As I was buying a copy of Moneyball at an airport bookstore in Dallas a few years back, the cashier asked, “Are you Jonathan Franzen?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m a better writer than he is.”
Okay, I didn’t really say that. But I sure felt that way. I’d just read his infuriating best-seller The Corrections, so my indignation can be excused.
Fast-forward almost a full decade to last month, when my airport doppelganger became the first writer to appear on the cover of TIME magazine since…I don’t know, Mark Twain or something. There he is, gazing Obamalike (if not Olearlike) into the wild blue yonder, above the enviable headline great american novelist.
I felt the same rush of vexation that came over me that day in Dallas. Here is a guy who looks like me and who does what I do and who lives where I once lived, and he has again managed to not only make the mainstream media take notice of him—that TIME cover is in the freakin’ iPad commercial!—but shower him with near-universal acclaim.
Do people genuinely admire his work, I wonder, or is the coronation of Franzen merely the result of lit-crit groupthink? Does no one else see what I see? Is no one else put off by this?
Even its champions concede that The Corrections is an uneven novel. Its opening is notoriously dull (apologists excuse this “post-modern” introduction, preposterously, on the grounds that it is a “challenge” to readers). Its central plot device is something from a forgotten sit-com’s Thanksgiving episode (or a John Hughes movie). And the prose reads like a high school English assignment in which a list of fifty-cent words must be strung together to make a story.
(Ironically, the same problems Franzen exposes in the William Gaddis opus The Recognitions, the supposed inspiration for The Corrections, he replicates in his own book).
All of which is neither here nor there. As Orwell said, every novel is a failure. And there is plenty to like about The Corrections, if you can ignore those fundamental problems.
My beef with Franzen—and it’s unforgivable—is that he condescends to his audience. If you’re going to name your fictional Midwestern city St. Jude—and you really shouldn’t, because the symbolism is so glaringly obvious—you cannot, you cannot, have a Danish tourist on a cruise ship ask, late in the book, “Isn’t St. Jude the patron saint of lost causes?”
It’s an insult to our intelligence, a violation of the one inviolable writer’s commandment, namely, Thou Shalt Respect Thine Readers. It’s the literary equivalent of Pete Rose gambling on his own team, and warrants a lifetime ban, a metaphorical death by stoning—not a prominent magazine cover.
If Jonathan Franzen is the king of American letters, as TIME suggests, the emperor is naked.