The Case Against Jonathan Franzen: Responses

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When Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was released last month, critics showered it with praise. NPR called it "surprisingly moving and even hopeful"; the New York Times said it's "an indelible portrait of our times"; New York Magazine declared it "a work of total genius." Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club—despite her fraught past with Franzen.

But in the October issue of The Atlantic B.R. Myers panned the book as "a 576-page monument to insignificance":

Why was Freedom written? The prologue raises expectations for a socially engaged, or at least social, narrative that are left unmet. Too much of it takes place in high school, college, or suburbia; how odd that a kind of fiction allegedly made necessary by America's unique vitality always returns to the places that change the least. Franzen clearly has little interest in the world of work. (The same applies, incidentally, to whoever edited the novel.) Of the four main characters, only Walter has a real job, about which we learn nothing until it becomes a matter of traveling around with an admiring young assistant. (American novelists never tire of the student-don romance; they just dress it up in different clothes.) Walter is constantly holding forth on issues he has researched, but not dramatically experienced. They are entertaining tirades, but this is not what fiction is for.

In the week since the review was published online, writers from the New York Times' David Brooks to Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman have responded to Myers' withering review.

Brooks thinks the "insignificance" Myers identifies is intentional:

In a smart, though overly biting, review in The Atlantic, B.R. Myers protests against Franzen's willingness to "create a world in which nothing important can happen." Myers protests against the casual and adolescent language Franzen sometimes uses to create his world: "There is no import in things that 'suck,' no drama in someone's being 'into' someone else." The result, Myers charges, "is a 576-page monument to insignificance."

But surely this is Franzen's point. At a few major moments, he compares his characters to the ones in "War and Peace." Franzen is obviously trying to make us see the tremendous difference in scope between the two sets of characters.


Gelman defends Franzen's use of colloquial language:

Myers seems to think it's somehow illegitimate to use very long sentences and the word "sucked" in the same work of literature, and attributes it to a desire on Franzen's part to connect with the masses. Maybe. But maybe some of us just think this way. "Sucks" is part of the English language too! I refer you to Mark Twain for further discussion of this point.

While The Telegraph's Richard Preston sounds relieved that Myers has made it ok not to read the book:

[T]here's such a consensus about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom stumbling over a systematic dismantling of it, 'Smaller than Life' in the October edition of The Atlantic magazine, is startling - and reassuring for anxious readers who may be wondering if it's possible to remain a civilised person without reading it.
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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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