A Handy Guide to Why Jonathan Franzen Pisses You Off


“I think she was surprised that I wasn’t moaning with shock and pleasure,” Jonathan Franzen says of his phone call with Oprah Winfrey in Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, recently excerpted at Slate. “I’d been working nine years on the book and FSG had spent a year trying to make a best-seller of it. It was our thing. She was an interloper, coming late, and with an expectation of slavish gratitude and devotion for the favor she was bestowing.”

Here’s the thing: I like Jonathan Franzen as a writer, but if Oprah called me and told me she and told me that she liked my book, and essentially wanted to wave her magic wand and make the novel I worked so hard on into a bestseller, I would be a hell of a lot more grateful. And even if I made that mistake, you can bet that I wouldn’t pretend to make nice with Oprah before turning around and calling her an “interloper” because she helped make me rich. Just the idea of Franzen’s initial ungratefulness sorta backs up my idea that just because you’re a smart writer, doesn’t mean you necessarily have any common sense.

But that’s far from Franzen’s only sin: like the literary Energizer Bunny, he has kept going and going, writing great books while doing things that have, at one point or another, pissed off just about everyone who’s ever heard of him. Think I’m picking on him? Ever Google “Jonathan Franzen asshole” before?

Now try that with another literary fiction author of Franzen’s caliber, like Jeffrey Eugenides or Zadie Smith, and you’ll quickly find that readers, at least ones who publish their opinions on the Internet, harbor a particular degree of vitriol for J-Franz.

My question is this: are we — am I — taking Jonathan Franzen’s irritating comments totally out of context? Has the Freedom writer just become an easy target? Does he open himself up to these misinterpretations of his words and work, or is he just simply a jerk?

Let’s examine…

Jonathan Franzen’s Edith Wharton problem

According to a New Yorker piece Franzen wrote last year, Edith Wharton was “[l]acking the good looks and feminine charms that might have accompanied them.”

In response to the piece, which angered feminists along with Wharton fans, Marina Budhos at The Daily Beast enumerated Franzen’s offenses: “Among his assertions: that she was ugly, which didn’t cause her marriage to be sexless, but probably didn’t help; that Lily Bart is the opposite — beautiful — but a “party girl” whom Wharton punishes for her looks; that the central problem in reading Wharton is how to grudgingly ‘get over’ her cosseted, wealthy existence as she swans around European hotels.” Budhos points out the “disdainful tone” Franzen adopted towards Wharton — who was a great writer, but also an anti-Semitic, classist jerk. Make of his commentary on Wharton’s looks what you will, but Budhos was correct about “how Wharton was just like Franzen — an ambitious American author who strove to balance literary reach with public taste.”

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t seem like a trustworthy friend

Then there was that time when Franzen may have outed his late pal for allegedly making stuff up in his nonfiction. Too bad David Foster Wallace wasn’t around to repudiate his frenemy’s claims.

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t like social media

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis,” Franzen said. So, maybe he’s right about Twitter, to a certain extent — but these comments still made him sound like a snob.

Jonathan Franzen is the King of the Literary Jonathans

Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Ames, and Jonathan Lethem are all critical darlings, but Franzen is usually the #1 example cited in conversations about the way the literary world treats male vs. female writers. As Jennifer Weiner said about The New York Times and other major publications heaping piles of praise on Franzen, “It’s about the establishment choosing one writer and writing about him again and again and again.”

Franzen just seems like a grumpy dude

Writers can be curmudgeons; that will probably never change. But even compared to his peers, Franzen comes off as pretty grumpy. Aside from the Oprah comments, another recent example appears in a piece at Full Stop, where the post’s author tells a story of the time Franzen may or may not have tried to scam some videos from a California college’s library. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that this was actually the case; it really isn’t that big of a deal. Yet Franzen penned a response for NPR that was prefaced as being written, “somewhat grumpily” (whatever that actually means): “The dialogue the author reproduces is totally inaccurate. I never represented that I was a student. And I do have a valid UCSC library card, because I’m a fellow of Cowell College. But it’s true that I was there in the media center last week.”

Sometimes it is really better just to not say anything at all.

Jonathan Franzen is helping to destroy contemporary American fiction

At least, that seems to be the point of the essay Ben Marcus wrote for Harper‘s back in 2005. Sadly, that piece is behind a paywall, but here’s Jess Row’s take on the matter.