Jonathan Franzen Wants You To Like Him

Posted on | April 25, 2012 | Comments Off

This week in the Barnes & Noble Review, I take a look at Jonathan Franzen’s latest collection of essays, Farther Away, and his complicated relationship with David Foster Wallace.

Jonathan Franzen wants you to like him. In “Mr. Difficult,” a 2002 New Yorker essay, Franzen identifies two types of authorship: the Status model, devoted to the pursuit of difficult art at the expense of commercial gain, and the Contract model, which privileges the enjoyment and connectedness of the reader. Franzen is, in his own estimation, “a Contract kind of person.” His novels don’t ask more of the reader than she is willing to give in turn. “[T]o build the reader an uncomfortable house you wouldn’t want to live in: this violates what seems to me the categorical imperative for any fiction writer.”

But if Franzen the fiction writer diligently abides by this Kantian fiat, Franzen the essayist is not in the business of building comfortable houses. In his nonfiction, Franzen violates the writerly contract he so vaunts, not by high-art subversion but simply by being a grouch. How to Be Alone, which appeared in 2003 two years after the breakout success of The Corrections, collected his essays of the previous decade into an angry bundle. Anchored by his famous Harper’s essay on the plight of the modern novelist, the book lambasted our national preference for cultural pablum and lamented the demise of a virtuous solitude. Farther Away, coming nearly two years on the heels ofFreedom, follows much the same pattern. Like its predecessor, this assemblage of essays finds Franzen in a curmudgeonly mood — ranting against the encroachments of social media and other people’s cell phone “I love yous” — and like its predecessor, it contains one long essay that has already proved a lightning rod. [More here.]

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