How Jonathan Franzen became America’s most divisive novelist



Ah – isn’t that last point the biggest part of the problem? Franzen is the opposite of the modern, well-behaved author, who signs up to Twitter (or, for the scaredy-cats, Instagram), makes themselves available to readers, and studiously ignores Goodreads hatchet jobs. His interventions on topics from climate change to social media make him a public author, yet he remains inaccessible to his readers, except on the page. Nor does he see reading as a social, book-clubbish activity: just check out the titles of his literary essay collections: first How to be Alone; then Farther Away; all the way to The End of the End of the Earth.

When he doesn’t attract loathing, he attracts mockery, not least in the UK, where, during a launch event for Freedom, a prankster stole Franzen’s glasses from his face and held them to ransom. But what does he expect, with pompous one-word titles like Freedom and Purity, not to mention the grandiose, asking-for-it title for his new, planned trilogy (of which Crossroads is the first part): A Key to All Mythologies?

What ‘Franzenfreude’ tells us

In some respects, what has been called Franzenfreude is a symptom rather than the condition itself. He represents a divergence in how people read today. For some, his fiction is both all-inclusive and a brilliant exercise in language, showing us the world not as we would like it but as it is. For others, his books are morally suspect for their weak female characters or failure to make clear a moral position when characters misbehave. Franzen might consider that to be “overt didacticism” or “moral simplicity”, two of the qualities he considers his work to be “an active campaign against,” as he put it in his essay On Autobiographical Fiction from Farther Away. Accordingly, one of his favourite novels is Christina Stead’s morally murky The Man Who Loved Children, a book that, as he says in another Farther Away piece, The Greatest Family Ever Storied, “accept[s] what we would call ‘abuse’ as a natural feature of the familial landscape, and a potentially comic feature at that”. Still others may fall between the positions, reading him as a sort of literary guilty pleasure.

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