"DESPAIRING" IS the word Franzen uses to describe his mood at this point in his life. He channeled his mounting angst ó both personal and literary ó into a 1996 essay in Harperís magazine, called "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels." In the piece, Franzen laments fictionís growing irrelevance and explores how it might combine social relevance with profundity. "My so-called manifesto," he says of the Harperís essay, with apparent exasperation about how itís been cast.
The essay refers to his "despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social." Later on in the piece, he explains that "at the heart of my despair about the novel had been a conflict between my feeling that I should Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream, and my desire to write about the things closest to me, to lose myself in the characters and the locales I loved.... As soon as I jettisoned my perceived obligation to the chimerical mainstream, my third book began to move again."
Many critics read the essay as both a stale, oft-heard lament over the demise of fiction and an indulgent, self-promoting prescription to change all that: I will write The Great American Novel, as some have interpreted the pieceís intent. But Franzen believes he was misunderstood, especially in the New York Times Magazineís profile of him. "I think the idea of [the Timesí interpretation] is, in some way, [that I was saying,] ĎLook what Iím going to do and this is how itís done,í " he says. "And itís just not to be found on the page."
However it was read, the essay had the secondary effect of sparking anticipatory buzz: what will he do next? Will he succeed? On the literary circuit, it generated suspense of the first order. And to be sure, the interest shown in Franzenís future rested on more weighty considerations than, say, the celebrity-gossip lust that surrounded last winterís accusatory public e-mail exchanges between New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick and author Dave Eggers. With Franzen, it seemed like nothing less than the future of the American novel was at stake.
As it happens, the essay did turn out to be Franzenís personal call to action. He again sequestered himself, and after five more years of relentless writing and revision, he emerged with The Corrections.
The novel tells the story of five Midwestern family members careening through lifeís daily anguishing rounds. Despite the bookís daunting size (the hardcover contains a whopping 568 pages) and bulky hump of a beginning, the novel is a joy to read. The characters are so well developed that itís easy to find both a drippy, sentimental housewife and a haughty, arty lesbian chef equally sympathetic and repellant. As the story of the family flows to its climax, each discrete sentence proceeds with deliciously crafted precision.
The Corrections also manages to include serious political and social commentary ó on everything from pill popping to academic wrangling and not-so-subtle digs at globalization. Still, the story reads as smoothly as a trashy page-turner. Reading, Franzen says repeatedly, is, at its most basic level, about pleasure; this book manages to satisfy that impulse, while bringing to life very real, complex characters.
And the critics "went wild." Before the book came out in late September, Publishers Weekly proclaimed it "simply, a masterpiece." In O, The Oprah Magazine (before Winfrey pulled the Franzen show), Francine Prose called the book "dazzling." Even notoriously chilly New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani thawed: "In his portraits ... Mr. Franzen exercises his copious talents for satire, coolly excavating [his charactersí] vanities, hypocrisy and self-deceptions."
Though the 1996 Harperís essay had sparked buzz, it had also nurtured literary ill will, and this, too, influenced the reception of The Corrections. "I came to this book ready to dislike it from the get-go," admitted Christopher Caldwell on Slate.com. "First off, the book has been hyped to such a point that I was amazed at how well it was put together. (This is a common reaction. This afternoon I was driving up 880 with a friend of mine who asked, ĎHowís the Franzen book?í ĎSuperb,í I replied. ĎThatís too bad,í he said.)"
Laura Miller, Salon.comís books editor, notes that this is indeed a common reaction within the literary community. "Unfortunately, too many of the people who care about and read and follow contemporary fiction in general are people who are writing novels themselves ó or wish they were," Miller sighs, adding, "and thatís really unfortunate because you have this sort of competitiveness ó or just envy."
WHEN TALKING to Franzen, itís hard not to root for him. He sincerely wants to say something important, to write something that matters, and to touch people. He has the demeanor of an impressionable, unrelentingly ambitious, but slightly awkward young boy. His expression is a mix of curious and cautious, wide-eyed and wary.
At the same time, itís easy to see why Franzen is such a gifted writer. In mid-sentence, his internal editor goes to work, revising phrases, interjecting comments, discarding the bad draft, and resuming with a tighter, more accurate one. Recounting an anecdote about his appearance on WBURís The Connection, Franzen pulls himself deeper and deeper into editing his own conversation: "Iíve said too many parentheticals and now Iíve gotten lost ... um, but," he frantically searches his thoughts. "Yes!" he exclaims, now free to go on.
Later, explaining whether his goal as a writer is to comment on contemporary culture, he says, "I think the goal is to create compelling characters. The more the charactersí plight resembles your own plight as a reader or as a person ó the readerís plight as a person ó uh, itís easier to establish that connection." But no, thatís not quite right. Franzenís face scrunches in disappointment. "Um, here, letís scrap all that and maybe we can try again?" His lips curl into a hopeful smile. "Help me, throw me a rope here."
He explains himself moments later. "Iím really much more comfortable handing you the book than talking to you," he says. "I think Iím so much better at writing five lines of dialogue than I am at giving an interview or saying something intelligible for the record."
Certainly that was true in his discussion with the Portland Oregonian, where he aired his ambivalent feelings about his bookís selection by Oprahís book club. "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didnít want that logo of corporate ownership on it," he told a reporter for the paper. And on NPRís Fresh Air, he dismissed Winfreyís pre-show taping of his daily life as "bogus." At a reading in Cambridge, he paused before choosing his words more carefully. "It was a little hard to see someone elseís name on the cover of something Iíd worked so hard on."
A few days later, Winfrey announced that she was pulling the Franzen show. "Jonathan Franzen will not be on The Oprah Winfrey Show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book-club selection," she said. "It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict."
Itís still unclear how profoundly all this will affect Franzen. A Winfrey endorsement opens a virtual gold mine for authors, ratcheting up their book sales immediately after she announces her pick. But while his remarks may have financial repercussions for both Franzen and his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, they may be slight: though Winfrey canceled the show, her initial endorsement of The Corrections was public for three weeks before that, and FSG had upped the first printing of 90,000 books to 500,000. "I never expected to be an Oprah pick, and the book is reaching lots of readers already," Franzen says by e-mail, "so you canít really meaningfully speak of my Ďlosing outí in any way."
But according to Salon.comís Miller, "he just fucked up. You arenít as frank with the press as you would be among your friends, and thatís difficult for him. If he really had a problem with the Oprah thing, then he probably should have turned it down."
Franzen is the first to agree that his comments were inappropriate. "Nothing but actually burning your hand on the stove will fully persuade you not to touch it again," he says. "The only real misfortune, therefore, is that my learning experience has created such a divisive and unnecessary brouhaha. The fact is that both Oprah and I want the same thing: lots of people reading really good books."
Still, many in the publishing world couldnít help but snicker. "Thereís a sort of gleefulness over this," says Miller. "There are people who ... want his book to be bad and him to be a jerk simply because people like it." But, she adds, "if the author is sort of unpracticed enough in the media to make this gaffe, it doesnít really change the book at all. I donít think that Jonathan is a jerk ó but even if he were a jerk, that wouldnít be reason enough not to read it."
WHILE FRANZEN flounders in the harsh glare of the media spotlight, many readers are overlooking that drama and focusing instead on his work. At a reading at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, at Harvard, an unusually diverse group of a few hundred people packs into the room. As Franzen reads, he loses himself in the text, motioning with his arms, affecting voices. The audience is riveted.
Upstairs afterwards, signing the books, he could be mistaken for a student having his paper graded ó and getting an A-plus. "Oh, thank you, thank you so much," he responds to his fansí praise, with almost excruciating sincerity. He has a healthy flush, an open smile, and a pen poised in his hand. "There is one aspect of the tour that I really like, and that is the author appearances, the readings. I love meeting readers, and I like reading to people," heíd said earlier. "The interviews I can do without."
Nina Willdorf can be reached at nwilldorf[a]phx.com