Jonathan Franzen is a basic bitch, but I’m OK with it

Franzen is oneย of those unique human centipedes who only seems to get more famous the more he decries the consequences of his fame. I don’t mind.

Book Review-Purity

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 publishersโ€”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 Franzen shot some b-roll with O, but his invitation for an official sit-down was rescinded after a series of interviews in which he expressed reservations about the pick.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 upโ€”ever a badass, in 2010 she selected his novel Freedom for her book club and the duo intellectually hugged it out on cameraโ€”but even after a decade of half-assed backpedaling, Franzen has struggled (or refused) to shed his reputation as an ungrateful douche. โ€œI think [Oprah] was surprised that I wasnโ€™t moaning with shock and pleasure,โ€ he told Slate of the Corrections debacle in 2013. “Iโ€™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.โ€

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, donโ€™t think her work merits,” Franzen said in February. “To me it seems sheโ€™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.”

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Nostalgia is a seductive liar

So I was perusing Tumblr this week and stumbled across a question from one person I follow to another: “Curious about something: I often have this attitude towards contemporary fiction. I’m reading Steinbeck now with great joy. Are there current writers that are worth it?”

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this attitude from fellow readers. I suppose there’s something natural to looking back on books written fifty or a hundred years agoโ€”let alone Shakespeareโ€”and seeing in them something you want to believe hasn’t been replicated or improved upon since. At the same time, really? Should it not strike all of us as ludicrous to suggest that the art of writing fiction somehow disappeared in the 21st century, or that people born after, say, 1975 are somehow inherently incapable of producing literature of the same quality as John Steinbeck?

I could also argue the other side hereโ€”that upon reflection, books like The Great Gatsby, or Catcher in the Rye, aren’t really that good. (Confession: I couldn’t even get through Catcher in the Rye. I know; I’m sorry!) But that’s not nearly as important as the fact that even without shitting on traditionally celebrated classical authors, the 21st century has still produced some bombass fiction, and some incredibly talented and prolific people upon whom I can only hope silver-clad space-dwelling humans of the 23rd century will look back and say, “Man, remember when people could write like that?”

Which brings me to Jonathan Franzen.

Continue reading “Nostalgia is a seductive liar”