Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Franzen Frenzy and Its Meaning for the Would-be Writer

I am wondering how Jonathan Franzen is feeling at the moment. Is he exhausted after giving countless interviews in the past few days about his first novel(Freedom) in nine years, not to mention at least one reading at the Boston Public Library to which he must have had to travel? Is he stunned that his book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller Lst? Is he humbled to be on the cover of Time as compared to his somewhat snotty response to Oprah Winfrey’s selection of his last novel, The Corrections, for her book club?

Let me first set the record straight. I loved The Corrections and found it to be one of the most engrossing novels I have ever read. I listened to several of the interviews of the last few days with Franzen, including the short, but surprising one on NPR’s “Marketplace” since Freedom apparentely deals with the futility of an economy that requires continous growth to succeed. I attended the aforementioned event at the Boston Public Library, arrived early, and waited in line with several hundred other people for the author to sign a copy of his book. I confess I have not yet read Freedom although hearing Franzen read his lengthy, but rich observations of his characters reminded me of what I liked about his first novel.

I don’t begrudge him any of his fame. He deserves it, and I am thrilled that a contemporary novelist with something to say is so honored. What fascinates me here is how the author feels about his reception by the world at large. No doubt Franzen, who despite the long gap between novels, has become accustomed to people recognizing his name. Perhaps he has learned to tame any annoyance at having to give so many interviews so that his book sells and his publishers can justify what was no doubt a sizable advance. Does he suffer stage fright before each reading? Does he worry that he won’t have answers for some of the questions thrown his way, or is he comfortable enough with his position that he can happily dismiss those that don’t interest him? What does he make of his fame, and does he feels he deserves it? Is he a shy man who endures that very public side of the publishing world because that is part of the bargain? Or does he relish the opportunity to share his thinking about his work?

Yesterday at the reading, I got some inkling into this v.2 version of Franzen. He was unhappy at a series of questions from one person (why can’t people stick to just one question) that probed what he did about writers’ block (he doesn’t like to call it that), whether it actually took him nine years to write his book (he didn’t really write it until 2009 although the idea was germinating), and what his daily writing process is (he didn’t answer this part.) He skillfully handled a question from a woman who spewed literary critique mumbo-jumbo, and managed to silence another questioner (especially after the audience booed the questioner) whose observation (with a question attached—some people seem to enjoy providing their own theories, and then turn them into a question, with the phrase, “would you agree that…..?) threatened to give away some of the plot. All these off the cuff strategies require a certain amount of cool and sense of confidence, but perhaps he’s heard it all before.

Inevitably, those who are struggling to be published authors ourselves have fantasies of being in Franzen’s shoes. We wonder how we would feel and act in front of a large audience or while giving an interview that will have a public airing and live on in podcasts, be commented on endlessly in blogs. Of course, realistically, we know we will be lucky to be published at all, and we understand that first time authors choosing to do a book tour will be arranging and paying for it themselves. But what if?

My friend Larry finds himself in that enviable, yet frightening position. His first book, Oogy, a Dog only a Family Could Love—a memoir centered around the abused dog that he and his family adopted--- is due out in mid-October with a print run of 100,000 (most print runs of unknown authors start at a few thousand). He is potentially on the cusp of something new for him. Clearly, his publisher has great faith that Larry’s book is going to be a huge hit and has done a great deal to promote it. Larry himself is in disbelief that any of this is happening, that the fruits of his labor merit the kinds of positive reviews trickling in prior to publication. Although he will have some local readings (he lives in Philadelphia), there will be no book tour unless, of course, the book takes on a life of its own. Yet, even the idea of the book occurred because of another situation that most of us only dream about. None other than Oprah’s people (yee gads—her again?) found an article written by Larry for his local animal shelter newsletter, and Larry, his family, and Oogy appeared a couple of years ago on Oprah’s Valentine’s special (re-aired the following year). The rest, as they say, is history, but history still in the making.

Jonathan Franzen is not the first author whose autograph I have sought. I have stood in many a line and shaken many an author’s hand after receiving my signed copy (the short-hand signature, indecipherable)—I once got a kiss from Garrison Keillior. I have known (and studied with) academic authors who, if not household names, were very well known in certain circles. I am friends with somone whose best friend was the subject of an enormous best seller some years ago. But Larry is the first person within my circle who has the potential to rise from obscurity to some version of temporary celebrity because of his book. I will follow his journey with interest. I believe he will maintain his humility whatever the outcome, but I want him to succeed. He’s the underdog (pardon the pun) we all root for in the movies, for whom we shed a tear of joy at the end. His victory is a vicarious victory for all of us who have ever received a rejection letter from an agent or an editor. Maybe Larry is no Franzen, but if I ask him a dumb question, I’ll probably get an answer and maybe some inkling as to what all the hoopla means to him. And maybe I’ll get some perspective about my goals for my own work.


  1. It can be a bit of a no-win situation, of course. If you don't want to answer you're a jerk. If you're all-too-happy to answer you're pandering. I'm not quite sure what the right approach is, though I would happily struggle with that dilemma this instant, should it come up.

  2. Nevets--A struggle we'd all welcome, I'd guess. Nice to hear from you again!

  3. Thanks, Belle, it's good to be back in circulation.

  4. Franzen's glasses got stolen during a reading in London last week... Another downside to being a famous writer?