Jonathan Franzen Deserves the Freedom Hype
Every writer hates a winner. And so with Jonathan Franzen's new novel earning raves from just about everybody who matters in American letters, we've been subjected to the predictable envious backlash about how Franzen is overrated (and annoying), how middle-aged white guys get preferential treatment in the New York Times, and how Freedom really isn't that much better than the kajillion other novels about "love, identity, and families," in the words of don't-call-it-chick-lit novelist Jennifer Weiner.
|Let's not talk about the Twitter war; let's talk about the book.|
It may be true that Franzen is annoyingly smug. There may even be a point worth making about how the Times favors white men. But this is not the book to making it about. Saying Freedom is just a novel about "love, identity, and families" is like saying War and Peace is just a novel about a Russian girl finding a husband. It's true, technically, but it ignores the scope of the book, its beauty, and its wonderful (and rare) readability.
It also ignores the sympathy (and great understanding, which are not always interchangeable) that Franzen has for his characters, and the themes he attempts to grapple with involving freedom and its discontents. This is a novel you speed through on a wave of pure enjoyment; it is also, I suspect, a novel you return to for a second, more serious reading, and maybe even a third. It really is that good.
Writers have always been terribly envious of other, more successful writers. (Ernest Hemingway didn't just jealously sign his wartime dispatches "Ernie Hemorrhoid, the poor man's Pyle;" he also wrote a memoir claiming that F. Scott Fitzgerald was self-conscious about his dick size.) What Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have lately been stirring up on Twitter is just a hyperspeed variation on the same old theme.
And while a good ole literary spat is always fun -- especially when the target is as annoying our boy from Webster Groves sometimes appears to be -- it's stupid in this case. Instead of observing a Twitter war, you could be immersing yourself in 562 pages of reading bliss. You could be thinking about the choices this country has made. You could be laughing at the funny parts and crying at the sad ones. You could be breathing in the deep and fascinating air of a fictional world that seems as utterly real as our own.
You could, in short, be reading Freedom. It's good to be instinctively skeptical of hype, but in this case, you'd be an idiot to focus on that and miss the book Jonathan Franzen has written. Get over yourself and pick up a copy.
See my colleague Aimee Levitt's rebuttal here.