Jonathan Earl Franzen (born August 17, 1959) is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earned Franzen a National Book Award, was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, earned a James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His novel Freedom (2010) garnered similar praise and led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline "Great American Novelist".
Franzen writes for The New Yorker magazine. His 1996 Harper's essay Perchance to Dream bemoaned the state of contemporary literature. Oprah Winfrey's book club selection in 2001 of The Corrections led to a much publicized feud with the talk show host. In recent years, Franzen has become recognized for his opinions on everything from social networking services such as Twitter ("the ultimate irresponsible medium") and the proliferation of e-books ("just not permanent enough") to the disintegration of Europe ("The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers. The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people") and the self-destruction of America ("almost a rogue state").
Early life and education
Franzen was born in Western Springs, Illinois, the son of Irene (née Super) and Earl T. Franzen. His father, raised in Minnesota, was an immigrant from Sweden of Swedish and Norwegian descent. Franzen grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German in 1981. As part of his undergraduate education, he studied abroad in Germany during the 1979-80 academic year with Wayne State University's Junior Year in Munich program. Here he met Michael A. Martone, on whom he would later base the character Walter Berglund in Freedom. He also studied on a Fulbright Scholarship at Freie Universität Berlin in Berlin in 1981-82. From these experiences, he speaks fluent German. Upon graduation Franzen got married and moved with his wife to Boston to pursue a career as a novelist. When this plan fell through, they moved to New York in 1987, where Franzen managed to sell his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.
The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is set in Franzen's hometown, St. Louis, and deals with the city's fall from grace, St. Louis having been the "fourth city" in the 1870s. This sprawling novel was warmly received and established Franzen as an author to watch. In a conversation with novelist Donald Antrim for Bomb Magazine, Franzen described The Twenty-Seventh City as "a conversation with the literary figures of my parents' generation[,] the great sixties and seventies Postmoderns.", adding in a later interview "I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable middle-aged writer."
Strong Motion (1992) focuses mainly on a dysfunctional family, the Hollands, and uses seismic events on the American East Coast as a metaphor for the quakes that occur in family life (as Franzen put it, "I imagined static lives being disrupted from without—literally shaken. I imagined violent scenes that would strip away the veneer and get people shouting angry moral truths at each other."). A 'systems novel', the key 'systems' of Strong Motion according to Franzen are "[...] the systems of science and religion—two violently opposing systems of making sense in the world." The novel was not a financial success at the time of its publication. Franzen subsequently defended the novel in his 2010 Paris Review interview, remarking "I think they [critics and readers] may be overlooking Strong Motion a little bit."
Franzen's The Corrections, a novel of social criticism, garnered considerable critical acclaim in the United States, winning both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The novel was also a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (won by Richard Russo for Empire Falls).
In September 2001, The Corrections was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Franzen initially participated in the selection, sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah and appearing in B-roll footage in his hometown of St. Louis (described in an essay in How To Be Alone titled "Meet Me In St. Louis"). In October 2001, however, The Oregonian printed an article in which Franzen expressed unease with the selection. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he expressed his worry that the Oprah logo on the cover dissuaded men from reading the book:
So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I'm sorry that it's, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.
Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded. Winfrey announced, "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book."
These events gained Franzen and his novel widespread media attention. The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction. At the National Book Award ceremony, Franzen said "I'd also like to thank Oprah Winfrey for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections."
Following the success of The Corrections and the publication of The Discomfort Zone and How to Be Alone, Franzen began work on his next novel. In the interim, he published two short stories in The New Yorker: "Breakup Stories", published November 8, 2004, concerned the disintegration of four relationships; and "Two's Company", published May 23, 2005, concerned a couple who write for TV, then split up.
In 2011, it was announced that Franzen would write a multi-part television adaptation of The Corrections in collaboration with The Squid and The Whale director Noah Baumbach for HBO. HBO has since passed on Corrections, citing "difficulty" in "adapting the book's challenging narrative, which moves through time and cuts forwards and back": that would be "difficult to sustain in a series and challenging for viewers to follow, hampering the potential show's accessibility."
On June 8, 2009, Franzen published an extract from Freedom, his novel in progress, in The New Yorker. The extract, titled "Good Neighbors", concerned the trials and tribulations of a couple in St. Paul, Minnesota. On May 31, 2010, a second extract — titled "Agreeable" — was published, also in The New Yorker.
On October 16, 2009, Franzen made an appearance alongside David Bezmozgis at the New Yorker Festival at the Cedar Lake Theatre, reading a portion of his forthcoming novel. Sam Allard, writing for North By Northwestern about the event, said that the "…material from his new (reportedly massive) novel" was "as buoyant and compelling as ever" and "marked by his familiar undercurrent of tragedy". Franzen read "an extended clip from the second chapter."
On September 9, 2010, Franzen appeared on Fresh Air to discuss Freedom in the wake of its release. Franzen has drawn what he describes as a "feminist critique" for the attention that male authors receive over female authors—a critique he supports. Franzen also discussed his friendship with David Foster Wallace and the impact of Wallace's suicide on his writing process.
Freedom was the subject of a highly unusual "recall" in the United Kingdom starting in early October 2010. An earlier draft of the manuscript, to which Franzen had made over 200 changes, had been published by mistake. The publisher, HarperCollins initiated an exchange program, but thousands of books had been distributed by that time.
While promoting the book, Franzen became the first American author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King did so in 2000. Franzen did so alongside the headline "Great American Novelist". He discussed the implications of the Time coverage, and the reasoning behind the title of Freedom in an interview in Manchester, England, in October 2010.
On September 17, 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be an Oprah book club selection, the first of the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show. On December 6, 2010, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote Freedom where they discussed that book and the controversy over his reservations about her picking The Corrections and what that would entail.
Franzen has stated the writing of Freedom was deeply impacted by the death of his close friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace.
In an interview with Portland Monthly on December 18, 2012, Franzen revealed that he currently had "a four-page, single-spaced proposal" for a fifth novel he was currently working on, although he went on to suggest that while he had a proposal there was no guarantee that what was proposed would make the final cut, saying of similar proposals for previous novels, "I look at the old proposals now, and I see the one part of them that actually got made into a book, and I think, 'How come I couldn't see that? What is all this other stuff?'". Franzen also hinted that the new novel would probably also be long, adding "I've let go of any illusion that I'm a writer of 150-page novels. I need room to let things turn around over time and see them from the whole lives of other characters, not just the single character. For better or worse, one point of view never seems to do it for me". In October 2014, during a discussion at Colgate University, Franzen read a "self-contained first-person narrative" that is part of a novel that he hopes will be out in the summer of 2015.
On November 17, 2014, The New York Times Artsbeat Blog reported that the novel, titled Purity, would be out in September. Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, described Purity as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents. The story centers on a young woman named Purity Tyler, or Pip, who doesn't know who her father is and sets out to uncover his identity. The narrative stretches from contemporary America to South America to East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and hinges on the mystery of Pip's family history and her relationship with a charismatic hacker and whistleblower.
In 1996, while still working on The Corrections, Franzen published a literary manifesto in Harper's Magazine entitled Perchance to Dream. Referencing manifestos written by Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, among others, Franzen grappled with the novelist's role in an advanced media culture which seemed to no longer need the novel. In the end, Franzen rejects the goal of writing a great social novel about issues and ideas, in favor of focusing on the internal lives of characters and their emotions. Given the huge success of The Corrections, this essay offers a prescient look into Franzen's goals as both a literary and commercially minded author.
In 2002, Franzen published a critique of the novels of William Gaddis, entitled "Mr. Difficult", in The New Yorker. He begins by recounting how some readers felt The Corrections was spoiled by being too high-brow in parts, and summarizes his own views of reading difficult fiction. He proposes a "Status model", whereby the point of fiction is to be Art, and also a "Contract model", whereby the point of fiction is to be Entertainment, and finds that he subscribes to both models. He praises The Recognitions, admits that he only got halfway through J R, and explains why he does not like the rest of Gaddis's novels.
In 2004 Franzen published "The Discomfort Zone", a personal essay about his childhood and family life in Missouri and his love of Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts, in The New Yorker. Susan Orlean selected it for the subsequent volume of The Best American Essays.
Since The Corrections Franzen has published How to Be Alone (2002), a collection of essays including "Perchance To Dream", and The Discomfort Zone (2006), a memoir. How To Be Alone is essentially an apologia for reading, articulating Franzen's uncomfortable relationship with the place of fiction in contemporary society. It also probes the influence of his childhood and adolescence on his creative life, which is then further explored in The Discomfort Zone.
In September 2007, Franzen's translation of Frank Wedekind's play Spring Awakening (German: Frühlings Erwachen) was published. In his introduction, Franzen describes the Broadway musical version as "insipid" and "overpraised." In an interview with New York magazine, Franzen stated that he had in fact made the translation for Swarthmore College's theater department for $50 in 1986 and that it had sat in a drawer for 20 years since. After the Broadway show stirred up so much interest, Franzen said he was inspired to publish it because "I knew it was a good translation, better than anything else out there."
Franzen published a social commentary on cell phones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space, "I Just Called To Say I Love You" (2008), in the September/October 2008 issue of MIT Technology Review.
In 2012 he published Farther Away, a collection of essays dealing with such topics as his love of birds, his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on technology.
In 2013, Franzen published The Kraus Project. It consists of three major essays by the "Perennially [...] impossible to translate" Austrian "playwright, poet, social commentator and satirical genius" Karl Kraus – ""Heine and the Consequences" a takedown of the beloved German poet, "Nestroy and Posterity" which established that playwright's reputation in Austria to this day, and "Afterword to Heine and the Consequences"". The essays are accompanied by "Franzen's [own] plentiful, trenchant yet off-beat annotations" taking on "... Kraus' mantle-commenting on what Kraus would say (and what Franzen's opinion is) about Macs and PCs; decrying Twitter's claim of credit for the Arab Spring; and unfurling how media conglomerates influence politics in their quest for profits."
Philosophy of writing
In a lecture on autobiography and fiction, Franzen discussed four perennial questions often addressed to him by others, all of which annoy him or bother him in some way. These are: (1) Who are your influences? (2) What time of day do you work, and what do you write on? (3) I read an interview with an author who says that, at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters "take over" and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too? (4) Is your fiction autobiographical? In the lecture he said of the third question in particular "This one always raises my blood pressure" and quoted Nabokov in response.
In February 2010, Franzen (along with writers such as Richard Ford, Zadie Smith, and Anne Enright) was asked by The Guardian to contribute what he believed were ten serious rules to abide by for aspiring writers.
Franzen married Valerie Cornell in 1982; they separated in 1994 and are now divorced. Franzen now lives part of the year on the Upper East Side of New York City and part in Boulder Creek, California. When in California, Franzen lives with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich.
In 2010, at an event at the Serpentine Pavilion in London celebrating the launch of Freedom, Franzen's glasses were stolen from his face by a gate-crasher, who jokingly attempted to ransom them for $100,000, before being immediately apprehended by police elsewhere in Hyde Park.
Awards and honors
- 1981 Fulbright Scholarship to Germany
- 1988 Whiting Award
- 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 2000 Berlin Prize (American Academy in Berlin)
- 2001 National Book Award (Fiction) for The Corrections
- 2001 Salon Book Award (Fiction) for The Corrections
- 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner (Fiction) for The Corrections
- 2010 Salon Book Award (Fiction) for Freedom
- 2010 Galaxy National Book Awards, International Author of the Year, Freedom
- 2012 Carlos Fuentes Medal (Inaugural award)
- 2013 Welt-Literaturpreis
- 2015 Budapest Grand Prize
- 1996 Granta's Best Of Young American Novelists
- 2001 New York Times Best Books of the Year for The Corrections
- 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for The Corrections)
- 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist (Fiction)
- 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist
- 2003 International Dublin Literary Award (short list)
- 2009 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor American Academy in Berlin
- 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for Freedom)
- 2010 New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2010 list (for Freedom)
- 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) finalist (for Freedom)
- 2012 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) shortlist for The Kraus Project
- 2017 International Dublin Literary Award long-list for Purity
- In January 2011, The Observer named him as one of "20 activists, filmmakers, writers, politicians and celebrities who will be setting the global environmental agenda in the coming year".
- On May 21, 2011, Franzen delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College to the class of 2011.
- The first international academic symposium solely dedicated to Franzen's work took place at Glasgow University, UK, 22 March 2013. Another one, "Jonathan Franzen: Identity and Crisis of the American Novel", was scheduled to take place at the University of Córdoba, Spain, 18–19 April 2013, but later has been cancelled due to the lack of submitted papers.
- Franzen made an appearance on Charlie Rose in 1996 with fellow authors David Foster Wallace and Mark Leyner to discuss the effects of electronic media on the role of fiction in society.
- Franzen made two other appearances on Charlie Rose to talk about his novel The Corrections (11/21/2001) and his non-fiction book of essays How to Be Alone (10/30/2002).
- Franzen guest starred alongside Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe, and Gore Vidal in The Simpsons episode "Moe'N'a Lisa", which first aired 19 November 2006. In the episode, he is depicted fighting over literary influences with his real-life friend Chabon.
- Franzen appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on December 6, 2010, to discuss his novel Freedom, Oprah's Book Club selection at that time.
- Franzen appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on October 7, 2011.
- Franzen appeared on Skavlan on September 23, 2011 and October 21, 2015.
- Franzen appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on October 28, 2015.
- Franzen appeared on "Jeopardy Power Players Week" on May 16, 2016.