If an essay is something essayed – something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity – we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. Which party you went to on Friday night, how you were treated by a flight attendant, what your take on the political outrage of the day is: the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people. The US president now operates on this presumption. Traditionally hard news reporting, in places like the New York Times, has softened up to allow the I, with its voice and opinions and impressions, to take the front-page spotlight, and book reviewers feel less and less constrained to discuss books with any kind of objectivity. It didn’t use to matter if Raskolnikov and Lily Bart were likable, but the question of “likability,” with its implicit privileging of the reviewer’s personal feelings, is now a key element of critical judgment. Literary fiction itself is looking more and more like essay.
Some of the most influential novels of recent years, by Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, take the method of self-conscious first-person testimony to a new level. Their more extreme admirers will tell you that imagination and invention are outmoded contrivances; that to inhabit the subjectivity of a character unlike the author is an act of appropriation, even colonialism; that the only authentic and politically defensible mode of narrative is autobiography.
Meanwhile the personal essay itself – the formal apparatus of honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas, as developed by Montaigne and advanced by Emerson and Woolf and Baldwin – is in eclipse. Most large-circulation American magazines have all but ceased to publish pure essays. The form persists mainly in smaller publications that collectively have fewer readers than Margaret Atwood has Twitter followers. Should we be mourning the essay’s extinction? Or should we be celebrating its conquest of the larger culture?
A personal and subjective micronarrative: the few lessons I’ve learned about writing essays all came from my editor at the New Yorker, Henry Finder. I first went to Henry, in 1994, as a would-be journalist in pressing need of money. Largely through dumb luck, I produced a publishable article about the US Postal Service, and then, through native incompetence, I wrote an unpublishable piece about the Sierra Club. This was the point at which Henry suggested that I might have some aptitude as an essayist. I heard him to be saying, “since you’re obviously a crap journalist”, and denied that I had any such aptitude. I’d been raised with a midwestern horror of yakking too much about myself, and I had an additional prejudice, derived from certain wrongheaded ideas about novel-writing, against the stating of things that could more rewardingly be depicted. But I still needed money, so I kept calling Henry for book-review assignments. On one of our calls, he asked me if I had any interest in the tobacco industry – the subject of a major new history by Richard Kluger. I quickly said: “Cigarettes are the last thing in the world I want to think about.” To this, Henry even more quickly replied: “Therefore you must write about them.”
This was my first lesson from Henry, and it remains the most important one. After smoking throughout my 20s, I’d succeeded in quitting for two years in my early 30s. But when I was assigned the post-office piece, and became terrified of picking up the phone and introducing myself as a New Yorker journalist, I’d taken up the habit again. In the years since then, I’d managed to think of myself as a nonsmoker, or at least as a person so firmly resolved to quit again that I might as well already have been a nonsmoker, even as I continued to smoke. My state of mind was like a quantum wave function in which I could be totally a smoker but also totally not a smoker, so long as I never took measure of myself. And it was instantly clear to me that writing about cigarettes would force me to take my measure. This is what essays do.
There was also the problem of my mother, whose father had died of lung cancer, and who was militantly anti-tobacco. I’d concealed my habit from her for more than 15 years. One reason I needed to preserve my indeterminacy as a smoker/nonsmoker was that I didn’t enjoy lying to her. As soon as I could succeed in quitting again, permanently, the wave function would collapse and I would be, one hundred per cent, the nonsmoker I’d always represented myself to be – but only if I didn’t first come out, in print, as a smoker.
Henry had been a twentysomething wunderkind when Tina Brown hired him at the New Yorker. He had a distinctive tight-chested manner of speaking, a kind of hyper-articulate mumble, like prose acutely well edited but barely legible. I was awed by his intelligence and his erudition and had quickly come to live in fear of disappointing him. Henry’s passionate emphasis in “Therefore you must write about them” – he was the only speaker I knew who could get away with the stressed initial “Therefore” and the imperative “must” – allowed me to hope that I’d registered in his consciousness in some small way.
And so I went to work on the essay, every day combusting half a dozen low-tar cigarettes in front of a box fan in my living-room window, and handed in the only thing I ever wrote for Henry that didn’t need his editing. I don’t remember how my mother got her hands on the essay or how she conveyed to me her deep sense of betrayal, whether by letter or in a phone call, but I do remember that she then didn’t communicate with me for six weeks – by a wide margin, the longest she ever went silent on me. It was exactly as I’d feared. But when she got over it and began sending me letters again, I felt seen by her, seen for what I was, in a way I’d never felt before. It wasn’t just that my “real” self had been concealed from her; it was as if there hadn’t really been a self to see.
Should we be mourning the essay’s extinction? Or should we be celebrating its conquest of the larger culture?
Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, makes fun of the “busy man” for whom busyness is a way of avoiding an honest self-reckoning. You might wake up in the night and realise that you’re lonely in your marriage, or that you need to think about what your level of consumption is doing to the planet, but the next day you have a million little things to do, and the day after that you have another million things. As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions. Writing or reading an essay isn’t the only way to stop and ask yourself who you really are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way. And if you consider how laughably unbusy Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was, compared with our own age, those subjective tweets and hasty blog posts don’t seem so essayistic. They seem more like a means of avoiding what a real essay might force on us. We spend our days reading, on screens, stuff we’d never bother reading in a printed book, and bitch about how busy we are.
I quit cigarettes for the second time in 1997. And then, in 2002, for the final time. And then, in 2003, for the last and final time – unless you count the smokeless nicotine that’s coursing through my bloodstream as I write this. Attempting to write an honest essay doesn’t alter the multiplicity of my selves; I’m still simultaneously a reptile-brained addict, a worrier about my health, an eternal teenager, a self-medicating depressive. What changes, if I take the time to stop and measure, is that my multi-selved identity acquires substance.
One of the mysteries of literature is that personal substance, as perceived by both the writer and the reader, is situated outside the body of either of them, on some kind of page. How can I feel realer to myself in a thing I’m writing than I do inside my body? How can I feel closer to another person when I’m reading her words than I do when I’m sitting next to her? The answer, in part, is that both writing and reading demand full attentiveness. But it surely also has to do with the kind of ordering that is possible only on the page.
Here I might mention two other lessons I learned from Henry Finder. One was Every essay, even a think piece, tells a story. The other was There are only two ways to organise material: “Like goes with like” and “This followed that.” These precepts may seem self-evident, but any grader of high-school or college essays can tell you that they aren’t. To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?
If you accept Henry’s premise that a successful prose piece consists of material arranged in the form of a story, and if you share my own conviction that our identities consist of the stories we tell about ourselves, it makes sense that we should get a strong hit of personal substance from the labour of writing and the pleasure of reading. When I’m alone in the woods or having dinner with a friend, I’m overwhelmed by the quantity of random sensory data coming at me. The act of writing subtracts almost everything, leaving only the alphabet and punctuation marks, and progresses toward non-randomness. Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallise thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.
If you’re looking at a mass of material that doesn’t seem to lend itself to storytelling, Henry would say your only other option is to sort it into categories, grouping similar elements together: Like goes with like. This is, at a minimum, a tidy way to write. But patterns also have a way of turning into stories. To make sense of Donald Trump’s victory in an election he was widely expected to lose, it’s tempting to construct a this-followed-that story: Hillary Clinton was careless with her emails, the Justice department chose not to prosecute her, then Anthony Weiner’s emails came to light, then James Comey reported to Congress that Clinton might still be in trouble, and then Trump won the election. But it may actually be more fruitful to group like with like: Trump’s victory was like the Brexit vote and like the resurgent anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe. Clinton’s imperiously sloppy handling of her emails was like her poorly messaged campaign and like her decision not to campaign harder in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
I was in Ghana on election day, birdwatching with my brother and two friends. James Comey’s report to Congress had unsettled the campaign before I left for Africa, but Nate Silver’s authoritative polling website, Fivethirtyeight, was still giving Trump just a 30% chance of winning. Having cast an early ballot for Clinton, I’d arrived in Accra feeling only moderately anxious about the election and congratulating myself on my decision to spend the final week of the campaign not checking Fivethirtyeight 10 times a day.
I turned on my phone to confirm that Clinton was winning the election. What I found instead were stricken texts
I was indulging a different sort of compulsion in Ghana. To my shame, I am what people in the world of birding call a lister. It’s not that I don’t love birds for their own sake. I go birding to experience their beauty and diversity, learn more about their behaviour and the ecosystems they belong to, and take long, attentive walks in new places. But I also keep way too many lists. I count not only the bird species I’ve seen worldwide but the ones I’ve seen in every country and every US state I’ve birded in, also at various smaller sites, including my back yard, and in every calendar year since 2003. I can rationalise my compulsive counting as an extra little game I play within the context of my passion. But I really am compulsive. This makes me morally inferior to birders who bird exclusively for the joy of it.
It happened that by going to Ghana I’d given myself a chance to break my previous year-list record of 1,286 species. I was already over 800 for 2016, and I knew, from my online research, that trips similar to ours had produced nearly 500 species, only a handful of which are also common in America. If I could see 460 unique year species in Africa, and then use my seven-hour layover in London to pick up 20 easy European birds at a park near Heathrow, 2016 would be my best year ever.
We were seeing great stuff in Ghana, spectacular turacos and bee-eaters found only in west Africa. But the country’s few remaining forests are under intense hunting and logging pressure, and our walks in them were more sweltering than productive. By the evening of election day, we’d already missed our only shot at several of my target species. Very early the next morning, when polls were still open on the west coast of the States, I turned on my phone for the pleasure of confirming that Clinton was winning the election. What I found instead were stricken texts from my friends in California, with pictures of them staring at a TV and looking morose, my girlfriend curled up on a sofa in a fetal position. The Times headline of the moment was “Trump Takes North Carolina, Building Momentum; Clinton’s Path to Victory Narrow.”
There was nothing to be done but go birding. On a road in the Nsuta forest, dodging timber trucks whose momentum I associated with Trump’s, and yet clinging to the idea that Clinton still had a path to victory, I saw Black Dwarf Hornbills, an African Cuckoo-Hawk and a Melancholy Woodpecker. It was a sweaty but satisfactory morning that ended, when we re-emerged into network coverage, with the news that the “short-fingered vulgarian” (Spy magazine’s memorable epithet) was my country’s new president. This was the moment when I saw what my mind had been doing with Nate Silver’s figure of 30% for Trump’s odds. Somehow I’d taken the figure to mean that the world might be, worst case, 30% shittier after election day.
What the number actually represented, of course, was a 30% chance of the world’s being 100% shittier.
Intolerance particularly flourishes online, where measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on
As we travelled up into drier, emptier northern Ghana, we intersected with some birds I’d long dreamed of seeing: Egyptian Plovers, Carmine Bee-eaters and a male Standard-winged Nightjar, whose outrageous wing streamers gave it the look of a nighthawk being closely pursued by two bats. But we were falling ever further behind the year-bird pace I needed to maintain. It occurred to me, belatedly, that the trip lists I’d seen online had included species that were only heard, not seen, while I needed to see a bird to count it. Those lists had raised my hopes the way Nate Silver had. Now every target species I missed increased the pressure to see all of the remaining targets, even the wildly unlikely ones, if I wanted to break my record. It was only a stupid year list, ultimately meaningless even to me, but I was haunted by the headline from the morning after election day. Instead of 275 electoral votes, I needed 460 species, and my path to victory was becoming very narrow. Finally, four days before the end of the trip, in the spillway of a dam near the Burkina Faso border, where I’d hoped to get half a dozen new grassland birds and saw zero, I had to accept the reality of loss. I was suddenly aware that I should have been at home, trying to console my girlfriend about the election, exercising the one benefit of being a depressive pessimist, which is the propensity to laugh in dark times.
How had the short-fingered vulgarian reached the White House? When Hillary Clinton started speaking in public again, she lent credence to a like-goes-with-like account of her character by advancing a this-followed-that narrative. Never mind that she’d mishandled her emails and uttered the phrase “basket of deplorables”. Never mind that voters might have had legitimate grievances with the liberal elite she represented; might have failed to appreciate the rationality of free trade, open borders, and factory automation when the overall gains in global wealth came at middle-class expense; might have resented the federal imposition of liberal urban values on conservative rural communities. According to Clinton, her loss was the fault of James Comey – maybe also of the Russians.
Admittedly, I had my own neat narrative account. When I came home from Africa to Santa Cruz, my progressive friends were still struggling to understand how Trump could have won. I remembered a public event I’d once done with the optimistic social-media specialist Clay Shirky, who’d recounted to the audience how “shocked” professional New York restaurant critics had been when Zagat, a crowd-sourced reviewing service, had named Union Square Café the best restaurant in town. Shirky’s point was that professional critics aren’t as smart as they think they are; that, in fact, in the age of Big Data, critics are no longer even necessary. At the event, ignoring the fact that Union Square Café was my favourite New York restaurant (the crowd was right!), I’d sourly wondered if Shirky believed that critics were also stupid to consider Alice Munro a better writer than James Patterson. But now Trump’s victory, too, had vindicated Shirky’s mockery of pundits. Social media had allowed Trump to bypass the critical establishment, and just enough members of the crowd, in key swing states, had found his low comedy and his incendiary speech “better” than Clinton’s nuanced arguments and her mastery of policy. This follows from that: without Twitter and Facebook, no Trump.
After the election, Mark Zuckerberg did briefly seem to take responsibility, sort of, for having created the platform of choice for fake news about Clinton, and to suggest that Facebook could become more active in filtering the news. (Good luck with that.) Twitter, for its part, kept its head down. As Trump’s tweeting continued unabated, what could Twitter possibly say? That it was making the world a better place?
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is partly set in Santa Cruz, a Californian town 70 miles south of San Francisco, where the novelist lives with his partner, Kathy. Their house is in the U-bend of a crescent, on the edge of a suburban housing estate, overlooking a wooded conservation area to the Pacific Ocean beyond. It is, for one of America’s foremost literary novelists, a modest property, overlooked on three sides by neighbours in a way that, say, Philip Roth’s grand pile in Connecticut is not. However, it affords good views from the deck (the novelist is an avid birdwatcher) and the low overheads that permit Franzen to let five years go by without delivering a novel. “I’m not used to talking about this book,” he says of Purity, which, like his preceding two novels, is a 600-page doorstopper. There is a long, Franzonian pause: “I’m trying to figure out how much I should say and how much I should not say.”
Jonathan Franzen 'considered adopting Iraqi orphan to figure out young people'
That question, as central to the writing as to the publicising of the novel, is one that Franzen has frequently struggled to answer. At 55, he has the earnest, slightly puggish look of a younger man, and the occasional intemperance of one, too. On a refresher driving test he took recently, the novelist scored high on the scale for susceptibility to road rage. (“There are 11 things that are warning signs of road rage, and I had, like, nine of them.”) His fame has as much to do with the fights he has picked – or has had foisted upon him – as with the quality of his fiction; Franzen riles people in a way that is unusual, and perhaps reassuring for a novelist, given the endless debate about the relevance of that role. He has attracted the scorn, over the years, of users of social media, environmentalists, certain stripes of feminist critic, lesser novelists, the lead book reviewer of the New York Times and fans of Oprah Winfrey.
Franzen says he is “hurt” and “ashamed” to be the target of such ire, but he is also unrepentant. No sooner has one controversy died down than another pops up in its place, most recently in the wake of a long piece he wrote in the New Yorker in April, suggesting that, contrary to research published by the bird charity the National Audubon Society, climate change was not the greatest threat to avian welfare – it was more immediate dangers such as hunting and collision with glass. The society accused him of “intellectual dishonesty”, and its members attacked him online, an unpleasant, but also, perhaps, a bleakly satisfying experience: the incident foreshadowed the themes of Franzen’s new novel.
'I was cripplingly ashamed of The Corrections. I was embarrassed to still care about family'
Purity is the story of Pip, a girl in her early 20s, and a Julian Assange-type character called Andreas Wolf, who runs a rival organisation to Wikileaks called the Sunlight Project. Internet culture is, in some ways, perfect fodder for Franzen, who is never stronger than when calling out the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us – a gap wherein so much of online life now resides. But it is also an odd fit; a novel about technology by someone who avowedly doesn’t like using it. Many years ago, Franzen spoke about jamming the USB port on his computer in order to get stuff done, and more recently scolded Salman Rushdie for wasting time on Twitter. This distaste is in part aesthetic – the very brevity of Twitter offends Franzen – and partly a reaction against what he calls the “totalitarianism” of online culture, wherein retribution by the mob can be vast, swift and violently misinformed.
The irony of all this is that Franzen, a white male novelist frequently accused of elitism, is, in this scenario, something of an underdog, the nerd repeatedly beaten up by the cool kids online – although he identifies the real villain of the piece as the internet itself, which he compares in Purity to communist East Germany. “You can’t not have a relation to, in the case of East Germany, the socialism of the state,” Franzen says. “In the case of the internet, you can ignore it, or you can abet it. Either way, you are in a relation to it. And that’s what’s totalitarian.”
As for social media, “it feels like a protection racket. Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations.” There is a long pause. “Why would I want to feed that machine?”
Reading Jonathan Franzen on form is like watching a baseball star toss a ball, knowing that behind the casual gesture is a virtuoso talent and 10,000 hours of practice. Franzen’s prose is deadpan, unexcitable, almost aggressively rational, made up of long, finely planed sentences that quiver with the sarcasm that is at the root of his comedy. Unlike his friend, the late David Foster Wallace, he has never been fashionable – he isn’t avant-garde and takes everything too seriously for the postmodern style. Neither does he fall easily into a literary rat pack. “I look at McEwan and Amis and Hitchens,” he says. “They seemed like a pack. And I don’t think that’s how it works so much here [in the US]. It’s not a generational divide. At least in my experience, what separates people into packs is not age, it’s taste.” He allies himself with writer friends such as Paula Fox, Don DeLillo, David Means and Jeffrey Eugenides. “[Jonathan Safran] Foer,” he says, “I’m friendly with him. And even if I’ve never met the person – I met Edward St Aubyn once, at a reading, but he’s part of the pack. Dead people can be part of the pack.”
These friends are also “loving competitors”, and for a long time Franzen felt angry at his relative lack of progress. At the age of 40, having spent a decade writing two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, both of which were well-reviewed and little-sold, he resigned himself to a certain amount of cultural irrelevance, which he attributed not to any failing in himself, but to a failing in the culture. He was, he says, experiencing a “disillusionment” with the American reading public, the kind of grandiose attitude that the reviewer Michiko Kakutani was perhaps trying to puncture when she called him a “jackass” in the New York Times. Franzen, smiling, allows that he may at times have been a little insufferable. (Inevitably, he fought back and called Kakutani “tone deaf and humourless”.) “You adopt a certain attitude when you feel like you have something that’s not appreciated. You have to generate some sense of bigness on your own; that’s an insufferable activity.”
It is important here to note Franzen’s Midwestern background – he was raised in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, a part of the US with a regional identity strongly rooted in humility, so Franzen’s arrogance is in some ways a performance. Once he achieved success, he says, “I could revert to my native Midwestern modesty.”
His shyness is not to be overlooked, either. Franzen is pained and baffled when he hears himself described as misanthropic. “I don’t dislike people; I love people,” he says to me at one point, and there is a line in Purity, applied to a character called Anabel, that could be the author addressing himself: “She kept alienating people with her moral absolutism and her sense of superiority, which is so often the secret heart of shyness.”
Everything changed with The Corrections, Franzen’s novel of the family Lambert: Enid and Alfred, the warring old couple, and their three dysfunctional adult children. The fictional family bore strong similarities to Franzen’s own, his father a railway engineer, his mother a housewife, although, he says, as “writing becomes more autobiographical, the less it hews to actual lived experience. The text takes on meaning when you start to depart from experience. Because then it starts to tap into the writer’s nature.”
Franzen had no great hopes for The Corrections. “I thought I would write for a small audience. And had put all the stuff that was really shameful to me... it’s hard to conceive of now, that I was ashamed of writing a book, deeply ashamed, cripplingly ashamed of writing a book that turned on a mother’s wish to have the family together for Christmas.”
Because you felt it was too small a canvas?
“It was small, and I was embarrassed to have come from the innocent Midwest. And I was embarrassed to still care about family. And there were many other things. Chip’s freakishness, that drew to some extent from my own sense of freakishness. You explore the shameful things for people who… that’s what they go to fiction for. That’s why they’re reading Kafka, or Dostoevsky. But that’s a small audience.”
'There is no way to make myself not male. There is a sense there is nothing I can really do, except die – or retire'
John Updike and to some extent Philip Roth had, for decades, been writing novels with domestic settings that hadn’t stopped them being taken seriously, but Franzen couldn’t conceive of Enid and Alfred winning him the same kind of respect. They were too weird, too pitiful, too specific to his own family and his disastrous adolescence (a period Franzen revisits in his essay Then Joy Breaks Through, in which, memorably, he goes to church camp and on the way does everything he can to avoid being consigned to the car of Social Death).
“And to discover that these things that I thought were freakish parts of my history and my personality – people were saying, ‘Oh, someone’s writing about me! And this is my family.’ I thought, oh my God, I’ve been so embarrassed my whole life about my family. And here people are telling me that they recognise it. I felt deeply grateful, but I also realised that my contempt for the non-hardcore readers – the softer core readers... not contempt, but my writing them off, had been premature. In fact, there was a whole lot more people looking for a certain kind of novelistic experience than I had any idea.”
The Corrections, which was published in 2001, when Franzen was 42, sold more than three million copies. “It was simply no longer appropriate to be angry.”
Good relationships make for boring novels. For the last 13 years, Franzen has lived with Kathryn Chetkovich, a writer and editor whom he persuaded to move in with him four months after The Corrections came out, and with whom, says Franzen, “I’m never bored.” As an editor, Chetkovich mostly works with social scientists. “She helps them think better. She knows a lot of stuff. And it’s hard to get away with a specious argument in her presence. I don’t think I could live with someone that I didn’t have an intellectual friendship with. Maybe a dog.”
Against this background of domestic harmony – halfway through the interview, Franzen gets a call from the garage, informing him that Chetkovich’s long-awaited VW Golf has arrived, and he is buoyantly excited for her – the novelist revisits, in his fiction, terrible relationships of the past. For 14 years, from his early 20s onwards, he was married to another writer, Valerie Cornell. With all the caveats about autobiography in place, elements of the experience clearly inform parts of Purity. While sections of the new novel (and Franzen’s previous one, Freedom) read like an intellectual exercise, the car crash of Tom and Anabel’s marriage is straightforwardly brilliant, captivating, unbearable.
“A little bit funny?” he says, anxiously.
It struck Franzen that no one had really done “the entire slow-motion train wreck in all its brutality”. He is terrific at arguments – that terrible, slow suck into someone else’s version of reality, wherein, as Tom says, “every utterance of hers gave me multiple options for response, each of which would prompt a different utterance, to which, again, I would have multiple options in responding, and I knew how quickly I could be led eight or ten steps out on to some dangerous tree branch and what a despair-inducingly slow job it was to retrace my steps back up the branch to a neutral starting point”.
The fact that Anabel is a feminist so warped and fanatical that she forces Tom to, for example, atone for his maleness by sitting down on the toilet to pee, will be received by Franzen’s feminist critics as an aggressive act, a deliberate ridiculing of the cause, which he concedes is somewhat the case. “There’s a certain degree of glee in putting that stuff in the book. Because I know that if you are hostile, you will find ammunition. I wrote this deliriously praising celebration of Edith Wharton. People managed to find a way to make it sound like I was hating on Edith Wharton. So why not just let it all rip and: have fun with that, guys.” (Criticism of the Wharton essay rounded on Franzen’s observation that Wharton “wasn’t pretty”, something he suggested, not unreasonably, fed into her fictional disquisitions on the complicated currency of female beauty.)
“I’m not a sexist,” he says. “I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section is that he’s really trying to not be male.” His ex-wife did not try to get him to pee sitting down. But “there’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again”.
Dying wouldn’t help, I suggest: then he would be a dead white male novelist, a category even more problematic than a living one. “Yes, even worse. So I was attracted to a story of someone trying to do reparations. And trying really hard and really sincerely, and lovingly, and finally not being able to. The comedy of that.”
He has written some great female characters – Enid Lambert; Patty Berglund; in Purity, Tom’s mother Clelia, her name a nod to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse Of Parma – these hard, awkward, embarrassing women who turn out to have been heroes. Franzen’s real crime, one suspects, is not one of content, but of presentation; his propensity for feeling hard done by doesn’t play well with those who face greater barriers just to get to the start line. “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book,” tweeted the US novelist Jodi Picoult when Freedom was published in 2010. “Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” The novelist Jennifer Weiner made similar remarks, to which Franzen replied, earlier this year, that she was “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon” to promote her novels.
'I didn't scream when Oprah called me. I said, "Oh, hey." And she didn't know what to do with that'
But there is also something courageous in Franzen’s willingness to step up to the fight. It takes nerve, these days, to criticise social media, as it does to piss off Oprah, as the novelist famously did in 2001. In the essay Franzen wrote after the incident, he cleared up a lot of the misconceptions, namely that he turned down Oprah when she invited him to be on her show. In fact, she disinvited Franzen after he made some equivocal remarks about being on the show during publicity and was a brat when the crew came to St Louis to film background. (“This is so bogus!” he exclaimed, when they asked him to stand in front of an old haunt and look soppy.)
“It was a tragic misunderstanding,” Franzen says. “I blame myself, because I said things that were stupid. And hurt a number of people.” There is a pause, during which one feels Franzen leaning inexorably, and rather endearingly, in a direction that can do him no good. “I also blame Oprah,” he says. “Because, from our very first conversation, it was clear we were not speaking the same language. I didn’t scream when she called me. I said, ‘Oh, hey.’ And was trying to talk like a media professional to a media professional. And she didn’t know what to do with that.”
She treated him like a competition winner?
“Oh, totally. Yes. And what is the one thing a competition winner has to do? They have to show abject gratitude. And I was, like, well, I don’t think you’d be doing this if it weren’t good for you, too. So let’s work together. And the answer was no. So I blame her, too.”
She couldn’t break persona for him?
“That’s the thing. And I think the fact that I was a white guy made that harder. And I think she was sensitive to any suggestion that I might be dissing her. And, of course, then I did diss her. But not before I’d had that experience.”
Towards the end of 2006, Franzen started to feel a certain lack in his life. He was approaching his late 40s, he was immensely successful, well remunerated and in a good relationship. The thing that he lacked was access to young people.
“I had a brief period of questioning whether I should perhaps adopt a child,” he says. “And my New Yorker editor, Henry Finder, was horrified by the notion. We were in a bar. He picked up a pair of toothpicks and made the sign of the cross and held it in front of him and said, ‘Please don’t do that.’ And then he paused and said, ‘But maybe we can rent you some young people.’”
For a year, Franzen checked in regularly with a group of new graduates from Berkeley, who were part of a semi-longitudinal study into kids who’d just graduated from college, eventually writing a piece for the New Yorker about the experience, out of which, many years later, Pip, the 20-something heroine of Purity, was born. Pip is smart, funny, awkward, all the things Franzen likes in a person. “I knew her. She was easy.”
Did hanging out with the young people nix his desire to have a baby?
“Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks. And was finally killed by Henry’s response. He made a persuasive case for why that was a bad idea. The main thing it did … one of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me. And part of what journalism is for me is spending time with people who I dislike as a class. But I became very fond of them, and what it did was it cured me of my anger at young people.”
The anger moved on to new targets, the greatest of which, of course, was the internet. There is a danger for Franzen, that an author who is not a native user of the internet will be exposed in the way in which he writes about it, and there are a few false notes in Purity; an off use of the term “going viral”, a tin-eared reference to Jeff Bezos, and the overwrought phrase “moused and clicked” to describe the activity of industrious interns at their desks.
Cannily, given how much of the storyline he is made to shoulder, the Andreas Wolf character is positioned as a pre-internet creature, born and raised in communist East Germany, with a commensurate understanding of how systems that claim to liberate human potential can actually constrain it. The apex of the book is an extraordinary rant Wolf goes on against what he calls the New Regime – coincidentally, an echo of remarks made by Assange himself in his 2012 book of essays, in which the Wikileaks founder warned that the internet could be turned into a “dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism”.
Assange was mainly talking about surveillance technologies. In Purity, Franzen’s critique is much broader. “Smart people were actually far more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less-smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA,” rages Wolf in the novel. “It was straight from the totalitarian playbook, disavowing your own methods of terror by imputing them to your enemy and presenting yourself as the only defense against them – and most of the would-be Snowdens kept their mouth shut.”
Who is the Stasi, in the East German analogy?
'It becomes very hard to be creative, because you're worried about what you might be called, and whether it's fair'
“Technology itself is the Stasi. Technology is the genie out of the bottle. And the Stasi didn’t actually need to do that much. It didn’t arrest that many people. Even with all its resources, it couldn’t do that many full operations. So it counted on people censoring themselves. And controlling their own behaviour for fear of the Stasi, without their needing to lift a finger.”