Franzen, Fame, And The Manacles Of Freedom

Jonathan Franzen would likely have preferred having boiling oil poured down his writing pants to facing the question about giving Oprah a snub. I confess as I watched him finally share the stage with a mighty gracious Oprah this week, I detected a Craig Ferguson-worthy awkward pause all over him.  It seemed to me he locked up for a moment — lost in a quiet fit of fumbled hypocrisy — as he accounted for his recoil against having The Corrections chosen for Oprah’s book club.  Oprah was enormously kind.  Rather than gloating, she offered him welcome and sincere praise.  The lady loves his work, and rightly so.  He’s a very fine writer.  Yet on the show, he made no honest allusion to his opinion — those years ago — that his male audience would flee his work if he took a book date with Oprah.  Having heard every word of his Oprah interview, I still believe this:  He feared the intelligentsia of literary fiction would think less of him if he took Oprah’s praise and did the show with The Corrections.  So, he snubbed her those years ago, setting off a far bigger media tsunami than he thought possible.  Then, this week, he and Freedom rode the wave of there’s-no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity straight onto the stage to make up with the Queen of all media.  His appearance testifies to the kindness of her.  Lesser women would have ignored him, perhaps letting him drown in what has looked like his own hubris. 

Since my initial posting on this, some readers of my novel, She-Rain, have come to some defense of Franzen.  They see him as a genuinely self-effacing writer who despises walking in the glow of media, and I agree with them on some levels.  Unlike many of his critics, I refuse to indict Franzen as some pompous misanthrope.  I believe he’s a sincere artist with an interesting process and a noble artistic goal.  His gravity-defying praise is often deserved.  Yet I stay convinced his novel, Freedom, and its attendant fame amount to a set of chains he wears with some eagerness.  Big publishing has used it to drag him under spotlights he outwardly disdains — even while those lights tan him in shades of gold. He soaks in the money, yet remains openly conflicted about the contemporary culture sun from which it comes.    

Publishing is a shrinking herd of followers.  Too many editors and critics call a thing brilliant merely because they’ve heard of the thing’s creator, or because they deem it some new gospel in the religion of cool.  Thus we end up with books and writers tending to parallel the upward momentum of the likes of Snooki and The Situation.  We who read and write are expected to chain ourselves to these figures and go meteoric with them, shouting praise en route to the stars.  Franzen is among the industry’s stars, no matter how determined he appears not to wear its shine, and Freedom has become too much about a publishing industry anointing.  May its literary legacy rise above the noise!

Franzen, for me, would have helped his personal legacy along had he confessed to Oprah — right there on television — his deepest fears, hubris, whatever, of those years ago.  He could have said, “Look, I let myself fall into that arrogant pseudo-intellect that tends to sneer at mass audience  instead of embracing it.”  Instead, I believe he did as he was told by a publishing house in love with celebrities loathe to say, “I was wrong.”   

Now, wait, this is no veiled criticizm of Oprah.  I believe she genuinely loves the book, and her graceful way with Franzen speaks of a woman who embodies grace and leadership much too rare.  Oprah goes her own way, with courage and a fine will.  Franzen, you are extremely fortunate she chose to take you along, letting go of any hard feelings from years back.  May your future art find itself worthy of what she’s done for your present and your past.  May you come to celebrate, as I do, the new publishing model that will require writers to work as creative entrepreneurs, owners and managers of their own work who gratefully embrace the opportunity, not just the celebrity, that comes with standing in the spotlight.  Your work needs no artificial anointing from the trembling hands of publishing.  Break those chains, Mr. Franzen, and let your future art out to run.  May a kind sincerity run at its side.

And may all of us find books we truly love, shedding the manacles of what the dying publishing industry calls the next — or current — great one.  Readers, more than ever, you are the curators of great books.  Be frank, and honest, about how a book makes you feel, no matter the noise that surrounds it.

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2 Responses to “Franzen, Fame, And The Manacles Of Freedom”

  1. love u & ur work! where’s my copy of ‘She- Rain’?

  2. I’m not a huge fan of Franzen, but a lot of people seem to be. Maybe if he were willing to take on the mantle of being the face of literature, he could attract some more readers and help the industry in general?

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