He’s been sanctified by Oprah’s book club—twice. Everyone talks about him. You can’t ignore his books, and not just because his publisher has put enormous resources into promoting them. He is every bit the brilliant author the critics say he is.
And his popularity doesn’t come from sensationalized content or outrageous, non-stop action, the kind of breathless tension of a Chuck Palahniuk or a Stephen King (both excellent writers). Franzen is a careful, literary craftsman—in the best sense. He uses words in a way that makes them matter and that serves his story perfectly, not shying away from a convoluted expression or an unusual phrase in fear of having his readers fail to understand the subtlety of his meaning.
I love that one of the most popular authors of the century writes books with sixty-word sentences in them and isn’t afraid to employ semicolons liberally. I love the sheer breadth of his vision, the imagination that puts him so deeply inside his characters that you can hear their hearts beat on the page.
He’s a chronicler of modern American life with no apologies and no faintheartedness, clearly bringing love and passion to what he sees and then recreates for his readers, choosing his scenes and images and carving away the unnecessary details with the precision of a neurosurgeon.
Yes, Jonathan Franzen deserves his success.
So why can’t I finish reading him? Why did I start with great good intentions, only to peter out and let the book languish in my TBR pile?
I’m left with the only possible conclusion that the fault lies with me. I think there’s something about the characters, the situations he chooses that depresses me. I have a similar response to most of Faulkner, another writer of awe-inspiring literary gifts who leaves me cold.
I probably shouldn’t admit this. I should, in fact, probably smile and pretend that I’ve read the entire Faulkner oeuvre and am simply savoring The Corrections (which I decided I ought to read before Freedom so I had some context for the latter) so that I can eke the most enjoyment out of it. (Oddly enough, the one Faulkner book I truly love is the one that most Faulkner enthusiasts dislike: The Unvanquished.)
I wondered, briefly, if my difficulty arises because of my own penchant for historical fiction. That certainly explains why I enjoyed The Unvanquished. But I read a lot of contemporary fiction with great pleasure. The novels of Caroline Leavitt, Lynn Freed, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sigrid Nunez, Masha Hamilton and many others whose names aren’t sitting on the tips of my typing fingers right now. So it’s not that.
Then I thought, is it because I can’t read books that are difficult? Have I, in my encroaching old age, lost the ability to process complex, subtle works of fiction? Well, not if I can enjoy the list of authors above. And as I said in my last post, I’m truly savoring Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (historical fiction, however). The only reason Mantel’s book is taking me so long to read has to do with format: It’s a hefty hardcover, and so I read it in bed at night, instead of taking it with me when I’m out and about.
I’m not entirely certain why I may never be a Jonathan Franzen reader, much as I admire his work. But I think it has to do with what I expect of fiction. While I accept that often the best novels reveal deep, essential, disturbing truths about us and our society, I think I prefer those that offer a kind of redemption, or the possibility of grace. I’m an incurable optimist even at my most depressed. Nothing but the sheer belief that it would happen kept me working towards becoming a published author, for instance. I can deal with dire situations, dreadful events, characters that make me ashamed to be human—as long as they’re tempered with at least one character who draws me in, someone I like to spend hours with and care about, deeply.
That’s probably the kernel of it all. As in Faulkner, so far in The Corrections I haven’t met a single character I like at all. Not one of them would I choose to hang out with, or want to emulate.
As a counter-example, I’m also stalled in the middle Justin Cronin’s The Passage, but for a totally different reason. Cronin has given me several engaging, likable characters to fall in love with, really. But such horrible things are happening to them that I don’t want to watch. I’m not into horror, yet I think I will finish The Passage eventually, because there’s something about it that makes me feel things will come out OK in the end. One character in particular has the makings of a savior, and I want to see if I’m right.
What this all boils down to is that reading is a very personal activity. Fortunately, I’m secure enough in my intellect that I don’t feel I have to love every book that has been given the stamp of “literature”. I’m done with reading things because I have to or ought to. I love to read. You might even say I live to read. So, even if Jonathan Franzen isn’t my flavor, I’m grateful that he has given us books that appeal to many, many others.