Jonathan Franzen Pisses People Off

Oh, the things you find out when you notice how many people are unhappy when a Jonathan Franzen novel drops:

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is partly set in Santa Cruz, a Californian town 70 miles south of San Francisco, where the novelist lives with his partner, Kathy. Their house is in the U-bend of a crescent, on the edge of a suburban housing estate, overlooking a wooded conservation area to the Pacific Ocean beyond. It is, for one of America’s foremost literary novelists, a modest property, overlooked on three sides by neighbours in a way that, say, Philip Roth’s grand pile in Connecticut is not. However, it affords good views from the deck (the novelist is an avid birdwatcher) and the low overheads that permit Franzen to let five years go by without delivering a novel. “I’m not used to talking about this book,” he says of Purity, which, like his preceding two novels, is a 600-page doorstopper. There is a long, Franzonian pause: “I’m trying to figure out how much I should say and how much I should not say.”

That question, as central to the writing as to the publicising of the novel, is one that Franzen has frequently struggled to answer. At 55, he has the earnest, slightly puggish look of a younger man, and the occasional intemperance of one, too. On a refresher driving test he took recently, the novelist scored high on the scale for susceptibility to road rage. (“There are 11 things that are warning signs of road rage, and I had, like, nine of them.”) His fame has as much to do with the fights he has picked – or has had foisted upon him – as with the quality of his fiction; Franzen riles people in a way that is unusual, and perhaps reassuring for a novelist, given the endless debate about the relevance of that role. He has attracted the scorn, over the years, of users of social media, environmentalists, certain stripes of feminist critic, lesser novelists, the lead book reviewer of the New York Timesand fans of Oprah Winfrey.

Franzen just wasn't made for these times. His fish out of water and innocent bystander schtick is old hat and I can't imagine people have gotten over their love of having their own fears confirmed for them. They want to use Franzen as a shield against having to understand why they, themselves, don't want to put anything out there (the fear is driven by the fact that they are boring and racist and everyone knows it, and they're especially afraid that the NSA might have a database of all the things they've said about the black people who appear in their neighborhood).

These are the times that allow people to express themselves and not be shut out by gatekeepers. This is an example of that:

Franzen’s Guardian interview prompted swift response from writer Jennifer Weiner, who in a series of tweets, said: “Frantzen believes he’s locked in a no-win situation, he promotes women writers! And still we hate! ‘Because a villain is needed.’ WELL.”
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner)August 21, 2015

3. Franzen believes he's locked in a no-win situation. He promotes women writers! And still we hate! "Because a villain is needed." WELL.

She continued: “Yes, Franzen promotes women writers, in the New Yorker, and elsewhere. (Not on social media, though – which might help their books sell).”

She accused him of hating her “without, of course, deigning to read a word I’ve written”.
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner)August 21, 2015

8. Instead, who does Franzen hate? @jodipicoult. Oprah. @michikokakutani. Me. (Without, of course, deigning to read a word I've written).

She added: “Then he whines, ‘It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male.’ Well. We don’t want Franzen unmanned. Just not Franzen unfair. Fin.”
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner)August 21, 2015

10. Then he whines, "It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male.” Well. We don't want Franzen unmanned. Just not Franzen unfair. Fin.

Purity, which is out on 1 September and which sees the young Pip Tyler becoming involved with a Julian Assange-like leader of a rival to WikiLeaks, takes on another bete noire of Franzen’s: the internet. The author has previously said he does not go online when writing, and has described Twitter as “unspeakably irritating”.

Yay. Sounds like a winner.

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