Interview with Jonathan Franzen

September, 2010
Jonathan Franzen Celebrated author Jonathan Franzen casts his perceptive eye once again on the American family in his new novel, Freedom. Nine years have passed since his game-changing novel, The Corrections, became one of the most critically acclaimed works in recent memory—winning the National Book Award and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Franzen grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, and his novels often evoke a strong Midwestern sense of place and explore the minutiae of family relationships, particularly those between parents and their children. In Freedom, gentrified married couple Patty and Walter Berglund weather a fall from suburban grace. On behalf of Goodreads, writer and talk-show host Emily Gould spoke with Franzen about marriage, bird-watching, and the past, present, and future of the realist novel.

Goodreads: You are the first author since Stephen King in 2000 to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. In the profile, you say that it's important for books to be compelling because readers must resist so much distraction. But I've also heard the complaint from writers that there's enormous pressure to write clear, compelling realist narratives because they're so much more marketable than difficult, densely written art novels. Are books stooping too low in order to level the playing field with TV and the Internet?

Jonathan Franzen: There was a time when it was assumed that a novel was readable. You go back to Richardson and Defoe and then up through Austen and Stendhal and Balzac and all the way through the 19th century, it wasn't even a question. And then we have modernism, which was made possible by the existence of a long tradition of reading novels. The moderns were able to start doing crazy things with narrative and investigate important questions, like "How does time pass?" and "What is the nature of time?" Faulkner was writing about that in numerous books, Proust was writing about that, in his way, and they were doing this in ways that were very challenging. They could do that because the novel was the dominant form, and what they were doing, at its extremes, was only comprehensible to people who undertook with scholarly seriousness to really study the book.

What happened then is modern literature became something comfortably ensconced in the university, and there was an understandable critical privileging of stuff that required critics. But even as late as the '80s, when I was still in school, there was an assumption that the very best serious literature was challenging. And it was never in my nature to write books that were really hard to read. But for a long time, for decades, I thought that that was a fault in me. And it's really only with this last book that I found my liberation from what was arguably an artifact of a particular place in the development of the novel in the early 20th century, and how it coincided with the development of English departments.

So this is all by way of saying that unless you want to discount everything written before 1900, I don't think there's anything wrong with being readable.

GR: It's also good to think about how culture is made, and if and how people are getting paid to make it.

JF: We can no longer count on the audience that Conrad and Joyce and Faulkner had. People don't have book-lined studies anymore; they have video game-lined great rooms. We are fighting to retain something that is less and less takeable-for-granted.

GR: Freedom thoroughly dissects the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund. This is an Us Weekly question but...marriage. Are you for it?

JF: I'm for it for gay people. I think it should be open to all. I've been living with the same person now for ten years, and we're both veterans of marriages that didn't last a lifetime, so we're each a bit leery of the institution and puzzled by what value exactly is added by it, except in terms of estate planning or something. But I do think the institution is in particular trouble in the United States, where it's expected to be this great romantic thing, but also a vehicle for the production of children, and also the key to getting certain benefits that come from the government sanctioning of it. And it can't do all of those things, well, not all at once. It can become like a machine to manufacture disappointment in oneself. There was an op-ed some weeks or months ago in The New York Times about seeing divorce as a failure. And it's probably important to have psychological penalties like that to try to keep people in marriages, because sometimes you can get through bad times. And yet this notion that it's an eternal bond, and if it turns out not be an eternal bond, then the whole thing has failed—that, I'm not comfortable with.

GR: You'll go to great lengths to shut out distraction when you're working, such as disabling your laptop's Ethernet port with a sawed-off plug. And you've also written critically about our compulsive fumblings with our cell phones. Bird-watchers can now get bird alerts on their mobile devices. As an avid birder yourself, do you use that kind of technology?

JF: [Pause.] I have. I'm not opposed to cellular technology. I'm not a Luddite. It's more that I don't want my entire life to consist of that stuff. But I think it's mostly good that bird-watchers have these technological developments. I'm a little worried about it. It can take the discovery out of bird-watching, if you're madly checking the alerts to see where to hurry to in order to see such-and-such a bird. And the apps for the iPhone that have recordings of birdsong on them—sometimes people are new to birding, and they go out and just harass the birds to death by playing their songs over and over again.

GR: Sometimes you'll see ten people clustered around a particular tree because of a bird alert.

JF: Yeah, I avoid those scenes.

GR: Goodreads member Alaina asks, "Jonathan, the outlook of Freedom is pretty relentlessly bleak. Do you intend to convey a message of despair, or are we as readers supposed to also see the possibility of redemption?"

JF: I'm a little aggrieved to hear that it struck Alaina as relentlessly bleak. I would hope someone might find it appropriately bleak. But despair? No, no.

I don't wish to convey messages—period. But I look carefully at certain situations in the world and try to render them honestly. And if someone perceives that to be a bleak situation, it's the situation's fault, not mine!

GR: Goodreads member Dayna writes, "I picked up The Man Who Loved Children after reading Mr. Franzen's New York Times essay. I loved the book (it was disturbing, I was disturbed by my appreciation for it, and I savored the feeling of liking a long book about people I didn't really like). Which other overlooked masterpieces does Mr. Franzen recommend?"

JF: I feel like I have to read more in order to keep adding to my list of neglected masterpieces! But there are some books that people don't usually find their way to that I nevertheless consider great in the way that Christina Stead is great. I would certainly mention Halldór Laxness's book Independent People, the great Icelandic novel. And another book that was influenced by that book that is a masterpiece is Jane Smiley's novel The Greenlanders, set one landmass to the left. I'm very high on East of Eden, which can't really be considered underappreciated now that Oprah has drawn fresh attention to it. But it is somewhat underrated and somewhat misunderstood—people think of The Grapes of Wrath as being the high point of Steinbeck's production and that he went downhill from there, but it's not true, because he went on and consciously tried to do better, and I think did in East of Eden. And finally another old favorite, which I have yet to find someone who doesn't agree with me that it's a fantastic book, is Kenzaburō Ōe's novel A Personal Matter, which you should read if you haven't.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JF: Well, I haven't polled every writer, so I have no idea how unusual they are. I know I'm not the only person who speaks his dialogue aloud as he's writing it, but I certainly do. And the only consolation is that I'm totally unaware of doing it, and I only know I've done it because of my hoarseness at the end of the day. Let's see...I suppose it's slightly unusual to hate daylight when I'm working. Heavy window blinds are definitely part of the mix.

GR: No earmuffs, blinders, all that?

JF: Oh well, yeah, of course, but doesn't everybody?

GR: What are you reading now? Do you have any favorite books or authors?

JF: I'm reading and enjoying Michael Lewis's book The Big Short. He's a really, really valuable writer. He's interested in money, but he's interested in the right way. He doesn't leave his politics behind, but he buries them deep. And perhaps with the exception of the anonymous hedge fund manager book [Diary of a Very Bad Year], which n+1 just brought to light, the best thing I've read about the financial mess we're in. I also just happened to read a book called Becoming Faulkner, which is a short semi-biographical work that looks at these critical moments in Faulkner's life and relates them to the breakthroughs he was having in his work.

GR: A bit off topic, but are you aware of the Internet-disabling computer application Freedom?

JF: I've only heard about it in the last few months. No one's convinced me that you can't bypass it if you're clever enough.

GR: All you have to do is restart your computer, which I do all the time. But I guess the point is that it makes you feel ashamed when you do that.

JF: I have such high shame levels when I'm working that it would just be a drop in the bucket.

Interview by Emily Gould for Goodreads. She is the author of And the Heart Says Whatever and the host of the online book talk show Cooking the Books.

Learn more about Emily and follow what she's reading.

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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by g c (new)

g c Christopher wrote: "The ‘celebrated author’ needs to go back to school and study some literature rather than remain cloistered inside the same argument he has regurgitated time and again. Read Justina from 1605 by Lop..."

That was well stated, but still, The Corrections remains a very good book. There is a feeling that you are trying to de-value everything about Franzen's existence. To me, his interviews can be a different thing from his writing, maybe even superfluous to it. Mailer wrote well, but he could be a total kook. Certainly, refusing Opra couldn't be seen as part of good marketing at the time. I'm guessing you really hate The Corrections. Then why are you reading his interview?


message 2: by Hollis (new)

Hollis @Christopher:

Yawn, don't you have a blog where you can post this stuff?


message 3: by Priscilla (last edited Sep 09, 2010 03:38PM) (new)

Priscilla The Corrections was the only novel I can recall having read which caused me to laugh while also sending me into a deep depression. It struck me as a well written balance of humourous and tragic portrayal of human frailty. Very little of what Franzen says outside of his novel interests me except the topic of his writing habits. It is not surprising that he was light-deprived while writing. I look forward to reading Freedom.


message 4: by Ben (new)

Ben First allow me to comment on 'difficult' books. In world literature there are certain books that are difficult, not meant for ordinary readers, books such Ulysses by James Joyce and In Search of Lost Time by Proust. Both Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time are a must read for writers, especially those writing literary fiction, because of the narrative technique of the stream-of-consciousness employed by Joyce, and the subtleties of perception evident in Proust.

Now about The Corrections: I think Franzen is very good at characterization, that is, showing the characters in action. His characters are American through and through and he makes them come alive by comic exaggeration and forceful dialogue. However, I've to wonder whether his American characters are really 'realistic' because they feel more invented than true to life. Still, Franzen when dealing with situations and conflicts outside of the U.S. tends to stereotype (Lithuania and Russia), suggesting that his foreign information comes from research, not lived experience.

Franzen is an American writer critiquing American society and its mores. I'd place him in the class of Richard Ford (Independence Day), but not Updike or Mailer or Roth.

Ben Antao


message 5: by Susan (new)

Susan  Shapiro He's much younger, give him more time.


message 6: by Stanko (new)

Stanko 'The [Christopher] doth protest too much.' But then I guess Shakespeare, according to this hateful critique, is too easy to understand to be any good.


message 7: by g c (new)

g c Young Christopher mentions "Harira from the 11th century." He's not referring to the Moroccan soup eaten during Ramadan, is he? I'm not familiar with the writings of this soup. Please send a link if anyone has one. I accept the challenge and want to verify "Harira" is difficult. I suspect he/she may only be vexing. Thank you, madams and sirs.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

God, I hate comment boards.


message 9: by Priscilla (new)

Priscilla I'm not a fan of arrogance in any of its ugly forms, including disdain, but I do think a good discussion and intelligent contributions are worthwhile!


message 10: by Elyse (new)

Elyse "The Corrections" was a 'favorite' delicious book!!!
I pre-ordered this new book months ago.
Soon after it arrived, our San Jose, Calif. newspaper ran a large review of "FREEDOM" and Jonathan.
It wasn't a ~Rock&Roll~ review --[not awful]--but for this amazing accomplished author ----[a guy who develops his characters like nobody else]---I wanted to see **fireworks**

Oh well....I'm going to read it...WITH PLEASURE!!!!

and.........I would LOVE to meet this charming man. He only lives over the hill, (in Santa Cruz). I, myself, would be honored to host him ---[I've hosted other authors]---
If he would come to San Jose---I'll get the people---

We love this guy--and already know we will enjoy the book!

Congrats to Franzen!!!!!


message 11: by New (new)

New Writers I'm half way through Freedom and I think it's worth the voyage as was Corrections. Franzen is deft at bringing a bemusing, dullish character to flesh and blood. He starts with a 'flat' portrayal and then moves into three dimensions, something we often fail to acheive in real life when we're "assessing" or "trying to understand" people. As for his opinions - I like that he doesn't join the other tech-head twitchers under the poor bird's tree..


message 12: by Excerptreader (new)

Excerptreader No doubt Mr. Franzen is a prophet of our times. But is he out on a missionary crusade? Read the Excerpt Reader's review of FREEDOM and you be the judge: http://the-excerpt-reader.blogspot.co...


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