The internet has turned on him, his book sales are down and the TV adaptation of his last novel has stalled. By Taffy Brodesser-Akner. J onathan Franzen now lives in a humble, perfectly nice two-story house in Santa Cruz, Calif. Outside, in the back, there are actual birds, and a small patio, with a four-person wrought-iron dining set, and beyond that, a shock: a vast, deep ravine, which you would never guess existed behind the homes on such a same-looking street, but there it is. He had been reluctant to move here. He still keeps an apartment there.
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The internet has turned on him, his book sales are down and the TV adaptation of his last novel has stalled. By Taffy Brodesser-Akner. J onathan Franzen now lives in a humble, perfectly nice two-story house in Santa Cruz, Calif. Outside, in the back, there are actual birds, and a small patio, with a four-person wrought-iron dining set, and beyond that, a shock: a vast, deep ravine, which you would never guess existed behind the homes on such a same-looking street, but there it is.
He had been reluctant to move here. He still keeps an apartment there. Things were changing so fast as it was. The stores he loved kept closing. His favorite produce market, owned by a nice Greek couple, had been supplanted by a bank, and the Food Emporium he reluctantly shopped at became a Gristedes that resembled a Soviet-era rations market.
But where are you going to live? The Upper West Side? Best of luck. Each east-west block is nearly a quarter of a mile. You can interact on your own terms. Franzen and Chetkovich play mixed doubles with their friends and host game nights. They work out with a trainer named Jason twice a week, who was in a truly open adoption in the s, a time when that was almost unheard-of in this country, which Franzen finds very interesting.
Even if you are not a natural lover of nature or of California, Santa Cruz just feels of another era. He realized, reluctantly, that TV was where people were now, that big cultural moments more often involve screens than books, which, he guesses, is how evolution works.
These are ancient storytelling pleasures, and why not avail yourself of them, particularly in an age when the novel is in retreat and people are looking for reasons not to have to read a book? There were problems with it; he will tell you that himself. But that was before he really understood how great TV worked.
Maybe a trip to his office? Maybe we could go downtown and walk around the bookstore that he loves? He stood up and found his BlackBerry in the kitchen. He returned to the couch. He folded his hands across his stomach. It had been Todd Field on the phone. Franzen stared straight ahead, trying to refocus on an agenda for the day.
Maybe birding? Nah, everyone goes birding with him. The phone rang again, and again he stood up to take the call. It was Daniel Craig, who had been tentatively cast to star in the show. He should have known. He should have known that the bigger the production — the more people you involve, the more hands the thing goes through — the more likely that it will never see the light of day resembling the thing you set out to make in the first place.
It just involves too many people. The thing that we then see on shelves is exactly the thing he set out to make. That might be the only way to do this. Yes, writing a novel — you alone in a room with your own thoughts — might be the only way to get a maximal kind of satisfaction from your creative efforts. All the other ways can break your heart. Franzen sat on his kitchen counter, drinking an espresso he had made, his feet up on the island. The sun came through the slat blinds on the windows, so that they cast what looked like prison bars across his body.
Above him hung a piece of artwork made of wires twisted to look like a surveillance camera that he and Chetkovich bought in Utica, N. He had been paid for the work. He did the work. He did a good job. And Franzen did it with no attachment to the outcome.
He wanted to write a story for National Geographic about seabirds. Their population is down two-thirds since He had more to say about seabirds. He had more to say about every topic we discussed.
He takes this lingual habit and out of his mouth he erects complete cities — rigorously formed ones, with firehouses and railroad stations and schools and coffee joints and community centers. He makes no points that are complete at the usual magazine-article quotable size. He makes no points that can be distilled to a few words and still be understood in their breadth. The breadth is the point.
Oh, he said, there was also the new novel he wanted to write, which was coming along in the initial thinking-about-it phase. He had three character names picked out. There was also the book of essays that Susan Golomb, his agent, wanted to sell — a collection of the nonfiction he had recently published. It would take considerable time to edit them, and even do some rewriting.
Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? He had to look at those essays again. And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five. This is a problem, because as much as he to some controversy is the symbol to some controversy of the White Male Great American Literary Novelist for the 21st Century to much controversy , he is also someone who has to sell books.
It was the kind of thing that Franzen would like to ignore, but in addition to being a process guy, he is also a team guy. He likes to fulfill his obligations. He likes to go on book tours. He likes to do right by his publisher. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1. What had he done that was so wrong? Hate-pieces, mean hashtags, reductive eye-rolling at his various stances, a nit-picking of every quote.
Accusations that he is willing to pontificate but not to listen. Too fragile! With each disembodied quote, with each one-way transmission, he is reduced to a Luddite and a curmudgeon and a hater and a snob and worse. A snob! Jonathan Franzen is watching network television, and still he is called a snob!
Maybe this had been destined the entire time. Novels are complex. Novels are absorbing. A novel, particularly a Jonathan Franzen novel, is too long to read just so you could find ways to hate it. That was right. That was the way to look at this. Outside, in front of his home, sits a Toyota Camry hybrid. Camry is his first-ever new car. But cars have changed so much in recent decades that any new one is unrecognizable to him under the hood anyway.
He made a right off his block onto a curvy road that went down a hill. At the end of the hill, he pulled over to the left a little and put his signal on so that he could make a left turn onto the next street. There are a lot of misconceptions about him. He gets that. I still get very frustrated by simple-minded thinking. These things make me angry, but in my day-to-day life, I just am not angry. He pulled into the middle of the road so that the oncoming car could proceed past him, but that car stopped, too, making its own left.
This is what a signal is for. Around then, his editor at The New Yorker suggested to him that he might have some aptitude for essay writing. Suddenly he realized that the arguments and social criticism he wanted to assert, complete with their nuance and exceptions, could live and breathe on their own.
And when he did that, something unexpected happened: Unleashed from the impetus to educate, his fiction became not just better but exceptional. He quickly became as famous for dissing Oprah as he was for writing a great book. The world will forgive you for a lot if you write a great book, but it will not forgive you for dissing Oprah.
This was his habit, writing as revenge.
Why Bother? by Jonathan Franzen
It is often referred to as "The Harper's Essay". Franzen recounts his meditations on the state and possibility of the novel form, often against the backdrop of his personal experience, eventually concluding that the novel still has potential cultural agency in the United States, and often gains it by paradoxical drives of both culture and author. The essay was initially published in the April issue of Harper's between the publication of Franzen's novels Strong Motion and The Corrections Franzen expanded and revised the essay, re-titling it "Why Bother? In the introduction to the collection, Franzen explained his changing the title as a response to the many interviewers asking about the essay but failing to understand its intention, believing the essay to be an explicit promise on Franzen's part of a third "Big Social Novel" featuring a good deal of local detail and observation. Franzen recounts his "despair about the American novel" beginning in during what he viewed as the media assent to the jingoism surrounding the Gulf War and the presidency of George H.
Jonathan Franzen Is Fine With All of It
And so I, too, was dreaming of escape. I wanted to hide from America. Against the advice of the husband, Otto, she has given milk to a homeless cat, and the cat has repaid the kindness by biting her hand. She wants to be spared the pain of confronting a future beyond her life with Otto. She wants to keep dreaming. Desperate Characters, which was first published in , ends with an act of prophetic violence.
Pitons in the Monolith: Jonathan Franzen’s Despair and the Millennials’ Dream
Just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture and landscape painting, television has killed the novel of social reportage. Truly committed social novelists may still find cracks in the monolith to sink their pitons into. But they do so with the understanding that they can no longer depend on their material, as William Dean Howells and Upton Sinclair and Harriet Beecher Stowe did, but only on their own sensibilities, and with the expectation that no one will be reading them for news. This is less strange than it might sound. No one had yet seen an e-reader, but there was among my writer friends a pervasive sense that the book, and the centuries-old culture that had grown up around it, were under assault. For another, the third novel that Franzen was so painfully bringing into being during the writing of his essay turned out to be The Corrections , which won the National Book Award and made Franzen the most famous non-guest in the history of Oprah. Even TV was simpler.
The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures. This article was published more than 1 year ago. Some information in it may no longer be current. Some 17 years, a few more novels Freedom , Purity , and a some very public failures later including the collapse of two TV shows based on his books, some feuds and a general perception of being an out-of-touch, internet-hating luddite , Franzen is more modest, if not exactly humble.