This isn’t the first time Jonathan Franzen’s popped off about writers he hasn’t read( or read that well). His essay about Edith Wharton-where he boiled her art to her being an “ugly” woman who wrote mean spirited descriptions of hotties to see them bite the bullet; and wrote characters who were dislikeable because they weren’t in the kitchen wallpapering and cooking-also accused her of being frightened of eroticism when she wrote an erotic novel (“Summer”) in 1917
. I thought about Franzen while re-reading Saul Bellow’s later novels. Bellow’s popular works were baggy, near plotless, and monstrously overwritten works that propagated trendy ideas at that time. “Herzog” and “Humboldt’s Gift” hit because of the men’s rights movement and Bellow’s polemical take on divorce . “Mr Sammler’s Planet” rode on a wave of resentment toward civil rights and hippie culture. Almost everything he wrote after ” The Dean’s December” focused on fusing those themes. The things you look for in a novel: mystery, complexity, the shock of the new, the surprise one gets when they read an author go inside their own self to create something you never read before was non existent. If you read Bellow, you were gonna get something about divorce, nostalgia, or the blacks. THAT’S IT. His preening about being a great author and and man of letters was undercut buy the formula of the work.
I don’t feel like giving Franzen a cookie for being a (somewhat more) liberal Bellow. The next thing I read from him that doesn’t involve human beings being loathsome, the public being simple, unnecessary hatred of parents, friends being fake, people on social media being stupid, or him knowing what’s best for the feminist ladies will be the first. Like Bellow, Franzen has an eye for a phrase and for riveting moments in his fiction, but habits of by the numbers narration and excruciating expositionary rambles sink him for me. His people exist and do things almost solely because Franzen says they exists and do things, not because of anything he shows on the page( and dear god, they drag when they are on there).
The frustrating thing with him isn’t necessarily what he says as the sense I have that him “Being Jonathan Franzen” isn’t going to stop. There will be another social media phenomenon that he will feel the need to spit on. There will be another feminist novelist in which he will need to add his provocative take. There will be another cultural icon that he will write a snarky dissent toward, and there will always be another way for him to write about Oprah. I understand how people respond to this: snark, great man posturing, and great man themes make a good deal of the engine that makes modern literary discussion go round. Forgive me, however, for saying that the aforementioned three concepts are constructs to “types”, and “types”-someone who Jonathan Franzen is as a person-bore me out of my head.