Jonathan Franzen 1959-
American novelist and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Franzen's career through 2003.
Winner of the 2001 National Book Award for The Corrections (2001), Franzen is regarded as one of the best emerging novelists of the twenty-first century. A strong believer in both the power and necessity of literature, Franzen has produced three novels which have identified him as a growing presence in the literary world and an articulate voice in the ongoing debate over the evolving direction of fiction. The Corrections is often deemed one of the best works of literature written in the last twenty years, as well as the fulfillment of the early promise Franzen demonstrated with his first two books, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). While Franzen's work is commonly held in high esteem, the author has managed to garner significant controversy in the last ten years for his resolute convictions about publishing, writing, and the direction of American tastes.
Franzen was born in 1959 in Western Springs, Illinois. His family moved to the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri, and Franzen grew up there—a locale which later became the setting for two of his novels. He attended Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, earning a bachelor's degree in German in 1981, and spent the following year at the Freie Universität in Berlin as a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. Upon returning home, he married a fellow writer, Valerie Cornell, and took a weekend job at Harvard University. Franzen and Cornell spent the next few years dedicating themselves to the creation and enjoyment of literature, an existence Franzen generally characterizes as nearly idyllic despite their difficult financial situation. In 1987 he submitted an 1,100 page manuscript that, with a great deal of paring, eventually became The Twenty-Seventh City. Hailed by critics as a writer of great promise, Franzen emerged as a literary celebrity due to his young age and lack of credentials, but his marriage began to suffer. Using the royalties from The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen and Cornell traveled throughout Europe and hoped to mend their relationship. While in Europe, Franzen began work on Strong Motion. The deaths of both of his parents, the eventual breakup of his marriage, and the poor sales of Strong Motion brought Franzen to a crossroads where he considered quitting writing entirely. Ultimately rejecting this idea, he approached The New Yorker with an idea for a journalism piece. The editors accepted his proposal, beginning a long period of collaboration between Franzen and the magazine. The articles from this association would eventually form the core for his collection of essays, How to Be Alone (2002). In 1996 Franzen published a lengthy essay in Harper's titled “Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” focusing on the reasons authors write. In this treatise, Franzen laments the power that certain media and entertainment outlets, particularly the Internet and television, have over the minds of the American public, as well as the seeming inability of the “literary” novel to engage the masses. Franzen challenges himself to write a “big, social novel” that would engage the American public enough to motivate them, encourage debate, and open conversations about social issues. Reaction to the article was relatively mild, but earned Franzen a reputation among critics as a high-minded but pretentious writer. While continuing his association with The New Yorker, Franzen retreated to an office to focus attention on minor characters he was creating. After deciding that a scene about an elderly couple on a cruise ship was perhaps the finest writing of his career, he abandoned other work in progress and began laboring in near-seclusion on The Corrections. Franzen dedicated the next six years dedicating himself to these characters, ultimately creating the Lambert family, who form the narrative core of the novel. In 2001 his publisher engineered strong word-of-mouth hype about the book, making its release one of the most anticipated of the season. Receiving extremely positive reviews and a high initial order, Franzen looked forward to achieving his goal of releasing a critically acclaimed work of “high art” that would engage his target audience. However, a series of confluences engulfed the novel in an unexpected debate that nonetheless ultimately dovetailed with his goals.
The Corrections was released on September 15, 2001 in New York City. Several weeks later, Franzen learned that talk show host Oprah Winfrey planned to make it the next selection for her popular “Oprah's Book Club,” an action that virtually ensured that the book would become a bestseller. While he initially accepted the honor, Franzen found himself growing increasingly uncomfortable with certain business details—particularly the presence of the “O” sticker on the book's jacket that indicated it was the latest Oprah selection. In several interviews after the nationally broadcast unveiling, Franzen publicly expressed his discomfort with associating his work with Oprah's “corporate logo,” as well as insinuating that his book might prove to be beyond the comprehension of a typical reader. The ensuing spat prompted Winfrey to withdraw her invitation to him to appear on her show, further spreading the belief among critics that Franzen is a haughty, self-important literary elitist. Franzen apologized for misrepresenting his intent in interviews, claiming that he was unaccustomed to the level of attention that came with being recognized by Winfrey. Franzen's supporters, among them author Don DeLillo, commended his courage in remaining true to his beliefs while refusing to take part in the mass commercialization that the Oprah label would bestow. Others, however, accused him of espousing the notion that literature is intended to appeal solely to literati who are able to appreciate “high art.” Whatever Franzen's true intentions, the lingering controversy gave The Corrections new life and it remained atop the bestseller list for months.
The title The Twenty-Seventh City takes root in the fact that St. Louis was once the fourth-largest city in America, later falling to twenty-seventh. The Twenty-Seventh City is an exploration of deep intrigues with myriad plot twists. Hoping to revitalize St. Louis, city leaders hire Susan Jammu, an American-born cousin of Indian leader Indira Gandhi, to head the police force. However, Jammu comes to the job with her own agenda that remains nebulous until the conclusion of the book. She pushes for a proposal to reinvent the city center, a goal she pursues through various dubious methods including surveillance, psychological warfare, and dirty politics. Slowly the city becomes overrun with fellow Indian families as Jammu and her assistant, Singh, push their hidden objective with subtle aggression, particularly against opposition from architect Martin Probst. Employing such strategies as murder of pets, seduction, kidnapping, and other means, Jammu finally succeeds in winning Probst to her side, until the denouement of the novel reveals a final twist that unravels everything Jammu has been working toward. Strong Motion is set in Boston, where the author lived for several years. A series of earthquakes have unexpectedly begun to rattle the normally stable city, a plight again brought about by corporate irresponsibility and greed. Illicit dumping of toxins into the wells below the city has caused the city core to become unsettled. Delving into a myriad of topics including fiscal responsibility and abortion rights, Franzen presents a complex series of interwoven events that prompted some critics to assert that he had tried to tackle too much in a single novel.
The Corrections is a 568-page opus relating the disintegration of the Lambert family. A seriocomic tale, the book details the desire of family matriarch, Enid Lambert, to gather together her three children—Gary, Chip, and Denise—for a final visit before their father is lost to Parkinson's disease. Generally considered the most autobiographical of Franzen's three novels, The Corrections charts the reluctance of the Lambert children to return to their childhood home of St. Jude. Sections of the book focus on the separate lives of the three children, allowing readers to follow and judge the events that have left the siblings in states of personal, professional, and emotional crisis. Beyond this central structure, Franzen includes many of his characteristic tangents, with tongue-in-cheek wittiness. With this work Franzen hoped to create a twenty-first-century novel that, as he stated in “Perchance to Dream,” would be a popular and financially successful effort that nonetheless “engaged the culture,”—a social novel in the age of technology. The Corrections targets, defines, and ultimately indicts America's propensity for easy answers and consumerism, particularly in the dark segments dealing with the Axon Corporation's attempt to market “Correcktall,” a bio-tech drug that claims to rewire the brain and repair the ravages of psychosis and disease.
While acknowledging the flaws of his early novels, reviewers have consistently recognized Franzen as a master of the story form. Many critics regard him as the current standard-bearer for the “Great American Novel”—a work employing compelling ideas and intense, precise language to inspire thought and debate about the course of American culture. In this regard, critics favorably compare Franzen to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Marked by the shrewd humor for which he is regularly commended, Franzen's novels attempt to tackle significant social ills within contemporary American culture, particularly the excessive level of control Franzen believes certain forces have over American thought. Corporate America and the ruthlessness of the New Economy—which he paints as working against improving the world in order to achieve potentially disastrous shortsighted goals—are frequent targets of Franzen's writings. Critics have agreed that his works also rail against modern American consumerism and ennui. In his three novels, events that would be corrected with relative ease if acted upon early instead swirl out of the control of the participants. While critical reaction to Franzen's novels has been generally positive, vocal dissatisfaction with his style and manner has emerged from some reviewers. The primary fault levied against his writing has been his verbosity. Each of his novels contains over 500 pages, in which the author can explicate a single thought over a dozen pages or more. Reviewers have commented that a good editor willing to cut extraneous material and balance Franzen's tendency toward complex sentences and lengthy thoughts would be a tremendous aid. In his dedication to revitalizing the “high art” of the social novel, Franzen's detractors maintain, he frequently loses the central focus of his novels, veering through an unnecessarily labyrinthine passage of complicated plot twists and unrelated elements. This sentiment shifted with the publication of The Corrections. Reviewers praised Franzen for his complex, movingly honest portrayal of family dynamics, and asserted that he has fulfilled much of the early promise he demonstrated with his first two books.