Is Jonathan Franzen a Hero or a Hypocrite?

Writing the Great American Novel might not be enough. These days you have to be a huckster, too

My friend Maggie emailed me this week to ask if I’d read the just published Time magazine cover story on the writer Jonathan Franzen, who is about to publish his first novel in nine years.

Most readers will remember Franzen for his 2001 book Corrections, his sprawling and critically acclaimed book-of-the-decade about the troubled lives of an elderly couple from the Midwest and their three adult children. It was the must read of its time. [SIGNUP]

“I used to be a big fan,” Maggie said of Franzen in her email. “I guess I still am.”

Guess? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect any reluctance on Maggie’s part to pledge absolute affection for Franzen and his writing might stem from the other big reason so many people remember the hugely talented author: he blew off a chance to go on Oprah.

Franzen, you may remember, expressed ambivalence over Corrections being named an Oprah Book Club selection, suggesting that to be picked by Oprah might turn off male readers. This pissed off the almighty Oprah, who values all her viewers, whatever their many genders. Franzen was promptly de-booked.

His diss of Oprah’s book club horrified book authors the world over, most of whom would have cheerfully lopped off the best passages in their latest work for a chance to hawk their work to the Queen of Book Sales. On top of that, there was the wrath of Oprah’s fans—he rebuked Her!—which at last count equaled roughly the population of Africa and Asia combined.

No more need be said. The verdict was in: Franzen was an elitist twit.

Now, it seems, according to the Time profile, maybe the whole dustup with Oprah didn’t go down quite the way it was reported at the time. There may have been some confusion, a bit of a gray area, a little beginner’s fumbling on the part of Franzen. Little matter.

Damage done. Twit, twit, forever a twit.

Franzen is back now because his fourth novel, Freedom, another sweeping narrative that encompasses three decades and multiple generations, will be published at the end of the month, and critics are already hailing it as the work of this decade.

This time, though, to kick-start the avalanche of publicity that’s already started, Franzen made a YouTube video to introduce the book—a promotional gimmick that’s becoming all but de rigueur when authors produce anything but babies between covers these days.

Does the making of the YouTube video mean Franzen has seen the error of his ways and is willing to hawk his wares like his merely mortal literary colleagues?


“This must be a good place for me to express my profound discomfort at having to make videos like this,” Franzen begins on YouTube awkwardly. “To me, the point of a novel is to take you to a still place. You can multitask a lot of things, but you can’t really multitask a book. You’re either going to read a book or you’re not.”

Franzen does go on to talk a bit about Freedom, though clumsily and with clear discomfort. So you might say he’s being hypocritical, blasting the process while succumbing to it, or you might think he did it just to express disdain; either way, his point has been made: it sucks having to be writer and huckster.

There are a lot of ways to look at all this. I, for one, admire Franzen for holding up the banner of literary purity, however futile the gesture. He should be lionized, revered, especially by writers. It sucks to have to promote one’s latest story or column or book on Facebook, through Twitter or on YouTube.

Read my story! Buy my book! Look at meeee!


It’s a fact of life, no one’s denying: publishing is on the ropes, print is dying, books aren’t selling and promotional budgets are a thing of the past.

You have to screech to get noticed, to make a buck, to stay alive. But it doesn’t mean you have to like it.

Franzen is a writer of epic talent who knows how to write best sellers. “This is a book, says Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup, talking about Freedom, “that acts as though people still had long conversations, still read long books.”

So he’s a throwback too. God bless him for standing up, looking back and cursing the new debasing literary ways! What’s happened is just not right. Writers everywhere should thank him for reminding everyone of that, and then go out and buy his book.

Tim Whitaker (, a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers.