I recently started reading The Corrections by hot topic author Jonathan Franzen. This is unique for several reasons: I had never heard of Franzen until Freedom and its subsequent overwhelming buzz came out. It was this very buzz that elicited my initial resistance against reading the book. This is something I’ve faced about myself: Sometimes I’m a literary snob for all the wrong reasons. It’s like when parents care so much about their children they actually end up sheltering and traumatizing them more than if they cared just a little less. I make bad decisions based on gut feelings. I judge books by covers.
Flaws aside, a short conversation with a stranger at a bar served as my tipping point to giving Franzen a chance. I’m awaiting a lent copy of Freedom and in the meantime, I picked up The Corrections. I didn’t know much about Franzen prior to starting the book, nor did I know very much about him soon after. And if it weren’t for my progress through half of the novel, I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at the headline for the interview of Franzen by Chuck Klosterman over at GQ. I’m not usually crazy about non-fiction, and I’ve gone the majority of my life without learning the inner workings of many of my favorite writers. I’ll read author interviews begrudgingly, usually finding myself pleasantly surprised, only to return to my initial bias against author interviews after the feeling passes.
Some things I learned from this particular interview: That Franzen had a close friendship and professional competition with David Foster Wallace; that something happened between him and Oprah; that he elicits strong reactions on both ends of the spectrum from those that have known him and those that know his work.
But none of this ties into my reading of The Corrections or my anticipated reading of Freedom, nor should it. Just as my sister stopped enjoying the movie “Bed of Roses” after allegations of domestic abuse against Christian Slater, I fear my tendency to color what I’m reading with too many facts about whoever wrote it. Which brings me back to my original disinclination to read any Franzen: There were too many opportunities to learn too much about him to enjoy his work. Turns out, I was wrong. As Klosterman finds out during the interview, Franzen is well-armed against giving too much away:
Franzen is so utterly cautious about his image that he never says exactly what he thinks, which is why certain critics read his tone as detached and condescending. Yet when he speaks in person, you can immediately tell his unedited thoughts are both hyperpresent in his consciousness and embedded in the subtext of his delivery. At one point, he declines to answer the only question I ask that he classifies as “astute.” In order to satisfy my own curiosity (and against my better judgment), I allow him to give his answer off the record. During the three minutes my recorder is off, he provides one of the most straightforward, irrefutable, and downright depressing answers I’ve ever experienced in an interview. His posture relaxes. His language simplifies. Nothing is unclear. But once the red light returns, he rematerializes into the same truthful but withholding person I met at the train station. It’s easy to understand why Franzen’s literary characters are so rich and fully realized; he understands himself better than most people I’ve encountered, which is always the first step toward understanding people who aren’t you.
It is this – Franzen’s ability to understand himself – that makes his reluctance to fully share himself with the public excusable and admirable. And why shouldn’t it be? When did we start turning authors into celebrities? Writing is a solitary profession, a truth usually uttered with regret and sadness, loneliness and ounces of self-pity. But the truth is, there is a beauty in the solitude; there is a satisfaction to the creation of an entire thing on one’s own, coming out of the fire and the silence and the crusted coffee cups and the unmade beds and overflowing laundry baskets with something. This, this I have made.
But I digress. Besides that, the reasons I hesitated to read him in the first place are beliefs Franzen holds as well, as he tells Klosterman: “I do believe some books are better than others. I do think that mere popularity does not indicate greatness.” Nor does it appeal every reader, creating the author as a celebrity. Focusing on the author, while fun, can be problematic and blur the actual writing, affecting it before someone has even had the chance to read it. So much of the joy of reading is the feeling of discovery, and when the rest of the world is telling you what they think of a certain book or, in this case, author, the pressure can be debilitating. So just as I try to write as solitarily as possible, I will try to read Franzen’s books as open-mindedly as possible, receptive to the idea that even great literature can have a bestselling byline.