I don’t pretend to know what a writer like Jonathan Franzen’s (or Stephen King’s for that matter) life is like. However, there are glimpses into a writer’s mind offered by others.
In the case of Franzen that look-see comes courtesy of Phlip Weinstein in Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage, a new book that proposes to be a “critical biography,” joining elements of a biography with those of literary criticism. Franzen may be a writer of fiction mainly, but his fiction emanates from his life. Weinstein unpacks elements of that life—his family and Midwestern upbringing being just two examples—and offers up themes and the motivation for Franzen’s critically acclaimed novels and nonfiction work.
Weinstein developed a friendship with Franzen when the latter returned to his alma mater, Swarthmore College, to teach creative writing seminars. These seminars took place just prior to publishing what would be Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion.
This period in the 1990s was just prior to Franzen’s move to become arguably America’s best-known literary figure (as opposed to merely, America’s best-known, best-selling writer) at the end of the 20th century and entering the 21st. It was also before Franzen dropped what would become his coming out work, The Corrections, released in 2001.
There’s been a lot written of and about Franzen, from his well-publicized dust-up with Oprah (whom he was critical of), and the invite to come on her show; he ended up being dis-invited as a guest, This was right after The Corrections came out. I mean, who the hell disses Oprah, right? Weinstein details this and some of Franzen’s contrition that came later. I think this and a great deal of other things that he’s written—like his essays for The New Yorker, as well as his stellar nonfiction—has elevated Franzen as a prominent and important cultural player.
Granted, being a cultural icon—especially one that produces fiction in an age of Twitter boorishness and pseudo lit types—is fraught with difficulty. The Oprah flap was just one incident of several that has gotten Franzen branded as “prickly” and even “difficult.” Those labels aren’t necessarily negatives for someone that has maintained a stance of “radical critique,” as Weinstein labels it. In fact, for someone that has been awarded a National Book Award (for The Corrections) and then, followed that book up with the best-selling Freedom, his best work to date, which would discount his most recent novel, Purity (which I just finished). I don’t mean to be critical of a giant like Franzen, I just found Purity to be less compelling than his previous two.
The Corrections is one of the best book’s I’ve ever read. Freedom came pretty damn close to surpassing that one for sheer reading pleasure and accompanying disappointment when the end was approaching, knowing I’d have to exit Franzen’s fictional creation. I’ve actually blogged about the experience of reading that one. It was a review of sorts, and a pretty damn good synopsis, which I don’t mind saying.
Weinstein’s book was a pleasant surprise for me, when I found it on the New Books shelf at Curtis Memorial Library. I follow Franzen and his career, yet I didn’t know anything like this was coming out. I gained new insights about one of my favorite writers and Weinstein’s efforts were rewarding to me as a reader and fan of his subject, as well as being a writer committed to elevating my own craft.
What is it about Franzen that I find worth the effort to read nearly everything he writes? To say he’s a good writer is akin to most to saying that you like a certain musician or band. I like Neil Young and Wussy, so what? You may like J.K. Rowling or Tess Gerritsen. Who we like to read or listen to is subjective, the argument goes. That’s true to some degree.
As Weinstein details however, Franzen’s not your usual popular novelist. As an essayist, he’s written enough about American culture outside of his fiction to also qualify as a critic. His criticism of technology, accurately (in my opinion) captures us as a culture when he writes that “the actual substance of our daily lives is total electronic distraction,” just one example of how Franzen isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill writer of fiction, for fiction’s sake.
In fact, Franzen was a friend of the late David Foster Wallace, another writer that wrote both fiction and nonfiction, superbly. Wallace, like Franzen, captured elements of American life in his work in a manner that few other writers in recent memory have.
While I may be going through an odd patch and a bit of an existential quandary relative to writing and life in general, Weinstein’s book offered me some necessary light and material to ponder. He also offered a well-rounded portrait of Franzen as an example of a writer that writes well, remaining true to his own trajectory, without pandering to popular culture and its social media maladies.