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Leave Jonathan Franzen Alone

Why do people on the internet hate the acclaimed author so much, or feel like it's cool to publicly proclaim that they do?
November 19, 2014, 8:00pm

Photo via Flickr user ​​Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile​

​When the upcoming publication of Jonathan Franzen's novel Purity was ​announced by the New York Times on Monday, the internet predictably had some things to say, some jokes to make, some cringes to cringe. "I'm just sitting here waiting for @jenniferw​einer's take," ​tweeted Rebecca Mead. Jennifer Weiner, the subject of a January New Yorker profile by Mead, is perhaps the most famous of Franzen's many haters—the author coined the confusing term "Franzenfreude," disdains his on-the-record snobbiness about "self-promoters," and resents the exalted place he holds in the literary pantheon, which she feels comes at the expense of female writers such as, ahem, Jennifer Weiner.


Mead didn't have to wait very long. "Easy for Franzen to rail against social media and shameless self-promotion when he's got the paper of record announcing his new book," Weiner ​dutifully tweeted less than half an hour after Mead's tweet. This was thought-provoking and, I thought, mostly valid: It IS easy to recede gracefully from the clamorous, dirty public marketplace and dismiss everyone who isn't as graceful as you are when you know you don't risk your livelihood by doing so.

But the rest of the social media chatter from armchair Franzenologists I've witnessed this week has just been silly. Several people observed that "'Purity by Jonathan Franzen' sounds like the name of a cologne." Haha. One person complained that Franzen is "obsessed with poo." The general tone was snide and dismissive, as though Franzen had done or said something dumb, bad, and deserving of mockery. A lot of people said that a "a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents" sounded "boooooring." Basically, it wasn't how you'd expect a bunch of engaged, funny, literate, literary, mostly young writers and thinkers—this is how I think of my Twitter feed, and it's kind of true, even!—to respond to the news that one of the most exciting and funny writers working today was going to have something new for them to read in less than a year.

As you've probably guessed, I was a lot happier about his coming new novel than most of my internet peers. Because, man, I LOVE Jonathan Franzen. I love his novels and—not that I really know him—the man himself. I think he's cool, and pretty much a mensch, in addition to being a reliable source of some of the most fun and entertaining reading experiences I've ever had in my life. True, I don't understand or agree with his phobic, scoldy dismissal of digital life. I remain convinced that if he just gave Twitter a chance, he'd realize that it's not (always) about shouty self-promotion. It's a forum for connection, communication, friendship and, most importantly, jokes. But other than that, I find myself mostly sympathetic to his points of view.

And while criticism of his cultural preeminence and that of his male contemporaries resonates with me, I don't believe that we should lay all the blame for widespread and endemic cultural problems at his sensibly shod feet. Franzen has long been a champion of under-read and emerging female writers, providing introductions to new editions of their work (Christina Stead, Paula Fox), blurbing their books (Marisha Pessl, Jami Attenberg), and, recently, even helping a writer he met over email find an agent and a publisher. The result was a novel, Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper, that's one of this year's most exciting: It's been raved about by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and even the New York Times. True, Zink might have found her way to publication without Franzen's intervention. But then again, she might not have, and literature (seriously) would be worse off for it.

Why do people hate Franzen so much, or feel like it's cool to publicly proclaim that they do? True, his anti-technology screeds do come off as pompous and get-off-my-lawn-y, and the internet as a whole has never been great at liking and accepting people who don't like it back. It's also probably not helpful that he's rich and successful and critically revered; there's nobody striving writers hate more than a wealthy and acclaimed writer. Somehow I'm able to put all this aside and like him and his books, though, and it's not because I'm some kind of saint who's able to rise above my petty biases. I have loved and laughed at his books. I remember reading both The Corrections and Freedom (his last two novels) in such a state of immersion that I was functionally unavailable to the world around me for days; nothing happening in real life seemed half and important as what was happening in the worlds of those books. Franzen's gift for creating characters who are full of foibles and who seem to live and breathe is, in my reading experience, unparalleled. I read both those books with an eye on the pages that remained to me, getting sadder and sadder as they dwindled. I looked forward to forgetting enough of their details that I could read them again. (Lucky for me, I have a shitty memory.)

OK, so he hates the internet and thinks iPhones are the devil. So he's published some personal writing that has a weird mix of unsparing, highly attuned observation and gaping blind spots about his own failings and culpability—who hasn't? For every false note he hits, Franzen has written at least one deathless perfect sentence or sketched an indelible character. There aren't a whole hell of a lot of people writing today who can boast that kind of batting average. You can deny yourself the pleasure of his work if you want—I don't much care what you do. I, on the other hand, will be lining up at midnight outside the bookstore to get my hands on Purity, and I promise not to make fun of you if you swallow your pride or whatever it is and line up alongside me.

Emily Gould, with Ruth Curry, co-owns Emily Books and is the author of Friendship and And The Heart Says Whatever.