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Books / Writing > Jonathan Franzen: Literary genius or overrated hack?

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message 1: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) The literary world seems to be polarized over Jonathan Franzen and his new novel, Freedom.

Time magazine put him on the cover and called him the "Great American Novelist" while the likes of Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult apparently have taken to snarking about the buzz on twitter and accusing establishment literary critics of overlooking women writers. I find myself wanting to snark in response to them, "Write better books." But that's unfair since I haven't actually read any of their work.

I haven't read Franzen either, except for part of
The Twenty-Seventh City, but I blame the lack of completion only my own fickleness and not the quality of the book. What I read was interesting, I just got distracted and for some reason never went back. I also have The Corrections on my shelf but have never tackled it (along with about 300 other books I own).

So, anyway, what are your thoughts on Franzen? Have you read him? Do you want to? Are you avoiding him like the plague? Is a he THE genius writing in America today, or totally overrated?


message 2: by Sally, la reina (new)

Sally (mrsnolte) | 17320 comments Mod
hack.


message 3: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) I bought it ($5.99 hardback on the remainder table when it came out in trade paperback) because I'd heard good things about it, but I'm not in love with middle-class family sagas. I hear Freedom is another middle-class family saga.

I may pick up The Corrections this weekend and see if it grabs me, although I need to finish Lolita and do some work on my own Great American Novel so I can become one of those overlooked women writers.

*I'm guessing you meant The Corrections and not The Commitments, which I also have not read but adored the movie.


message 4: by RandomAnthony (last edited Aug 27, 2010 04:38PM) (new)

RandomAnthony | 14536 comments I really liked The Corrections and I read one of his non-fiction books, something about bird-watching, but I don't remember much about it other than I thought it was pretty good.


message 5: by Sally, la reina (new)

Sally (mrsnolte) | 17320 comments Mod
I threw The Corrections across the room several times before finally choking the whole mess down. Remember on S&TC when Carrie Bradshaw meets the pompous, shallow "it-boy" writer but they just can't hit it off? That's how I felt.


message 6: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) RA, was it good enough to justify the hype over Freedom? Have people really been sitting around salivating for a new Franzen novel for the past eight or nine years? It's the weird literary storm brewing around him that's piqued my interest, because he's not exactly Thomas Pynchon or Phillip Roth or [insert Great American Living Novelist here:]. Or is he?


message 7: by ms.petra (new)

ms.petra (mspetra) I just read a review on my library's website yesterday for Freedom and placed it on hold. Go figure. Haven't read him before, so now I am wondering if there will be a let down after all the hype.


message 8: by RandomAnthony (last edited Aug 27, 2010 05:23PM) (new)

RandomAnthony | 14536 comments Misha, I didn't run out and get Freedom, no, or even notice it was coming out, so I don't think I can say it's a big deal to me. I liked The Corrections, but I like lots of books. I remember admiring one facet in particular, tension between grandparents in Kansas or something (I think they're the parents of the people around whom the novel revolves)and a daughter in law, esp. concerning a potential holiday visit. I remember thinking Franzen did a good job characterizing the dynamics. My socks weren't knocked off, if you will, but I didn't feel like I wasted my time or anything.

I'm more excited about the new William Gibson coming out in early September.


message 9: by Misha (last edited Aug 27, 2010 05:25PM) (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) All of this talk about Franzen has that cheesy post-9/11 Paul McCartney song "Freedom" stuck in my head.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tnqs_a...

My antidote:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3mOWp...


message 10: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) The impression I get of Franzen, RA, that he's a perfectly serviceable novelist, but not great enough to justify the sudden literary stature being thrust upon him by the likes of the NY Times.

On the other hand, even if it's undeserved, I tend to think the Franzen hype might just be good for books and publishing and reading, and perhaps the novel in particular. It's kind of hard to argue the novel is dead when a novelist is appearing on the cover of Time.


message 11: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony | 14536 comments Misha, why do you think Franzen's getting the hype and not somebody else? What about Franzen is attractive to the literary media?


message 12: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) My guess is they all got a boner when he said "Fuck you" to Oprah and her unwashed masses.


message 13: by Lobstergirl, el principe (new)

Lobstergirl | 24072 comments Mod
Freedom was one of the books Obama bought when he was in Martha's Vineyard. I think they said he got an ARC or something.

I've read The Corrections, his memoir The Discomfort Zone, and his book of essays How to Be Alone.. I also read what he writes for the New Yorker, which included a piece on birdwatching in China. I don't think he's either a literary genius, or an overrated hack. He's something in between. I thought The Corrections was a good novel. I don't particularly think anyone's going to be reading it in 20 years. I'll read Freedom eventually but I'm in no hurry. As for his nonfiction, I think he is a talented nonfiction writer but he doesn't come across as the most likable person. You can sense the narcissism in him.

I snorted when I saw his big narcissistic self on the cover of Time. I don't necessarily think he deserves a Time cover; but then again, the newsweeklies have fallen so far in overall quality and newsworthiness that maybe he does.

I thought Weiner and Picoult did make some good points - I read a piece posted on Huffington Post, I don't know if it's the same one you read. The New York Times Book Review does need to get over its snooty self and review some more commercial fiction, I think. Even if it's bad reviews, they shouldn't be ignoring such an enormous chunk of what America reads. Their point that the NYT often reviews a book twice is a good one. What on earth is the point of that, when so many other authors go unreviewed?

On the other hand, I had the same reaction as you did, Misha: "I find myself wanting to snark in response to them, "Write better books." But that's unfair since I haven't actually read any of their work." I haven't read their books and I can't imagine I ever will. But not because they're commercial or genre writers or women; because I don't read the type of commercial/genre writing they write, chicklit/romance.

My general response to seeing a literary presence be lionized is kind of a yawn, because so much of contemporary American literature I just don't like. I am much more likely to read classics and certain genres.


message 14: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) Lobstergirl wrote: I haven't read their books and I can't imagine I ever will. But not because they're commercial or genre writers or women; because I don't read the type of commercial/genre writing they write, chicklit/romance.

I feel the same way about Weiner and Picoult.


message 15: by Lobstergirl, el principe (new)

Lobstergirl | 24072 comments Mod
RandomAnthony wrote: "Misha, why do you think Franzen's getting the hype and not somebody else? What about Franzen is attractive to the literary media?"

I think it's because he's trying to write the Great American Novel. And part of it is that he's male, too. And wears trendy hipster glasses.

What other authors under 50 are trying to write the GAN? (Not a rhetorical question.) Fat novels with sweeping scope?


message 16: by Gus (new)

Gus Sanchez (gussanchez) Yeah, what LG said.

I quite liked "The Corrections." I thought it was very well written a d expertly paced, yet also very uncomfortable in places. Like LG wrote, he's a deep-rooted narcissist who pretty much has a low opinion of others' works other than his; I recall one interview where he slammed David Foster Wallace not for his writing style but because Wallace wore a do-rag while he wrote!

In all likelihood I'll read Franzen's new novel. I think the American literary world is looking to anoint a new Great American Writer. Time will tell if Franzen is that writer.


message 17: by Misha (last edited Aug 27, 2010 07:00PM) (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) Lobstergirl wrote: "What other authors under 50 are trying to write the GAN?"

Me! And I have trendy hipster glasses!

*waits for phone call from Time for cover photo shoot*

*should probably finish fat, sweeping novel first*

Oh, wait. I'm a girl. :(


message 18: by Lobstergirl, el principe (new)

Lobstergirl | 24072 comments Mod
Misha wrote: "My guess is they all got a boner when he said "Fuck you" to Oprah and her unwashed masses."

Now, that I did like. I approve whenever Oprah's ego gets punctured.


message 19: by Mary (new)

Mary (madamefifi) The Corrections was a bloated, tedious, self-satisfied load of complete shite and I shudder to think what Freedom is like, but I guess I'll never know because I plan to never ever read it unless it is literally the last book on Earth. Franzen is incredibly over-rated, he is an at-best average writer who has inexplicably become the new It boy. So, yeah....hack.


message 20: by Matt (last edited Aug 27, 2010 11:49PM) (new)

Matt | 819 comments Franzen is on my to-read-eventually list, but basically these days any time a writer is receiving national media attention I am happy for that person and assume that the attention is good for the publishing industry in general. This applies even to Stephenie Meyer, albeit a bit begrudgingly...:)

Not meaning to sound morbid, but in the past Franzen was often riding under the shadow of the moniker "best friend of David Foster Wallace." I've been pondering whether the fact that DFW is no longer with us yet still loved intensely by many has translated into more attention for Franzen as the shining beacon for that particular generation of writers.

Does anyone else spend much time in the antique/flea market/thrift stores milieu? I assume that this is from the Oprah debacle, but it is inevitable that all of these places will have a copy of The Corrections. It must be an obscure law that they keep this book in stock along with a copy of Frampton Comes Alive on vinyl and at least one nested hen candy bowl. Weird...

I sneared at the Picoult thing initially also, but being a rube and whatnot I don't keep up with what is going on at the NYT book review. Does anyone have any idea how they have treated other female writers in the past - specifically awesome ones like Nicole Krauss, Margaret Atwood, or Amy Hempel?

Misha: It is almost certain that music from the Ramones will cure whatever ails ya. I'm pretty sure that there is even an FDA report somewhere stating that even their cover songs have been known to make the blind to see and the lame to walk...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMF8-h...
:)


message 21: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony | 14536 comments Does anyone else spend much time in the antique/flea market/thrift stores milieu? I assume that this is from the Oprah debacle, but it is inevitable that all of these places will have a copy of The Corrections. It must be an obscure law that they keep this book in stock along with a copy of Frampton Comes Alive on vinyl and at least one nested hen candy bowl. Weird...

Ha...awesome and true, sir, along with Yes records and Mitch Abloom books...


message 22: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) This is fairly amusing:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/36565623/Em...

I've been reading some of Weiner's tweets, and am starting to like her as a person. I went to the library today with the intention of checking out one of her books, but after thumbing through Certain Girls, which was the only one on of her books on the shelf at my library branch, I decided it just wasn't for me.

I still may read Good in Bed, as it sounds like something I might actually enjoy.


message 23: by Sarah (last edited Aug 30, 2010 01:50PM) (new)

Sarah | 13815 comments I've read one serviceable Franzen short story, but none of his novels. There was an interview with him in the Globe & Mail this weekend that piqued my interest, but it's going to be a while before I get around to one of his books.

This quote from the interview did resonate with me, since every minute I spend online is a minute I palpably feel as one I'm not writing. OK, he's pretty harsh in condemning the internet as a whole, but I agree to a certain extent.

Interviewer: You said recently that nobody who has an Internet connection in their workplace could ever possibly write a good novel.

Franzen: Every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.


message 24: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) He's not the first writer to say that. Jonathan Lethem talked in an interview for Chronic City about having turned an expensive Mac into a glorified typewriter by disabling the internet and stripping down to just bare bones word processing.

I think there's something to be said for stepping away from the internet when trying to be creative. I have an old desktop PC I had intended to put up for sale on craigslist this summer, but decided to make it a writing computer instead. It's not connected to the internet, and I've been in the process of dumping photo editing software and such and making it a "glorified typewriter." I'll keep iTunes, though. ;)

I also have a 1960s manual typewriter I romantically think about using to write a Great American Novel, but the keys are kind of sticky and I can't type on it fast enough to keep my thoughts going.


message 25: by Gus (new)

Gus Sanchez (gussanchez) I read an interview once where Franzen couldn't fathom listening to music while he wrote. He said in that interview that he once rented a room in an apartment where there were no windows, just darkness, and he would write there. I get the feeling he's quite monastic when it comes to writing.


message 26: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) I find that something classical, or perhaps electronic with no lyrics, helps relax my brain and let the creativity flow. Music creates a feeling and a mood that I can transfer to the page.


message 27: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments The Sunday New York Times review of the new novel is a TOTAL LOVE-FEST. They never do that for Joyce Carol Oates, let me tell you.


message 28: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) Wait. Did they review it AGAIN?


message 29: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments It was a HUGE review, in Sunday Aug. 29 book section.


message 30: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) So, when I first posted this, Weiner and Picoult had been complaining the NY Times had already reviewed the book twice. Then it gets a spread on Sunday? Is this book going to bring world peace, plug the hole in the ozone layer and unlock the secrets of cold fusion?


message 31: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments It would seem that way.


message 32: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) I'm just wondering how I can get a job there if things are so cushy they can expend the resources on three reviews of the same book. That surely wouldn't happen at my newspaper, where the feature writers are now covering fires and shootings because we're so short-staffed (and we're doing relatively well as newspapers go).


message 33: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony | 14536 comments Fresh from NPR...

Feminist 'Franzenfreude' Over Raves For 'Freedom'

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/st...


message 34: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) Perhaps Franzen's true genius (or the evil genius of his publisher's marketing department) is that now I feel like I have to read the book to find out if it does indeed deserve the hype, and because I don't want to be someone who hates something just because people are buzzing about it.


message 35: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments Ok, sorry to keep harping on the Joyce Carol Oates comparison to Franzen, but this blogger hit the nail on the head for me. This was recently posted by NYC writer Shelley Ettinger:

"Look. Joyce Carol Oates is a famous, successful, acclaimed writer. She doesn't need anyone sticking up for her, certainly not little old me.

Or does she?

The answer starts, just as the first installment of my appreciation did, with the tally. The woman is a writing machine. With over a hundred published books and countless more essays, reviews, talks and so on, it's hard to imagine that she does anything other than write. We know she does, though. She teaches. She recently remarried after her husband of 40-plus years, Raymond Smith, died, so she must have at least some semblance of a life with relationships and social interaction and so on. She watches, or at least keeps up with, movies and TV, which we know from her obvious familiarity with popular culture. She must sleep. So no, she's not a machine. She's a human being, just an incredibly productive one. And excruciatingly talented.

Yet it is the first attribute, her productivity, that seems to get most of the attention. Not only is the second, more important one, her talent, increasingly less interesting, apparently, to the commentators--but worse, it is more discounted the more she publishes. How can this be? Why is she the object of ridicule, some of it lighthearted but much of it mean-spirited, dismissive--why?

I think it's because she's a woman. It pains me to draw this conclusion but there's no other I can see. If a male writer had published as much serious literature as she has (is there such a one? I wish I could think of one so I could look at how he's treated and determine whether I'm right)--if a male writer were this enormously prolific, churning out book after book, more than one a masterpiece, many wonderful, some merely good, and some not so hot, he would not, I believe, be the butt of jokes the way Joyce Carol Oates is. He would have long since won the Pulitzer Prize for one or another of his masterpieces, which she has not. He would have probably by now won the Nobel Prize for his magnificent body of work, which she has not. He would, in any case, be a role model, a paragon. The Great Writer. Instead of being regarded, as she often seems to be, as a little bit creepy, more than a little bit scary-weird, someone whose achievements are twisted into somehow themselves being evidence of her not-quite-greatness.

She compounds the offense, I think, by honing in so frequently, and with such depth, upon the female experience. Bad enough she's a woman, does she have to write constantly about all that yucky stuff too?"


message 36: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) I think gender is a part of what that blogger is talking about, but I don't think it's the sum total.

Except now I'm talking myself out of that argument. I was going to say I think her prolificness is part of it, and that the literary establishment loves writers who chew on a novel for years before finally vomiting it up onto the page, but then what do we make of Philip Roth, who is cranking out a (slender) novel a year and has won the Pulitzer and is successful and is loved by critics?

I was going to say that Oates often blurs genre boundaries with her work, but Ishiguro did the same thing with Never Let Me Go and received critical praise.

This part of Cynthia's comment probably hits the nail on the head:

"She compounds the offense, I think, by honing in so frequently, and with such depth, upon the female experience. Bad enough she's a woman, does she have to write constantly about all that yucky stuff too?"

There are examples of the literary establishment taking the work of a woman about a woman seriously - Olive Kitteridge being a recent one - but for the most part, it gets shuffled aside as chick lit. Perhaps that explains a bit of why publishers are struggling - because they're marginalizing the demographic buying the most books, assuming if we're women readers that all we want is romance and fluff.


message 37: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments Misha, she does write a lot about yucky, female stuff. And violent stuff. She has responded in the past that the violence in her books, i.e. rape in "We Were the Mulvaneys", is simply a reflection of headlines in a newspaper. What I love about Oates is she does not shock for shock's sake. She is not writing about violence to be cool or cutting edge, but challenging our reactions and views of that violence. In the case of the Mulvaneys, the rape of the daughter affects the whole family and their standing in their town. Their status and cachet in the community lie in permanent disrepair.

But I could talk about JCO all day.

I think you are right, Misha, it's not simply because she is a woman, but sadly, that is part of it.


message 38: by Heidi (new)

Heidi (heidihooo) | 10825 comments I like Jennifer Weiner.


message 39: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony | 14536 comments You like Weiner?


message 40: by [deleted user] (new)

TWSS


message 41: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments Oh, Bun, I thought she had only been nominated and not won, like Susan Lucci with her amazing lack of a daytime Emmy.


message 42: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments Yes I checked on the Pulitzer site and she was a Finalist for three books you named, not the winner.


message 43: by Sarah (new)

Sarah | 13815 comments I've read some Oates short fiction but never any of her novels. If you were to recommend one novel, which would it be?


message 44: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments Depends if you like historic-influenced fiction. Blonde and Black Water are both good, they relate to Marilyn Monroe and Chappequidick/ Ted Kennedy. So to me that makes fiction more interesting, when it has some real-life influence.

A lot of her stuff is gritty. If you don't like gritty (poverty, violence) you'll be turned off. I really enjoyed "We Were the Mulvaneys." Like Jodi Piccoult, she shows how one event (rape) affects everyone in a family, and in some ways, everyone in the small, rural town. Piccoult does similar things with her alternating chapters/viewpoints. But Oates is a master, I think.

The other thing I admire about Oates is her commitment to her privacy. She is definitely not a self-promoter and ends of coming off as odd or elitist.


message 45: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen | 7069 comments So I am all excited to have an evening to myself to read my September Vogue magazine. It's a tradition. The skinny models frighten me, but Heck, I always learn something. And WHAT do I find, but an article on Franzen's NEW BOOK!! ARGH. I might just have to read this sucker.


message 46: by Misha (new)

Misha (ninthwanderer) I've got it reserved through my library. I like to be informed if I'm going to bitch about something. ;)


message 47: by Lobstergirl, el principe (new)

Lobstergirl | 24072 comments Mod
I just noticed the cover blurb on the Time magazine.

He's not the richest or most famous. His characters don't solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future. But in his new novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen shows us the way we live now.

Nice knock on genre fiction.


message 48: by Heidi (new)

Heidi (heidihooo) | 10825 comments RandomAnthony wrote: "You like Weiner?"

That's Weiner... like WHIIIner, not WEEEEner.

Yes. I do. I like both.


message 49: by [deleted user] (new)

She likes it so much she repeated herself!


message 50: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony | 14536 comments Ha...and I was going to post "I can't believe you didn't take the weiner bait" on your profile...


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