ArtsATL > Books > The malaise of fame: Jonathan Franzen reflects on “Freedom” at Decatur Book Festival

The malaise of fame: Jonathan Franzen reflects on “Freedom” at Decatur Book Festival


By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 562 pages

UPDATE September 17: Almighty Oprah Chooses Franzen Again in Book Club Saga

The first post about Oprah’s new book club pick on her website this morning was by one EvilWylie:  “I cannot wait until Emperor Franzen visits Oprah’s set for his coronation!” A couple of minutes later, an admiring kscmoldt posted: “Wonder why she picked another Franzen book after his reaction to her choice of The Corrections. Oprah is so forgiving.”

Yes, O is so forgiving — and Jonathan Franzen is so forgiven. After their very public falling out, she has selected Franzen’s critically acclaimed new novel “Freedom” for her book club. Her book club page gussies up “Freedom” as “an epic saga that has it all—sex, love … even rock ’n’ roll!” But it seems Franzen made the first move to end the nine-year-old spat over his earlier novel, “The Corrections,” by sending Oprah galleys of “Freedom” this summer with a personal note. When Oprah initially picked “The Corrections,” Franzen, no self-help huckster-author, asserted his literary cred with mildly disdainful remarks about her book club, resulting in his being uninvited from her talk show and pushed into the doghouse marked Snob in the court of public opinion.

No wonder he tried to make up. The New York Times may call your book a masterpiece, but how many Americans know a Times reviewer’s name let alone hang on their every word?  With the blue-and-pink Oprah seal of approval color-coordinated with “Freedom’s” creepy sunset-sky-and-birdhead book jacket,  Publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux has printed up 600,000 more copies. This is nearly double the initial print run of 335,000, and the numbers alone define the blessings Oprah’s Book Club seal confers. A Borders Reward email has already arrived in my inbox screaming “Just Announced! Oprah’s Newest Book Club Seclection” with a 30% discount price on “Freedom.”

But the best thing about this story (the über-novel) within a soap opera (Oprah-Franzen feud) is that though the story is a finite 562 pages, the soap opera will continue with millions tuned in. On Oprah’s online book discussion, one eginley wondered: “is the past drama going to be “swept under the rug” or will it be discussed and aired on the Oprah show’s presentation of this book?” Franzen and Oprah don’t seem like the kind to sweep a juicy story under the rug, especially if it’s about themselves and they both get to play the hero. Though it seems pretty certain they’ll both agree that Oprah gets to come off looking grander. It’s her club and her show after all.

Decatur Book Festival Report from September 6:

Jonathan Franzen had some baggage to put down as he walked onstage at Agnes Scott College on Friday night, kicking off the three-day-long Decatur Book Festival. Authorial baggage: the pouchy black briefcase he set down beside his podium after extracting a copy of his much-heralded new novel, “Freedom,” to read from.

He took off his jacket, folded it up, looked around for where to put it and set it down behind him on the stage floor. The most celebrated author in America then rolled up his shirtsleeves, presumably hot, and also, perhaps, feeling some need to shed the burden of authority, or celebrity, or anxiety that he was saddled with. The little drama of stripping down continued for a minute. With his sleeves rolled to his elbows, Franzen fiddled with his buttons and announced in mock defiance, “This shirt is not coming off.”

Everyone laughed. Or at least a good portion of the 800 or more people filling the hall to capacity to hear from the elusive, publicity-shy, famously Midwestern author of “The Corrections.” That novel, about a troubled heartland family, won the National Book Award in 2001 and has sold nearly 3 million copies. Nine long years later comes “Freedom,” a story about a more up-to-date Minnesota couple and their children, troubled in different ways, that is winning rave reviews.

Much has been made of Franzen’s being lionized on a recent cover of Time magazine as “Great American Novelist” (as if Time still had the clout it had in the pre-Internet era). And no less a critic than Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, has proclaimed “Freedom,” released just last week, “a masterpiece of American fiction.” Still, it’s perhaps fitting, given Franzen’s low-key sensibility, that the 18-city tour for his already famous novel began in Decatur.

Franzen, who turned 51 a couple of weeks ago, looked younger on stage. He is almost boyish, mildly handsome, with the distracted air of a grad student who’s spent a couple of years too many struggling with his thesis, deprived of light. When he speaks, he is searching, ironic, shy, self-editing, sharp, witty, rambling, thoughtful and occasionally given to pauses so long and pronounced that you grow concerned that he has lost his train of thought. He usually continues on a slightly different tangent. “A book gets written in a year, but there’s a lot of years before that of trying to write and failing,” he noted about his method of composition. “That’s the process: miserable failure, self-reproach, just awesome laziness and a certain amount of self-flagellation, followed by unhealthy amounts of introspection.”

Though Franzen wrote “Freedom” in the last year and a half, he found its germ in some pages he’d written seven years ago. “That was one of the things I was trying to do justice [to] was this voice I just happened to find one morning in an otherwise bad, useless and immediately discarded attempt to get the book going — just the tiniest glimpse into the misery of the creative process.”

The voice he was talking about belongs to Patty Berglund, teenage basketball star who goes on to become a drunken stay-at-home mom. Despite her success on the court, Patty feels underappreciated by her parents, politically ambitious New York Democrats who don’t much value something as banal and — as her mother derogatorily puts it, “aggressive” — as sports. Franzen read aloud from Chapter One, about Patty’s unhappiness as the neglected, insufficiently loved child in a family where siblings play the role of more talented rivals, and he did a superb job of putting on different voices like an actor, avoiding that awful pretentious literary tone some writers save for such occasions. The chapter is dialogue-heavy, and Franzen jumped in and out of his various characters much in the way, one imagines from the Time article, he composed the book, reciting dialogue out loud as he wrote and finding himself hoarse at the end of the day.

Further discussing the issue of craft, Franzen spoke of how a writer, having put 10 to 20 thousand hours into the practice of writing, can recognize whether a page is dead or alive. But, obviously, the ability to know what’s dead cannot help a writer find a “live” subject to write about. Franzen spoke at length about how he spent years dithering before he discovered a voice — or was it a subject? — to write from.

Franzen has also recently revealed that the suicide of the immensely talented writer David Foster Wallace, a close friend, compelled him to sit down and produce something, since he was still alive. Adding to this, he has said, was a renewed sense of competition with Wallace, who left behind an unfinished manuscript.

Even if Franzen can immediately spot a dead page, the writer, in his view, can recognize the story only once he writes it — “the work begins to mirror something back at you, and you write to discover what the story is.” The work reflects who you are as a writer, he says, and also where “you’re still insufficient as a person.”

It is interesting, then, to consider Franzen’s heroine as his doppelganger, to think of the writer locating some part of himself in discontented Patty Berglund as Flaubert found himself in Madame Bovary. Patty is intensely competitive, all the more so for feeling inadequately loved by her parents, who favor her smarter, artistically inclined sisters. When she is raped, the lack of value she feels in the family is reinforced because her parents discourage her from pressing charges against “the golfing boy” who violated her. He is the son of a more powerful Democratic family whose allegiance Patty’s mother, Joyce, needs to advance her political ambitions. And thus the wounded teenage Patty, defined by “her morbid competitiveness and low self-esteem,” recognizes that she will never be loved by her parents as fully as she would like, that they will put their interests above hers.

As Franzen read of the rape and its aftermath, it sounded like a curiously unfelt exploration of a young woman’s violation — there is a certain emotional distance in the description. The rape itself is not even described, but simply recounted in a few generic lines. There is no visceral sensation of Patty’s being threatened or wounded. Instead, Franzen uses the rape incident to diagram Patty’s family dynamics, to tease out its politics, and to let us know what it feels like to be as disenfranchised and powerless as Patty is in her parents’ world.

So what, if anything, does Patty’s neglect tell us about Franzen? As discomfiting as fame is, Franzen concedes that he would hate the opposite: not getting attention for his book. But there’s little joy in fame, he insisted. “It’s nowhere near as fun as playing some tennis with my wife-equivalent [writer Kathryn Chetkovich] and then having dinner with her. I mean that’s, to me, a really nice day.” Again there was the reference to competition — the tennis — followed by its antidote — intimacy, the dinner. This sense of competition appears to be bred into almost every upper-middle-class American boy. It is evident even among my son’s 10-year-old friends: that fierce compulsion to be declared the winner, to prove one’s worth.

Competition defines Franzen’s young heroine, it is a quality he has referred to in himself, and yet topping the other person, being the most famous American writer (for the moment), does not seem to offer real glory. As he considered fame, Franzen implied that admiration — the love of many — had come too late to be trusted. “I think if you start getting some level of recognition in your 40s, the habits of loneliness, and thrift, and self-effacement are pretty deeply dug in.”

Hundreds of people then lined up to have their books signed. Their names were printed large on yellow Post-its by the booksellers to make it easier for Franzen to write the dedications before making a sweeping figure-eight flourish for his name.

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