Jonathan Franzen: The Mitt Romney of American Letters

Jonathan Franzen’s new essay collection Farther Away dropped on April 24, but it’s not likely to cause a stir the way his novels The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010), respectively, did—essay collections rarely do. But it will sell because Franzen is a lightning rod, and his name is always cropping up in the cultural dialogue. Sometimes it’s for his novels. Most often, it’s for something he’s said or done to irk the literary community.

What he does, he does well. As a writer of enticing, accessible prose, Franzen is a craftsman. When it comes to the quality of his fiction, even literary Brat Packer Bret Easton Ellis conceded: “The Corrections and Freedom are the two best novels that came out of my generation, so man-up and deal with it, guys.”

As a critic of literature, Franzen is often sharp and insightful. But as a public figure, Franzen is a frustrating mess. He comes off as small, unsympathetic, out of touch, and tone deaf. His penchant for saying the wrong thing, even writing the wrong thing, has earned him his share of resentment—a dark cloud in his otherwise unthreatening skyline.

To put it another way: Jonathan Franzen is the Mitt Romney of American letters.

True, their politics differ greatly, but both men, while having the notable advantage of being influential and white, can’t seem to get out of their own way. Both Romney and Franzen speak to similar audiences—educated, affluent white people. Romney does it with the alluring pentameter of tax cuts, while Franzen scribbles fiction concerning the undoing of upper-middle class families. Not to torture the metaphor, but each is a member of their own particular One Percent. Romney has made millions being a savvy businessman. Franzen is something rarer than a financially secure white male; he’s a famous fiction author.

Each man has their base, their apologists, and their detractors. Over the course of this arduous and sometimes hilarious Republican primary, one thing has stayed consistent: those in the GOP who dislike Mitt Romney seriously dislike him. If they vote for him in November, it’ll be with their collective nose pinched shut.

Based on my reading of Flavorwire’s blurb for Farther Away, I have a feeling many readers feel a similar ambivalence toward Franzen:

“This collection, which gathers the best of Franzen’s recent essays and speeches, probably won’t change anyone’s mind about him – at least, most of the really incendiary pieces have already been talked about to death and finally laid to rest in the collective media consciousness. But we’re going to read it anyway, and so are you.”

This is about as glowing as the endorsement Senator Marco Rubio gave Romney when he admitted that there are “other people out there that some of us wish had run for president—but they didn’t.”

To be fair, Franzen isn’t trying to win over blocs of voters. He isn’t trying make himself cool or relatable. GQ tried its best when it had Chuck Klosterman interview him, but even C.K. couldn’t make him out to be anything other than stilted and reticent. Franzen never apologizes for who he is, or his success, but just like Romney, the more he opens his mouth, the more you want him to shut it. Romney’s crash-and-burn moments have come when he’s ventured off script. Franzen, on the other hand, lets his foot meet his mouth, even in print. He has time to consider his words, what he’s going to write, and he still manages to find nothing wrong with what/how he says it. All this, I suspect, is by design. Franzen’s “gaffes,” if they can be called that, keep him in the public spotlight, which is where he wants to be.

Homely Women, Hideous Men

In February, The New Yorker published Franzen’s essay on The House of Mirth (1905) author Edith Wharton. His thesis—that all readers bring prejudices to literature, consciously or not—was mangled in the not-at-all subtle sexism present throughout. His argument: Readers find Wharton (and by tenuous extension, her writing) less sympathetic because she lived a life of privilege, was socially conservative, and most bafflingly, because she wasn’t beautiful. He wrote of Wharton: “[She] might well be more congenial to us now if . . . she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”

Franzen’s detractors pounced, attacking his underlying gender discrimination, as well as his penchant for assuming everyone shares his opinion. The rhetorical snag in his piece (and the quotation in which he compares Wharton to Kelly and Kennedy, in particular) is the benign pronoun “us.” Critics claimed the prominent use of the collective pronoun throughout the essay was indicative of a greater issue. Either Franzen believed his opinion was universal or he was knowingly cloaking himself in the crowd of “us” to allay the responsibility of having taken such an ugly stance. If the latter were true, it would mean Franzen was playing the troll, deliberately stirring up literary controversy for attention the way TV shows kill off characters during sweeps.

In “Farther Away,” the title essay from his forthcoming collection, he attempts to portray the pain and anger he felt after his friend and fellow writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide—except it didn’t read that way. Far be it for me to say how one should handle grief surrounding the loss of a loved one, but it’s small to publically denounce your friend and his fans in such an acerbic homily.

I’m sympathetic to Franzen here. It’s true that DFW was a complex person. But it’s Franzen who comes off as undeserving or at least ungrateful for the friendship he shared. Through the magic of pop psychology, Franzen diagnoses DFW, reduces his friend’s psychological issues to personal quirks, and implies that it was boredom and a weak will that pushed DFW over the edge, and not depression. The undercurrent of jealousy, needless to say, was unbecoming.

#jonathanfranzenhates Twitter

Most recently, Franzen said this: “Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose. . . . it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters . . . it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’ . . . It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.”

He then followed his condemnation of Twitter with this: “People I care about are readers . . . particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

Responding with terrifying speed, Twitter armed itself with the hashtag #jonathanfranzenhates, turning the author into the butt of countless jokes. Other writers took to a longer form, the blog, to excoriate Franzen for his shortsightedness. HTMLGIANT’s Roxane Gay and A.D. Jameson unpacked the quote and revealed a narrative similar to the one that’s been dogging Mitt Romney throughout this campaign—the blindness of success.

When Romney makes stump speeches about the wonders of the free market economy, how in this system any person can succeed if he or she works, works, works, it’s hard not to be cynical. The man has never actually struggled in our economic milieu. He can claim he knows what it’s like to fear a pink slip or joke that he’s currently “unemployed,” but can Romney truly understand the plight of the average working class American? No. And from the sound of it, neither can Franzen.

Franzen dismisses Twitter because he fails to understand its purpose. He doesn’t think it’s serious or useful; he finds the self-promotion abhorrent and self-involved. But the fact is Franzen doesn’t need to self­-promote. He has other people to sell the Franzen product. The media is his mouthpiece, and Oprah his emissary. He has earned the benefit of name recognition; no matter what he writes, his book will sell because the its jacket boldly displays his name.

Franzen has forgotten what it means to be a fledgling author. He no longer has to compete for readership or even an agent, for that matter. When Oprah wanted The Corrections for her book club in 2001, he refused on the grounds that he didn’t want his novel to be corporatized—an arguably noble stance that unraveled the moment he began working with HBO to turn the book into a television series. And in light of Franzen’s Twitter comments and his evaluation of “serious readers and writers,” one gets the sense that it wasn’t the corporatization that got his goat but rather the idea that casual readers (whoever they may be in his eyes) might be thumbing through the pages of his books.

But for writers publishing in independent journals and small presses, for writers of debut novels, it’s a struggle to be read. For them it’s not enough to write well. As Roxane Gay points out, “Sure, you have to do something interesting but you also need to do a little more. There are countless writers doing interesting things. Excellence isn’t enough.” This is when Twitter becomes useful. Even in its limited 140 character space, it has an unlimited reach if you work it right.

The social network has become a tool for the independent author to reach out, and, by extension, for readers to reach in. But it’s not exclusive to the strugglers. Franzen can talk about the importance of connecting with an audience through prose and his love for his readership, but to write accessible prose is still connecting to an audience at a remove. No one is asking him to walk around bookstores shaking hands and kissing babies, but if he cares for his readers, he could try to actively embrace them in some way instead of dismissing some of the most ubiquitous aspects of their lives.

I mean, look at Salman Rushdie. He has fully embraced Twitter. He connects to his fans and his detractors. He’ll answer questions, retweet comments. He’ll write limericks about Kim Kardashian’s divorce. Rushdie participates. And I don’t think anyone can claim he’s not a serious writer.

Great American Novelist

This is not to say readers have to love the author-as-person or that the quality of the human being has an impact on his/her ability to craft a moving sentence. Writers can be despicable. They can be egotistic, petty, thoughtless, and, well, any number of the negative traits I and others have attributed to Franzen over the years. It doesn’t mean we should stop reading their work.

It would be nice if our cultural heavyweights were supreme human beings, but it’s too much to ask. Even before Freedom hit bookshelves, Franzen was heralded by Time as this decade’s “Great American Novelist.” As a writer and a reader, I took umbrage. This country has long passed the age of author as celebrity, so it was refreshing to see someone achieve that rare status. But honestly, the fact that Franzen earned the title was a little disappointing. Couldn’t it be someone charming? Someone warmer? Someone I would have a beer with? Or maybe a woman, for once?

Being saddled with that title is likely a burden, especially when so many people think you don’t deserve it. Ultimately, the title is meaningless because no one text can depict every American experience. Franzen knows it. To his credit, I’ve never seem him once use it to describe himself, although I’m sure he loved the attention it garnered. After all, in this increasingly fragmented country there’s one maxim that best describes us, and it was said by that great Irish writer, Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

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  1. Poor Jonathon Franzen! This is the most crass stupid comparison I have ever read!!

  2. The first time I encountered it, I thought Adrian Sobol's "pension" for penchant was simply a typo. When I came across the same error a second time, I realized Sobol is clueless. Sobol claims "Writers can be despicable. They can be egotistic, petty, thoughtless, . …" But the last thing they can be is illiterate.

    "His pension [sic] for saying the wrong thing, even writing the wrong thing," "as well as his pension [sic] for assuming everyone shares his opinion." As Karl Kraus wrote, "by their typos shall ye know them."

  3. Yes, thank you! I barely got past it the first time. Perhaps the author was encouraged to "sound it out."

  4. I totally agree. I thought I was seeing things the first time I read "pension". It got past his spell check because it is a word.

  5. The correction has been made. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. There's no reason to start from the assumption that Franzen is a great writer. Perhaps some of the negative commentary he attracts has to do with the quality of his writing. I found Freedom unreadable–condescending, sexist (yes, that again), superficial, and plain old dull.Franzen's unattractive public persona is the least of his problems.

  7. Exactly, JenS. Franzen is no artist.

    Poor Mitt Romney – He doesn't deserve to be compared to annoying snobs like Franzen.

  8. Just because you personally didn't enjoy the book doesn't mean he's not a great writer. Even most of his detractors and critics applaud the prose in both The Corrections and Freedom. I think he's a gifted writer, and I think you are confusing his personal beliefs with the content of the novel. Franzen simply meant to replicate an authentic Midwestern experience in his last novel. As a Midwesterner, I can attest to the fact that the majority of the mothers here stay at home.

    This belief that Franzen is a sexist is one that must be outlandish to anyone who actually reads his work, throughout which he repeatedly advocates for women and denounces writers like Philip Roth who focus on women as sex objects, or writers whose female characters are unfailingly slim and big-chested. I think you, like many other critics of Franzen, are projecting onto him this media caricature that's taken life via the internet and "Oprah-gate".

  9. I love Jonathan Franzen.

  10. A vapid article based on an asinine comparison. Sobol's petty jealousy of Franzen is palpable.

  11. Well considering all your damning critique, the interview clip you’ve chosen to end this article with was entirely enjoyable. Franzen comes across as cogent and palatably unpretentious, even offering some nice (and un-sexist) commentary on Jane Austin. I’d go for a beer with him! You’re far too harsh on this thoroughly talented writer. Disliking twitter hardly makes him deserving of comparison with the small-minded buffoon that is Mitt Romney.

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