Not to get overly mired in the process that led to this recurring feature, but I’ll note that when I made my original list of ten writers that had special meaning to me–prompted by a Facebook meme–Jonathan Franzen was one of the first names that leapt to mind. However, I couldn’t in good conscious put him on the tally because at that point I’d only read one of his novels. Of course, it was a hell of a novel. Franzen had a lot riding on his 2001 novel, The Corrections. Five years earlier, he’d published a famous (or infamous) essay in Harper’s under the title “Perchance to Dream.” Franzen later claimed it was intended to be a mere celebration of the act of writing and reading, both of them positioned as worthy unto themselves. The interpretation was a little different, however, and it was widely characterized as a lament about the sorry state of the American novel, which was seen by some as the height of hubris considering the author had all of two completed works to his credit, neither of them particularly well-received. The Corrections, then, was seen as a necessary rearrangement of Franzen’s proverbial money to put it in close proximity to his mouth.
In my estimation, he fully lived up to the challenge he inadvertently set for himself, delivering a hefty tome dense with detail, sentences sprawling out like the interstate as Franzen beautifully captured the long curve of American lives. The Corrections demanded attention, and it became one of the earliest examples of the peculiar information age cycle of praise followed by backlash followed by counter-backlash followed by endless debates as people start offering critiques on critiques until the original work becomes almost an afterthought. Franzen sometimes harmed his own cause as he was clearly ill-prepared for the demands of sudden celebrity, typified by his fumbling of the coronation handed down from Chicago when Oprah Winfrey selected his book for her hugely influential book club. All of Franzen’s awkwardness essentially confirmed the point he says he’d been making all along with his essay: writing has value, reading has value, and the rest of it is useless tomfoolery.
Franzen’s writing is wonderful, stretching concepts and themes like especially pliable taffy. If The Corrections was a trumpet blast of talent, then the follow-up, Freedom, was a tapping of the baton followed by a symphony. He’s clearly never going to be prolific in his fiction–there are almost ten years between the publications of The Corrections and Freedom–but he’s going to make the words, the paragraphs, the pages really count. He’s also a grandly talented essayist. One of the side effects of his uncomfortable notoriety is an increasing frankness in sharing personal details. When he writes incisively about the art of Charles M. Schulz, the piece is heavy with Franzen’s own history, as if in an attempt to reclaim some of what’s been wrested away from him by a curious, intrusive public. If this stuff is going to be out there, Franzen seems to say, he’s going to be one who uses it to creative benefit.
So I didn’t include Franzen in my original pass at the list because I felt like I hadn’t read enough to truly claim him as one of my writers. In retrospect, I maybe should have known better. If writing is its own reward, so is reading. Any amount of words can make a writer impactful to any given reader. Franzen’s shared plenty of his words, more than enough to make his value to me clear.