Like most great controversies, it all started with Oprah.
Back in 2001, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, at a time when OBC was nirvana for publishers—an immediate launching pad to record-breaking sales and endless press. Franzen shot some b-roll with O, but his invitation for an official sit-down was rescinded after a series of interviews in which he expressed reservations about the pick. “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,”’ Franzen told NPR at the time. “Those are male readers speaking.”
Oprah and Franzen eventually made up—ever a badass, in 2010 she selected his novel Freedom for her book club and the duo intellectually hugged it out on camera—but even after a decade of half-assed backpedaling, Franzen has struggled (or refused) to shed his reputation as an ungrateful douche. “I think [Oprah] was surprised that I wasn’t moaning with shock and pleasure,” he told Slate of the Corrections debacle in 2013. “I’d been working nine years on the book and FSG had spent a year trying to make a best-seller of it. It was our thing. She was an interloper, coming late, and with an expectation of slavish gratitude and devotion for the favor she was bestowing.”
Oprah isn’t Franzen’s only beef. He also has a longstanding feud with author Jennifer Weiner, who has made Franzen the poster child for her crusade against the literary establishment’s gender problem. Weiner says male authors like Franzen get a disproportionate share of attention and review space, while Franzen says that if there is a lit-fiction gender gap, Weiner isn’t a victim of it. “She is asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits,” Franzen said in February. “To me it seems she’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically.”
Unfortunately, Franzen is one of those unique human centipedes who only seems to get more famous the more he decries the consequences of his fame: Purity, his latest novel, debuted on best-seller lists. The book centers on Purity Tyler, Pip for short, an insecure and directionless 20-something living in Denver in an unrequited love/roommate situation from which she is too immature to seek escape. While there, Pip meets temporary lodger Annagret, who invites her to be an intern at the Sunlight Project, a sort of Google meets Peace Corps meets Wikileaks operation HQed in Brazil and headed up by enigmatic founder Andreas Wolf. Broke, unloved and alone, Pip heads to the Project, where she becomes acquainted with Wolf and a broader cast of characters whose lives intertwine with her own.
As with The Corrections and Freedom—also multi-family and/or multi-generational drama/romance epics—Purity is web-like, and its complex familial relationships intersect with romantic relationships and friendships. But the characters here feel less developed than in novels of Franzen past, in part because much room is made for the book’s real focus: the Internet, that demoralizing and crazy-making collection of beeps and boops sent by Satan to destroy everything from privacy to journalism to civilization at large. Most of Purity’s characters exist in some way to serve this mission statement: Wolf is outwardly beloved but inwardly disturbed, stalked by his own fame and distracted by his rivalry with Julian Assange. Leila is an old-school reporter who thinks leaks are a sad substitute for journalism. Tom is an editor-in-chief of a new media startup whose possible scoop might get spiked over its hacker origins. Even technology-ambivalent Pip is an expert at Facebook stalking.
In this whirlwind of digital morals, Franzen’s characters have no problem chiming in with monologues befitting the kind of Luddite the author himself has come to represent. And while many of those critiques are predictable and/or minor, some are sweeping condemnations of a world in which we are all connected all the time. In a diatribe on totalitarianism, Wolf says: “The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle. You could cooperate with the system or you could oppose it, but the one thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it. The answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.” Later, Franzen lays it out even more plainly: “The aim of the Internet and its associated technologies was to ‘liberate’ humanity from the tasks—making things, learning things, remembering things—that had previously given meaning to life and thus had constituted life.”
So focused is Purity on the implications of a post-Internet world that it feels like a response on Franzen’s part, to those who have suggested no true egalitarian or intellectual can be so opposed to the democratizing power of the web. Also to those who have suggested that Franzen is old-fashioned, or sexist, or elitist, or those who have simply said he’s a bit of a dick. “So many Jonathans,” Franzen writes of fiction in Purity. “A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.” If that’s not trolling, I don’t know what is.
Still, there is no question that Franzen is an engaging writer. If you’re the kind of person who can relax into a book, who can go at the novel’s pace instead of your own, Franzen is good, great even. Purity, like Freedom (and to a lesser extent, The Corrections) still shows a somewhat myopic view of the nature of mother/child relationships, and female/male relationships. Franzen still writes with an occasional eagerness that makes me cringe, and with an overall inability to carve out unique character voices. But the book is good, solid. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed.
Which brings me to my point. I’m tired of saying the same things about Jonathan Franzen’s novels. I’m tired of conceding that he’s accessible but cautioning that he’s intellectual. I’m tired of comparing the reality of Franzen, in which he is pretty good, to the mythology of Franzen, in which he is One Of The Greats.
Because Jonathan Franzen is basic. He’s a basic bitch. He writes sweeping relationship dramas the way Danielle Steel writes romantic bodice-rippers and Dan Brown writes high-stakes mystery adventures involving sweater-wearing academics and villains who love symbols. Franzen can write one of the most quietly evocative scenes you’ve ever read, and then immediately after it a sentence so painfully earnest it gives you goosebumps (the bad, awkward kind). His books are great, but they’re not challenging. They’re compelling but predictable, topical but a little too on the nose.
In literary fiction, one day you’re in and the next you’re ….probably still in if you’re white, male, acclaimed, and write hefty books with big words and lots of Meaning. But what you can’t do is become mainstream; you can’t be the kind of author who gets read by the hoi polloi for whom an Oprah’s Book Club sticker might be seen as a laudable endorsement. Jonathan Franzen has made no bones about which side of this literary/commercial divide he sees himself on, and always seems mildly surprised by the popularity of his own novels, as though impressed that the illiterate masses are capable of enjoying such rigorous literateur. It never seems to dawn on Franzen that he is popular because he is accessible, because the same people who read Twilight can read Freedom, because stories about “families who have Secrets and Feelings” aren’t inherently highbrow. Franzen may see himself as the last bastion of critical thinking, but the rest of us would squash a lot of faux controversy (and Franzen ego) by admitting that he isn’t and adjusting our expectations accordingly. After all, nobody Great fucks with Oprah.
AUTHOR: Jonathan Franzen
ALSO WROTE: The Corrections, Freedom
SORTA LIKE: The Goldfinch meets The Circle
FIRST LINE: “‘Oh pussycat, I’m so glad to hear your voice,’ the girl’s mother said on the telephone.”