He's one of the western world's most successful authors - so why does he annoy so many people? Here's a quick guide to the talent that is Jonathan Franzen
Remind me again?
The author of The Corrections (2001), the satirical story of a dysfunctional American family gathering for Christmas, which won Franzen fame, respect, a National Book Award and a finalist place for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He followed this ten years later with Freedom, the story of a couple’s disintegrating relationship, leading Time magazine to put him on the cover next to the headline: Great American Novelist.
Why has he been compared to Dickens?
His books are sweeping tales, with well-drawn characters, aren’t afraid of social commentary and are often rather long (600 pages and counting).
So what’s new?
His latest book, Purity, is out on September 1st. It’s bound to hit the bestsellers’ chart immediately and stay there for some time.
What’s it about?
Purity Tyler aka Pip (yes, yes, there’s a Pip in Great Expectations), is a young woman with a $130,000 student debt that she’s struggling to pay. She has no idea who her father is – and decides to seek him out, in the hope he’ll be able to rustle up some spare change. On her quest, she meets Andreas Wolf – professional secrets-leaker and rival to of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. When an internship comes her way, she takes it – she’s got no interest in Wolf’s work but hopes his set-up can help her discover her father’s identity.
Tell me about the Franzen love-hate thing
Critics, the media and the public have an on-off love/hate thing with him. While there’s no denying his huge talent (he’s been called the greatest living American author) critics take issue with the fact that he seems a bit…how shall we put this…full of himself.
Hmmm…in what way?
He wants to write ‘serious’ fiction, talks about literary fiction reaching a broad audience and yet wonders out loud if he really wants his own books read by everyone. He also feels very misunderstood. The fact that he doesn’t engage in social media means his only platform to respond to critics is via interviews.
And the spat with Oprah?
She chose The Corrections as a Book Club selection, but when she invited him to take part in the programme he said in a radio interview that the Oprah Book Club logo on the cover might dissuade men from reading his book. Oprah kept the book as her Book Club choice but uninvited him from her show. The media had a field day, calling him arrogant and ungrateful (Oprah’s seal of approval can guarantee massive success). He later publicly thanked her for backing The Corrections (and appeared on her show when she chose his following book, Freedom).
So why is he allergic to social media?
Although it features in his books, he’s personally confused by it and refuses to take part. He’s been forced to take down several fake Twitter accounts. In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Emma Brockes, he said: ‘I don’t even know how to look at Twitter. People often copy things and send them to me. But don’t you need to sign up?’ She told him that, yes, he would. A long pause followed. ‘I wouldn’t want to sign up,’ he said.
I heard something strange…about glue…
You heard right. Such a believer is Franzen in the no-distractions-while-writing-no-not-even-a-bit-of-Candy-Crush, that he works from a bare rented office and will not connect to the internet. He believes you can’t write serious fiction on a computer that is connected to wifi, so he’s come up with an ingenious plan. He’s removed the computer’s wireless card and permanently blocked the Ethernet port. “What you have to do,” he explains, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.” O.…kay….
He works six or seven days a week, often starting at 7am. He reads his dialogue out loud, so by the end of the day his voice is often hoarse.
Should I bother reading Purity?
Yes. Although his books are sprawling, don’t be put off – they move fast. Purity has a plot that’s a real page-turner, with characters you’ll remember and dialogue that’s pitch perfect.
Purity is published by Fourth Estate on September 1st.