Jonathan Franzen and Those ‘Iraqi War Orphans’

The author has doubled down on an earlier claim that he once considered adoption—not to help children, but to help his “creative process.”

Mary Altaffer / AP

During a 2010 interview with The Telegraph—one he gave during the publicity tour for his then-new book, Freedom—the author Jonathan Franzen mentioned, off-handedly, that he once considered adopting “some Iraqi orphans.” In order to help “his creative process.”

From that interview:

While struggling to write Freedom, he got it into his head that becoming a father might actually help the creative process. “I was seriously thinking about adopting some Iraqi war orphans.” He mentioned this plan over a drink with his editor at The New Yorker, who was horrified. “He took two toothpicks from the bar and made the sign of the cross and waved it slowly in front of me as if warding off an evil spirit.” Franzen laughs.

“And he sensibly pointed out that there are more people in the world who can make good parents than can write good books.”

Some Iraqi war orphans, as a whim: ooof. The notion of taking human children into one’s family for ostensibly literary purposes: ooof again.

This was not a good moment for Franzen. It suggested that Franzen, so adept at the creation of fictional people in his work, is much less adept at dealing with actual people. It also seemed to ratify some of the longest-standing and most legitimate complaints about writers, and artists, in general: that they sometimes use people—human people, people who are much more than characters in books—for their own creative ends. That they don’t just forget the categorical imperative, but instead consider themselves, and their work, to be somehow above it.

It was a small moment, though, and one that might have been buried under the many adulations Freedom received, not to mention under the breathless declarations that Franzen ranks among the cadre of “great American novelists.” It’s a moment, however, that has now been resurrected as part of the publicity tour for Franzen’s new book, Purity. An interview he gave to The Guardian, released in condensed form today and set to be published in full over the weekend, begins with Franzen’s orphan consideration. “Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship,” the article explains, “but he felt angry with the younger generation.”

Franzen himself added, “Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.”

He then elaborated, however:

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.

In other words, Franzen is making clear, he considered adoption not on the grounds of selflessness or generosity or a sense of family or love or humanity, but on artistic ones. He wanted to understand “the younger generation,” ostensibly to write young characters with better accuracy. He figured one way to do that would be to adopt a human person. He did that figuring for “maybe six weeks.”

To be fair to Franzen, if adoption was something he and his partner really were considering, it’s likely they were not so glib in their own discussions of the possibility. Hindsight, not to mention book-tour publicity interviews, have a way of condensing real emotions, real decisions, into the blitheness of anecdote. Still, the way things are presented here—the way Franzen himself is presenting them—means that what comes across is not nuance, but instead flipness and entitlement. He considered bringing a living, breathing, complicated human into his home and his family … in order to understand, and perhaps diffuse, his “alienation from the younger generation.”

Sure, he didn’t end up adopting a child. It never seems to have occurred to him, though, that the problem wasn’t just the adoption itself—it was the grounds under which he considered doing the adopting in the first place.