Posts Tagged ‘Oprah’

Franzen’s Freedom Isn’t Free

franzen1Jonathan Franzen is conducting a reading from his long awaited novel, Freedom, tonight, Thursday, September 16th, at the Aranti/Japan America Theatre on 244 San Pedro St. in Downtown. It will be interesting to see who shows up since Franzen is a bit of a controversial figure. And I think the warring views on his standing within the American literary tradition can be boiled down to three camps: the Franzen nuts, the Oprah Winfrey freaks, and the bitter elite.

The Franzen nuts—to whom I must confess to being closest in sentiment—believe that the 41-year-old writer of 2001’s The Corrections is our generation’s Great American Novelist, (there is even a recent Time Magazine article about Franzen titled exactly that). They think his ability to combine sprawling, politically-aware narratives with deep, human characters is unmatchable in our time; that he the great Messiah of serious fiction writing. And yes, I agree that The Corrections—along with many of his shorter, more personal pieces in both How To Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone—is more applicable to my own life than any other piece of contemporary literature I’ve read. My friends and I will find ourselves arguing about which charcter in the Lambert family we like the most or are most like (for me, it’s Chip, no question). But many of these Franzenites haven’t read his earlier two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. I’ve only read the first, myself, and while it’s entertaining and contains much of the same aspects as The Corrections, it doesn’t feel as courageous. While reading, I never said to myself, “Oh my God, he did it.” The experience of The Twenty-Seventh City, for me, and I imagine many other devout fans who discovered his book-ography in reverse order, was one of realization: that’s he’s not a infallible genius. He, like his best characters, is flawed.

Which brings us to the Oprah-naughts. These are the people, mainly women, who regard Winfrey, not Franzen or any other actual author, as the great Messiah of contemporary literature. And anyone who crosses her path, whether it be James Frey or Jonathan Franzen, gets burned. The Franzen incident is quite dated by now, and anyone who’s actually taken the time to look into it, would know how utterly ridiculous the debacle really was, but it doesn’t change the fact that the shadow of Oprah still follows him to this day. (My well-read mother didn’t recognize his name until I brought up her name in association). Yet, I think even Franzen would be the first one to admit that Oprah helped him more than hurt him (in fact, he has accepted Oprah’s offer to put Freedom in her book club). He sold far more books because of it, developed a reputation, and awoke an historical literary debate in mainstream society: whether books should be art—and thereby too special for the plastic sticker of the Oprah Book Club—or merely entertainment.

Franzen brings up this debate over and over in his collection of essays How To Be Alone, and I think he tends to fall in the middle somewhere, that books are important and should be treated as so by the author, but never at the expense of the reader. Freedom, from all I’ve heard and the little I’ve read, is the closest he’s ever gotten to “the reader,” in both prose style and regard for entertainment value.

But as soon as someone as famously “elite” as Franzen starts to use more colloquial vocabulary, out storm the bitter class of critics and college professors. A recent review of Freedom by B.R. Myers in The Atlantic, a magazine which has published Franzen in the past, proved just as much. Myers insists that Franzen is overrated, and as opposed to the Messiah-lauding crowd, indirectly blames him for the demise of classic literature. Myers critiques the author’s use of words and phrases like “fucked,” or “she’s into him.” Myers even brings up the supercilious argument that every time someone reads a book like The Corrections or Freedom, they are missing out on a chance to read a classic like Madame Bovary (though couldn’t one argue just the opposite?). What I believe this reaction stems from is fear: the fear that books may just start to matter on a grander scale than in the annals of academia. So many people these days, including myself, bemoan the increasing attention deficit disorder of the American public, but fewer people allude to the possibility of a human reaction against it. As Franzen says himself, “We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful.”

- By Joshua Morrison

The reading begins at 8:00 PM at the Aranti/Japan America Theatre located at 244 San Pedro St. For more information, please visit

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