Why are we so angry with Jonathan Franzen?
Twelve days ago, the New York Times published a rather sympathetic feature on author Jonathan Franzen chronicling every way his career went wrong since being labeled a Great American Novelist (with caps) by TIME in 2010. And the reaction from the internet was brutal, as usual:
I went on and on. The article has 202 comments on Facebook and most of it is absolute vitriol directed at Franzen or at the New York Times for daring to cover him. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Jonathan Franzen’s problems are, in a vacuum, not that important. He’s still healthy, married, wealthy enough to own a house in Santa Cruz, California and he still writes for a living. His life is still pretty awesome, right? That’s pretty much the point of the article. Franzen is perfectly aware that his life is still pretty awesome and doesn’t give his woes the time of day.
That’s great, right? There’s someone out there who’s extremely successful while treating the internet with a grain of salt. But we’re still collectively so fucking angry at him. And I don’t understand why. I mean, he’s not a misogyny. He doesn’t endorse Donald Trump. He’s not a member of the Proud Boys. So, I laid out my best theories about why we’re so angry with Jonathan Franzen and if you have something that can top that, I’d love to hear it.
Theory #1: He’s arrogant
It’s the first thing that comes up, right? He’s been an outspoken critic of the modern world in recent years, lamented the disappearance of responsible book reviewers (something I did, too), dared to write female characters who weren’t empowered and complained about pretty much everything the internet enables us to do. Jonathan Franzen’s ideas about contemporary society are set, sometimes defendable (if your interlocutor has an open mind) and a little backwards, like you’d expect the ideas of an obscenely successful 59 years old man to be.
Is Jonathan Franzen arrogant because he has ideas, because he believes in them or because he expressed them in media? Now, I don’t agree with many of his ideas. But they don’t necessarily make him arrogant, they make him prehistoric. It’s not like he can (or wants) to enforce an internet ban on Occidental society. He does not write female characters to ridicule them. If anything, his disempowered women are the equivalent of the disempowered men in his novel. And he’ll have to make peace with book reviewing never being like it once was. The world is changing and even he can’t stop that.
So, is Jonathan Franzen arrogant? Sure, but any overachieving 59 years old is bound to be. He’s not damaging, though. Nazi don’t promote his books the way they promote Fight Club, for example. I believe he’s not more or less arrogant than any bestselling writer out there. He just curious positions on things he cannot change.
Theory #2: He doesn’t deserve his success
A lot of people don’t like Jonathan Franzen’s books. They find them too cerebral, winding and short on thrills. His only book with a four star rating on Amazon is his essay collection How to Be Alone, which has only 96 ratings (The Corrections has 1,280 and Freedom 1,463), so people love to think his popularity is the byproduct of publishing and media conglomerates choosing him at the next Great Ambassador of Literature and not because he’s more gifted than others at what 'he’s doing.
Now, Franzen’s novels are cerebral, winding and relatively short on thrills and that’s why I like them. They’re immersive and not needlessly tugging my heart strings. But my opinion is irrelevant and neither is yours. That might piss you off, but if public’s opinion was the main variable through which we would evaluate a writer’s talent, Stephenie Meyer, Danielle Steele, John Grisham and James Patterson would be canonized and studied in colleges in 300 years.
Jonathan Franzen is successful because he write immensely readable novels that capture what you call zeitgeist, the spirit of an era. I haven’t read Purity, but people tend to forget that because the last great meaningful novel he’s written Freedom was about the Bush era, which has been buried by the Obama and the tragic Trump era since then. There are not many authors that can do that and that’s why people buy his novels and endlessly scrutinize them.
Theory #3: He symbolizes patriarchy
This is what I believe the problem is. People can’t take a successful white man expressing contrarian opinions seriously because unless their lives are threatened, their problems aren’t serious. I tend to agree with that. If Jonathan Franzen makes spectacularly backwards declarations about the internet ruining everything in media, people will either get angry or make fun of him even if he’s right. Because it doesn’t affect his life. He never let it. Stories of Franzen sabotaging his writing laptop so it wouldn’t access the internet are folklore today, but it’s why he can do what he does.
That’s why he comes off as condescending and patronizing, too.
Literature, especially in the 20th century, has long tradition of glamorizing lonely white men as the tormented scribes of their era: John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, etc. Most of them are great, but they’re all cut from the same mold, which Franzen is cut out of. He’s perhaps the last ambassador of the old publishing system that’s slowly and painfully dying at the hands of Amazon.
People simply don’t want a successful white man telling them they’re wrong about some things, because he doesn’t have anything to complain about. And writing articles on him saying he has nothing to complain about is bound to infuriate people, which I believe is the reaction both the New York Times and Jonathan Franzen wanted out of that piece since he has a new essay collection coming out.
Franzen might be a little technophobic, but there’s a lot of truth to what he says about the internet. People can’t extract his words from the context of his life, though. They’re too busy hating him for that.