I think I went through a period where I decided that I would dislike Jonathan Franzen. He’s kind of a punching bag for a lot of people, and some of that is earned and some of that is unearned. I think in part people associate him with that list of writers who got their start in the 1980s, who are mostly white, mostly male, and range from elitist (by reputation) or l’enfants terribles. And for whatever reason, despite my being a generation younger than these writers, but still falling into so many of these categories, well, I tend to like their work a lot. Jonathan Franzen became an enemy of the state before Goodreads existed because he was “rude” to Oprah about the Oprah Book Club. What’s interesting in this collection is that his “Oprah Book Club” essay mostly seems to suggest that while the additional sales and fame might be attractive, it also brings some real annoyances. He tells us that the producers of the show asked him to contact the owners of the house he grew up to see if they would let him shoot some b-roll there, or that if he didn’t want to, if they could contact them. Could you imagine calling a complete stranger and asking them if you could invade their privacy like that? Could you imagine if someone called your house? What comes through in this essay is a clear sense of where we were headed in the internet age of constant content. Where almost all of the information we access is b-roll like this. He doesn’t really even complain a lot, so much as resist in ways that seem deeply reasonable.
The other essays here talk about things like learning the science behind his father’s dying of Alzheimer’s and reflecting on both the experience itself, as well as the ways in which it ties into his own sense of self and the memories of his parents. He thinks through his own experiences as being both a young twerpy novelist in his mid-20s, and then making conscientious decisions later about what changes he would make to his craft and the marketplace in general. I actually find it hard not to like him with these essays.
Of course, part of the reason why he became so disliked I would say is that he was often right. It’s really hard for me to look at the publishing industry and feel particularly good about it. He doesn’t spend much time ruminating the death of white voices, but he does think there’s some games being played with identity politics (which is a little hard to deny, even if you can rationalize or legitimatize it), but the utter algorithm-driven element of the bulk of writing today is fairly deflating. That novel structures are sometimes defined by printing allowances should feel….well some way to you. Anyway. I liked this better once I decided to actually think about what it said. I’m not suggesting anyone not disagree with Franzen or even dislike them if they want to, I am only renouncing my own failure to really try the first time I read this.