Jonathan Franzen: Literature’s Donald Trump

A fellow who’s normally reasonable but has suddenly gone all gushy writes in Inside Higher Ed about Jonathan Franzen ‘ s new novel Purity:

Every great new book is a revelation. A novel like Purity will be discussed and debated. If the book is as good as Franzen’s first two novels than a new set of ideas will enter our cultural bloodstream.

Great book? Ideas? Our culture?  Has the world gone insane? Franzen produces mildly entertaining beach and airport reads that have fuck – all to do with culture and ideas. The main characteristic of his writing is its extraordinary reliance on clichés and an utter lack of originality.

Franzen ‘ s novel The Corrections, for instance, revolves around the hoariest stereotypes about the degenerate, cynical, promiscuous East Coasters and the simple – minded, salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners.

One of the novel’s characters is a college professor who is fired when the administration discovers that she falsified her PhD diploma. The students protest, though, and the professor is not only reinstated but also immediately awarded a full professorship. This happens because she is a lesbian Filipina, and, as we all know, universities award full professorships to lesbian Filipinas without PhDs all the time. Beware the evils of political correctness!

I started reading Purity, and the first 100 pages are all about Franzen clumsily channeling 50 Shades of Grey. There is this creepily flirtatious email correspondence between a mysterious, rich, older man and an innocent and bumbling 23 – year-old girl. Franzen has written the novel from the young woman’s perspective which, in a male writer, is always a sign of age-related libidinal depletion. As usual, Franzen goes for the banal 100% of time.

The novel is not bad, however. There is some goofy toilet humor, as in a scene where the protagonist is so desperate to pee that she drops a cake she’s baked onto the scuzzy bathroom floor. That’s funny, in a way, but culture? Ideas?

People are so ignorant and have such undeveloped tastes that they think McDonald’s is a restaurant, Breaking Bad is art, Hunger Games is literature, Trump is a politician, and Franzen is a creator of ideas.

18 thoughts on “Jonathan Franzen: Literature’s Donald Trump

  1. Right. Franzen is about as middlebrow as they come. There’s nothing particularly wrong with middlebrow literature, but stuff like that IHE piece that you quote is just embarrassing.


    1. Exactly, there is nothing especially wrong with these books but it’s a shame that an academic would buy into Franzen’s self-aggrandizement that started when he organized that Oprah-related scandal.


  2. There was an entire page in the local newspaper here today praising this book and Franzen like he was the biggest genius on this planet. I bought it, started reading and so far fully agree with you. The e-mail exchange between Purity and this Wolf is nauseating. The way that she interacts with men is so typical of female protagonists made up by older men, and so untypical of any young woman I have ever met. I read a book with a similarly unbelievable female protagonist recently, “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” by Tom Rachman, which I thought was very annoying. I find it hard to continue reading this book at this point. Too bad, since I am really in need of some light reading material for my daily commute.


    1. There was also the horrible I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. It’s this very creepy phenomenon of middle-aged male writers who love to imagine themselves as huge authorities on what it means to be a young woman. But the result is, as you say, extremely weird and unconvincing.


      1. I believe that Tom Wolfe was in his 70s when he wrote I Am Charlotte Simmons. So well past middle age unless he plans on living to 140 or so.


        1. Oh yes, I remember now, you are right. This made the novel even more bizarre.

          I have no idea why there is such a reluctance on the part of 70-year-olds to write about the experiences of people of their own generation. Retirees have a lot of time to read, and I’d think they would appreciate literature for them and about them. This would be a lot more valuable than an older man’s fantasy of what it feels like to be a 20-year-old girl.


          1. “This would be a lot more valuable than an older man’s fantasy of what it feels like to be a 20-year-old girl”

            Older men are generally a lot more interested in fantasizing about 20 year old girls than reading about other older men or real 20 year old girls… But it does seem kind of …. sick and perverted if it’s dressed up in literary pretensions rather than the plain old soft porn they’d rather be reading.


  3. I could not agree with you more. I teach contemporary literature and am forever being asked why I don’t put Franzen on my reading lists. The reason is simple: his books are not literature in any real sense. I always think about his writing as being in that genre of quasi-intellectual works beloved by those who are structurally incapable of engaging with real intellectualism.


    1. “I always think about his writing as being in that genre of quasi-intellectual works beloved by those who are structurally incapable of engaging with real intellectualism.”

      • A brilliant definition. I wouldn’t be able to teach his novels either because there is nothing to teach. After telling students, “Behold the power of a cliche!”, I wouldn’t have much else to say.


  4. Though it’s probably not fair without actually reading him, I’ve always thought of Franzen as the Malcolm Gladwell of literature.

    Seems I was not wrong.

    That said, if I were to write a novel, it’d probably be from the perspective of a woman. I’ve always adopted a female perspective; the first short story I wrote (when I was 10) was from the perspective of a 30ish woman named “Joanna.”

    Yes, I was an odd kid.


    1. There is nothing wrong about a male author writing from a woman’s perspective per se. But it does feel weird when male writers who hit the age of 50 would suddenly become such specialists in young girls.


  5. Franzen and Wolfe strike me as the kind of authors people read (or more accurately pick up their books so they can display them somewhere) so they can say they’re reading “Literature ™” instead of “Oprah’s book club”. This desire causes them to overrate their writing significantly.

    So few of the books I read actually stay with me after I read them now. I can’t tell whether it’s because there are less truly new things or because I have the attention span of a small child.

    If he’s as bad at writing young women as you say, I wonder that he can write at all. This, after all, is a man who considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan because he “felt alienated from the younger generation”.


    1. “This, after all, is a man who considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan because he “felt alienated from the younger generation”.”

      • Are you serious??? God, I had no idea. What a twerp.


      1. From The Guardian

        Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship but he felt angry with the younger generation. “Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.”

        He added: “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.”

        Instead, Henry Finder, his editor at the New Yorker, suggested he meet up with a group of new university graduates. “It cured me of my anger at young people,” Franzen said.

        Notice the paucity of his inner imagination. It never occurs to him that an Iraqi war orphan would be any different than the monolithic “young people” he’s talking about. It never occurs to him that talking to people or looking at things they make might help to understand them. It’s all about his feelings and his belly button lint.


        1. That’s his main problem. He sees the world in clichés: a typical college professor, a typical literary critic, a typical Midwesterner, etc. There is a scary incapacity to see any nuance in him.


  6. Ah, Franzen. The favourite author of every 25 year old white boy who fancies himself a Serious Intellectual on OKCupid. The stupid person’s idea of what a smart author/wannabe public figure sounds like.
    It took about four pages of Freedom before I decided I’d never read anything of his again.


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