Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Questions of Canon Slippage: Jonathan Franzen

SO, DID JONATHAN Franzen know, when the New York Times Magazine approached him about doing a cover story, that the story's angle was going to be that his coolness score had dropped significantly? Is that how they pitched it? "Well, Mr. Franzen, as we hardly need to tell you, you are no longer a leading candidate for Great American Novelist of your generation, and our readers would just like to know, how does that feel?" It seems that he hardly would have consented to the interview had he known its angle, but who knows? Maybe he had an Underground Man moment and just wanted to ride that rollercoaster of humiliation.

I would say that Franzen's stock started dropping all the way back in 2002, with his New Yorker essay "Mr. Difficult," a somewhat disparaging take on William Gaddis in particular and experimental, "difficult" fiction in general. From then on--or certainly from Ben Marcus's response in Harper's on--Franzen's stock among the folks who teach in or studied in or just hang around the orbit of any MFA writing program was in the sub-basement.

In the non-MFA, NYC part of the American literary scene, there was still high anticipation for the followup to The Corrections, much popping of corks when Freedom landed, cover of Time, that sort of thing. But Freedom was just not that interesting, really. For all the great early reviews, I don't think I met any ordinary readers who enjoyed it nearly as much as they had The Corrections.

"Farther Away," the New Yorker essay about birdwatching that morphed into a somewhat disparaging take on David Foster Wallace, pissed me off. At that point, he was off my list of people to read. When I saw stacks of Purity in the book store, I thought, "enhh." But I took a chance, and it's good. Better than Freedom, certainly. But many fewer bought it.

The obvious (to me) conclusion is that Purity's sales were off because Freedom was a dud, but the author of the NYT Magazine piece prefers to see it as a case of the zeitgeist kicking Franzen to the curb. The possibility that Purity's relatively low sales were as unrelated to its merits as the merits of Freedom were to its relatively high sales does not enter the discussion. She instead makes fun of his speech mannerisms and indulges in a little schadenfreude about his failures to get his novels televised. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the man.

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