; and Professor Weinstein notes that. He concedes that Swarthmore’s honors program likely contributed to young Franzen’s hubris and that Franzen only became a great novelist once he had dismounted his pretentious anti-consumerism hobby horse—once he had thrown out the high-minded attitude that often seems to accompany left-wing thought in college humanities departments: in an interview Franzen said he was taken over by an “extreme rage against literary theory and the politicization of academic English departments,” which was related to his “growing antagonism toward a status model of the novel.” That means that speaking positively of Franzen’s transition is in some sense a rebuke of Swarthmore; and Professor Weinstein handled it well: with respect and directness and humor, and without directly mentioning Franzen’s view of literary theory.

Professor Weinstein mentioned that for a while he has been toying with the idea of writing a book about Franzen. He should do it. His comments on Franzen’s novels were mostly pretty offhanded, but they were very perceptive. (I particularly liked his comment that the characters of “Freedom” are much more aware of their own aging, of the inevitable declines of their lives, than those of “The Corrections.”) And a book might give him more room to flesh out Franzen’s life. The narrative of status-Franzen becoming contract-Franzen feels generally right but is rather too clean-cut; it flattens the real Franzen. Franzen’s desire to write pleasurable books is actually not new—even his early novels are amiably peopled and very readable; and his coming to see his parents as cartoons, to use Franzen’s phrase, to finally see them as novelistic characters and not just looming symbols of how not to be, is surely on some level separate from his thinking about books; and it would be useful to distinguish between Franzen’s attitude toward the social novel and his attitude toward the difficult novel, for the two really are separate. I would even argue that Franzen himself, when he writes about literature in the future, ought to consider dropping the whole status/contract binarism entirely. It’s a distinction that works for indicting the most gratingly difficult postmodern novels and for making the reasonable and important claim that serious literature ought to be accessible; but in the end it does not offer much to a serious inquiry into literary difficulty, or do justice to the tremendous variety of great literature, or say really anything at all about most books. It does not even do justice to Franzen’s own novels.

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