When Jonathan Franzen was writing his breakout 2001 book The Corrections, he famously claimed to deter distraction by working in the dark while wearing noise-cancelling earphones and a blindfold.
Nowadays, sunless, soundless isolation might seem Franzen’s only avenue to avoid the criticism that greets his every novel, essay or interview.
His latest tome, Purity, was met with enthusiastic reviews from some corners (the New York Times was positive, the Guardian called it “piercingly brilliant”) and withering derision from others. The Toronto Star review considered it an “engaging and brilliant” yet flawed book.
As usual, the debates centred on Franzen himself — whether he was sexist, hostile of technology, or, well, actually serious about adopting an Iraqi orphan.
And as usual, Franzen donned his figurative blindfold and blocked most of it out.
“I don’t read the stuff, so I don’t have a clear idea of what anyone’s complaining about,” Franzen said recently in Toronto. “There is this online discourse, particularly on social media, that I would rather have nothing to do with, because it’s mostly dumb, and set up to reward people taking extreme, irresponsible positions and to punish people who are trying to do nuance and moderation.
“I can afford not to care because people do read the books,” he continued later. “So people with a lot of time on their hands and no real interest in what is true think I’m a bad person — so what? It’s not going to end my career.”
Franzen is speaking through a cough, juggling two packages of lozenges and feeling jet lag-“stoned” after a cross-continental flight. To avoid circulating germs, he forgoes a handshake in favour of an elbow bump.
It’s a more congenial interaction than he’s had with most journalists lately.
In particular, he describes an “insane exchange” with NPR host Terry Gross, who read Purity — which follows a debt-trodden young woman searching for her father’s identity — and questioned Franzen’s depiction of an erratic feminist character who insists her partner pee sitting down.
“Being a lifelong feminist, in the same way that I was hardest on liberal democrats in Freedom . . . I felt it’s really my duty as a novelist to push hard against the very things I believe in,” he said. “What does it mean for a man to be a feminist? That’s a question I found worth asking.
“I’m told that, yeah, people are sounding off about it. But that just means that I was asking the right questions.”
The moment Franzen labels himself a “lifelong feminist,” it’s tempting to interpret a mischievous desire to provoke, a feeling that creeps up frequently.
“I don’t let people take selfies at my events,” he declares at one point. “Most people are cool with that, but there exist people who just can’t, who plead and beg and say it won’t have happened if I don’t take a picture.”
Later, he argues that the Internet’s discourse “reminds one of the eighth-grade cafeteria.” As he speaks, a recent Salon headline comes to mind: “5 times Jonathan Franzen trolled us this year.”
But Franzen insists that he’s never sought to worm his way under anyone’s skin. In fact, he laments how the opinions he offers “in a polemical space” are confused with his published work.
Yet Franzen, sore throat and all, will not be silenced.
“It’s not like I enjoy having people angry at me,” Franzen said. “I would like everyone to say: ‘Wonderful novel, John. Please write another.’ It’s not like I take pleasure in being mischaracterized and called a bad person.
“But I feel like a writer isn’t doing her or his job if they’re not standing up to existing power structures, including good liberal consensus,” he continued.
“I’m attracted to points in the culture where dogma and reality have drifted far apart. And I care so much more about the isolated reader who feels the same way that I do than all the conformists who might be offended.”
Jonathan Franzen’s corrections: The novelist speaks to misconceptions
Misconception 1: He’s anti-technology
“I don’t think of myself as uninformed. Of course, I spend a minimum of two or three hours a day on the Internet in some fashion. It’s just I don’t know what it’s like to be on Twitter. I don’t need to know.”
Misconception 2: He’s focused on the family
“I’m a little confounded by how much I’m considered a family novelist. I find myself telling the story of Norman Mailer’s reading part of The Corrections and writing to my editor that it seemed like a ‘super-duper, hyped-up sitcom,’ which had been my fear when I was working on it, that it would not be taken seriously. I think Mailer was wrong, of course. In pretty much all my novels, there’s a lot more about the workplace. There are no intact families in the new novel.”
Misconception 3: His spring essay questioned climate change
“I was asking, does it really make sense for the entire environmental community to make climate change the overriding, almost exclusive priority for every organization? There was this blast of ad hominem rage. Nothing could have told me more clearly that I asked the right question — because they don’t want to deal with the question on its merits.”