Freedom Is Slavery

By Greg Olear


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 obviousyou 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 stoningnot a prominent magazine cover.

If Jonathan Franzen is the king of American letters, as TIME suggests, the emperor is naked.



GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

118 responses to “Freedom Is Slavery”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    God, I’m so glad I don’t read contemporary fiction.


    Sounds like I dodged a bullet.

    It’s always about some damn thing. Some fad. Some zeitgeist. It’s what people are talking about, so you have to get in on it, read it, talk about it, or talk about not talking about it, or not read it and talk about not reading it, or whatever interaction with it you’re forced into in order to play the social game, and the whole mess escalates to fame, and all of a sudden you’ve got a guy who explicates his own novels on the cover of Time magazine.

    And Oprah doing nobody any favors by “introducing” a novel and writer who needs no introduction and is about as overexposed already as anything has ever been.

    And yet here I am. Talking about not reading or talking about it.


  2. “TIME has crowned Jonathan Franzen the king of American letters. Is he?”

    No. Especially not if we hope for good quality fiction.

    What can I say? Loved this. Franzen is hyperbolically overrated. I mean, there’s, like Auster overrated, which has a sort of hipness to it. Then there’s McCarthy/DeLillo overrated, which can be academic. There’s even Faulkner overrated, which is by canon, not to mention Roth/Updike overrated, which seems very white, and even Safran Foer and Zadie Smith overrated, which is by The New Yorker.

    And then there’s Franzen, and it’s like an entirely other level. I read the first sixty or so pages of The Corrections before giving up entirely. I got a sample of Freedom on my Kindle, and the glee with which I subsequently removed said sample was immeasurable, equal, roughly, to the glee I felt in returning Sh*@ My Dad Says.

    Usually, at least, when you encounter a writer who can’t really tell a story which features interesting characters actually, you know, doing something, it’s excused by the whole “master stylist” thing (which is a cop-out and an entirely other discussion). Franzen’s got no finesse, and his prose is just awkward and clunky. I mean, the second sentence alone . . . “very unflattering,” “quite a mess” . . . this is not polished prose. “She was already fully thing thing that was happening to the rest of the street” . . . I mean, if this is the best we’ve got as novels go, we’re going to have to start acknowledging the possibility is really the Decent American Novel in Which Nothing Really Ever Happens to Characters You Won’t Care About Anyway.

    I still can’t believe Oprah picked another of his books. As President Bush the Second noted, “Fool me once, shame on . . . you. Fool me twice, shame on . . . er. You fool me and you can’t fool me again.”


    Also? I write every novel as an argument against Orwell. Also, I think, Fitzgerald. Whoever said “A novel is a long piece of fiction with flaws.”

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Will. I think the Levels of Overratedness would make for a good post.

      Re: Oprah. I made the conscious decision not to mention her in the piece, although her name comes up in essays about Franzen as frequently as Bill Clinton’s does in pieces about Monica Lewinsky. So here’s my take:

      You know the old joke about the guy out on a first date who sees Frank Sinatra at the restaurant, and he begs Frank to come to the table and say hi because it will help him impress his date, and Frank obliges, and when Sinatra gets there, the guy says, “Fuck off, Frank; can’t you see we’re busy!”? Well, Oprah is Sinatra, Franzen is the guy, and the date he’s trying to impress is us.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      I enjoyed the excellent taxonomy of overratedness in this comment.

      • Megan says:

        Me three. The taxonomy of overratedness post concept gets three votes. Will?

        I want to love Jonathan Franzen. I want to love his work. I do not. But I respect his writing it has a level of seriousness and stamina which indicates a genuine desire to produce meaningful work. His writing may not appeal to me, but it and his stardom makes people debate writing and books and ultimately, having a discussion about literature vis a vis Franzen is beneficial for all of us.

        Great post Greg, as evidenced by the flurry & quality of comments.

  3. I wonder how many people have used the phrase “that day in Dallas” to describe anything but, well, y’know…

    When you talk about his pose on the cover of Time you’re making me wonder about a new post. I read something online about author poses, and how so many authors pull the same crap on the backs of their books and whatnot. I might reenact the 10 crappiest, most uninspired author poses – and of course Photoshop myself onto the cover of Time for something like this.

    I’m not 100% sure who this Franzen guy is and have never read his book(s). You’re not really selling them for me, though, so I’ll probably do myself a favour and pass over The Corrections. Fuck it, I’ve got a copy of Subversia in the mail and a 100 unread books on the shelf. No need to waste time on crap.

    Kudos on the anniversary of Totally Killer. It must have been about a year ago I read it… I didn’t realise it was so long ago… Cracking read, anyway. Looking forward to the next one.

    • Andrew Nonadetti says:

      “I wonder how many people have used the phrase ‘that day in Dallas’ to describe anything but, well, y’know…”

      Right now, somewhere in America, there is a 37-year-old D&D-playing Society for Creative Anachronism dweeb who got laid – once – by a non-imaginary human female while attending a convention in Dallas. He does.

      Greg, I am using the only spare three minutes I’m likely to have for the next month to hurriedly comment on *this* piece. Why? Because you are Greg Fucking Olear. And, even in his wildest wet dreams, Jonathan Franzen is not.

      • Greg Olear says:

        Thanks, Anon (I’m going to keep calling you Anon. I hope that’s Anon issue).

        I don’t know that I’ve ever had “Fucking” inserted between my names before. I quite like it.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Yes, it’s a year to the day since TK came out. Thanks, man. I appreciate that.

      Re: SUBVERSIA. What I discovered in researching my foreward is that the first person to ever leave a comment on one of Duke’s TNB pieces was…ta da…you, David Wills!

      • Yes, Duke never let me forget that. It’s an honour to have that first comment, and once I get his book (already ordered) I’ll hopefully be among the first to actually read it.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          I still remember the comment, which had to do with pernicious influences in Scotland.

          I hope you like the book, David. You’ll be familiar with most of it, though I don’t think there’s a piece in the book that wasn’t tweaked. I was appalled at the sloppiness of some of the writing I’d put up at TNB when I took a closer look — and yet I always thought I was being so careful!

          But there is some new stuff in the book, and for what it’s worth, I am partial to the new pieces. I wish I’d had time to write more new stuff, but I’m, alas, a slow writer, and the idea was to get the book out as soon as possible. It was supposed to be published in June, as a matter of fact. Ha! I predicted September early on, and we just squeaked through the September door.

        • I’m sure I’ll love it – old stuff and new. As you know, you’re one of my favourite writers.

          As for the sloppiness, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. We all think that about our own work, especially when it comes to the crunch. It’s just paranoia. If your work was really that sloppy you wouldn’t have been offered a book deal.

          You know, when I went to order the book it said “1-3 days delivery” and now I’m realising that the e-mail I received said, “Will be shipped between 14th and 25th October.” It looks like I’ll be in Taiwan when the fucker actually arrives. Why do these things always happen when I try to get a copy of your books?

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Oh, fuck. Are you kidding me? I was afraid this was going to happen. People were telling me they were getting messages that the book would ship in the next two days. If I’d known otherwise, I would’ve held back on the announcement.

          One way or another, I’m going to make sure you get that book, even if I have to fly to Taiwan to personally deliver it.

          Oh, and, honestly, I didn’t know that I’m one of your favorite writers, but it’s very humbling to hear it, seeing that I’ve always liked your taste. Then, too, I’m sure I’ve mentioned how much I look forward to your posts. A day without a David Wills post is like a day without sunshine — although, on an unrelated note, I could do with less sunshine. L.A. has been miserably hot this week, as you may or may not know.

        • Well, if you want to come to Taiwan you’ll have a place to stay and someone to show you around. I’m sure we’d have a blast. (Oh yeah, and Taipei has the most awesome bookstore – the biggest English language one in Asia. We could try and get them to stock your book.)

          Otherwise I’ll just make sure my parents forward the book on to me.

          Besides, I’m on a weird run of luck since leaving America. My passport was meant to take 3 weeks to process, but took 3 days. My drivers license was meant to take 2 weeks, and took 2 days. My banks account had a similar thing. Same with two packages from Korea. Maybe this will take a fraction of the time as well.

          I heard about that heat wave… Nasty business. I’m a big fan of sunshine, but there definitely comes a point where it’s just overwhelming.

        • D.R. Haney says:


          Glad your luck has taken a turn for the better, and, yes, I do hope the book arrives in a more timely fashion than Amazon announced. Others are, or have been, receiving their copies pretty quickly, I’m relieved to hear.

          As for Taiwan, it seems unlikely that I’d be able to afford a visit, but never say never, I suppose. And, of course, anyone who can potentially stock my book(s) must be colonized immediately. I thank you in advance if you’re able to do so.

  4. Aaron Dietz says:

    Interesting–I’ve heard very positive things about Freedom. This makes me want to check it out and see which side of the fence I want to be on….

    But either way–the lack of cigar makes him WAY less cool. I mean, Greg, when I saw your cigar pictures, jeez did I want to suddenly become a cigar aficionado.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Yes, it’s gotten good reviews. It’s also gotten bad ones. Perhaps he’s learned his lesson about talking down to his readers, but I somehow doubt it…

      I’m glad you like the cigar! You should take a cigar shot for SUPER. And I’ll take a picture ofmyself wearing a shirt the same color as your book cover. ; )

  5. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    “It’s an insult to our intelligence, a violation of the one inviolable writer’s commandment, namely, Thou Shalt Respect Thine Readers.” Amen!

  6. You are way cuter than JF.
    And cooler.

    I’m so glad you finally got this out – this bug up your craw.

  7. Quenby Moone says:

    Hoisted on the doppelganger’s petard! I couldn’t get through The Corrections, so I can’t really say anything about his writing…but I didn’t get through it…which says something about his writing.

    I can say this, though: That is the most aggrandizing, inflated, ridiculous cover of Time I’ve ever seen. When did they hire the professional retouchers from Vogue to work on authors? The gaze off-camera, moodily pondering his next chapter (or interview with his adoring audience) lit in that fashionable grey-halflight which speaks to slick grittiness. Yarf. Seriously, I would shit-can whoever made this design decision. What a freakin’ joke. News magazine? I think not.

    Wait, what? Wasn’t this about the merits of news journalism versus slick commercialism? No? Huh. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere back there…

    Respect. We all want it, and those with enough chutzpah to write have a responsibility to give it back to the people who read their stuff. Amen, brother!

  8. Gloria says:

    I feel about David Foster Wallace the way you feel about Franzen. I also feel about House of Leaves the way you feel about Moneyball. (It’s the fifty-cent word, “challenge” to the reader thing in both cases.) For both DFW and HoL, I’ve been told many times to give them a second chance. Surely I don’t see what is to be seen in these. But maybe they’re just not that good?

    I’ve never read Franzen. I tend to shy away from any literary novelist that intellectuals spout off about. It, to me, just seems like a smart-set circle-jerk. The stuff the cool kids do. Perhaps I’m doing myself a disservice, but I’ll never know.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I have been compared to DFW — both by actual human beings and that app that went viral last year that was supposed to compare your writing to a famous writer’s. But yeah, I couldn’t get through INFINITE JEST. It’s a 1200-page book about spoiled potheaded tennis prodigies. I’m just not interested in that.

      Never read HOUSE OF LEAVES. But MONEYBALL is fucking fantastic. Michael Lewis is one of the best writers on the planet.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I clearly am a lover of novels that other TNB folks hate. House of Leaves is my second-favorite novel of the 2000s after The Corrections. Hahaha.

        • Joe Daly says:

          Watch out, Coxy. The Southern Hemisphereans are going to come after you for that “favorite” you just used there…

        • Irene Zion says:

          @Richard Cox,
          I read “Rift” on my trip.
          Thanks for the ride!
          You writing another yet?

        • Richard Cox says:

          Thanks, Irene. You are quickly becoming my number one fan!

          You’re not going to lock me in a Colorado mountain cabin, are you? And chop off my foot?

        • Richard Cox says:

          Joe, ZaraPotts and Simon should know the favorite way to spell favourite is favorite.

          Shirley they do?

        • Zara Potts says:

          I’m afraid I am just not in the right humour to respond to this off-colour comment. It may be my least favourite comment yet. I feel you are labouring the point here.

        • Erika Rae says:

          You guys are adorable. Let’s all lock Richrob in a Colorado mountain cabin and feed him Rocky Mountain Oysters.

          Greg – I’m so glad you got this off your chest. I’ve never read Franzen, so I feel a little silly commenting on this post, but I’m just sure I would like you better. Positive.

        • Irene Zion says:


          I have trouble cutting between the joints of a chicken to separate the parts.
          It reminds me that what I’m eating isn’t gathered from trees or bushes.
          I promise I will never cut off your foot.
          Plus, I will probably never go to Colorado, because it snows there and I am one hundred percent finished with snow forever.
          You could come visit us here, but we wouldn’t lock you in.
          You could come and go as you wish.
          You just have to like dogs.
          There are four now.

  9. I haven’t read this yet, but I honestly have no idea who Johnathon Franzen is.

    A couple of weeks ago, we were in Tulsa filming a documentary and his name kept coming up, Richard Cox did take the time to explain to me who he was. I promptly forgot.

    Ok, reading.

    • Gloria says:

      Richard adores Franzen. He’s one of the ones who keeps telling me to read him. For that alone, I’m willing to give him a chance. (RC and I tend to agree on these types of things.)

      • Greg Olear says:

        Yeah, Richard and I have argued about Franzen on the boards for awhile. I know he’s a big fan, as is Jason Rice, and plenty of others.

        Megan, I was wondering why you guys were in Tulsa…

  10. Joe Daly says:

    Franzen is one of those names that is drenched in so much hyperbole that I have no interest in reading him. It would be impossible not to carry a battleship full of expectations into the first page, and then drag them through the rest of the book. In reality, I’d probably finish the book without being able to determine whether or not those expectations were met.

    I’ll leave the “important” authors to the book clubs and Hudson News stands of the world. Give me Christopher Moore, Tom Robbins, or Thomas Pynchon any day of the week.

    • Gloria says:

      Jesus, I love Christopher Moore. And Tim Robbins. If we ever meet, Joe Daly, we’ll have much to talk about. Let’s meet in the Marriott bar to discuss this!

    • Greg Olear says:

      This is a good opportunity to share my delight that TK’s French language publisher, Editions Gallmeister, is also Robbins’s French language publisher, and that we have the same translator (who is, so far, superb). I love Robbins. And Pynchon. I really must check out Moore…

      • Joe Daly says:

        Dude, that is one hell of a delight! I might have to pick up a copy in French, just for the experience. That being said, it’s been a long time since I’ve managed any sort of proficiency in French, but I think it would be fun just to read the anti-Beatles rant in another language. 🙂

        Get thee to Christopher Moore with all haste!

        • Greg Olear says:

          I’ll get to the bookstore today.

          My French is extremely shaky, but it’s the only other language I could get away with doing a reading in. I’d sound awful, but I could do it, if I practiced…

      • Dana says:

        For Moore I started with Island of the Sequined Love Nun (kudos to Mr. Daly for his recommendation many moons ago) and I instantly loved him. Several laugh out loud moments. I still remember shaking my husband awake because I was laughing in bed. That sounds weird, but you know what I mean.

  11. jonathan evison says:

    . . . caveat: like every other writer in america, i’m totally jealous . . .

    . . . i guess what bugs me about franzen, is that not only is he repeating himself with all this rich white suburban dysfunction, he is repeating yates and connell and cheever and updike . . .this is really really really well-worn territory, most of which was covered by 1960 . . . but even more than that, i just find that there’s not even danger or narrative derring-do on the page for me, and i wish just one of his characters would come to the realization that the reason their lives suck is because they’re assholes . . . i do think the guy’s a good writer, though, i just find myself frustrated by his lack of thematic scope . . .

    . . .all that said, i don’t think franzenfreude is a bad thing for literary fiction, in fact, i find it inspiring that hundreds of thousands of americans are reading literary fiction, even if it is the same title . . . i hope the book continues to be well received and stimulate america’s appetite for more big “great american novels” (i have one in particular in mind!) . . .

    • Greg Olear says:

      I hear that caveat. I contemplated not posting this because I didn’t want to sound like sour grapes. But I’m not doing what JF is doing; my aims are different, as a writer; I really am annoyed that they didn’t pick someone more worthy. It’s the wrong Jonathan on the TIME cover!

      Are Americans reading this book, or just buying it? There is no way to measure the ratio of books sold to books read — Book Scan can only do so much — but I bet a sizable percentage of people who buy Freedom won’t read more than a few chapters of it. Maybe people will buy it, read a bit, get bored, and won’t give a legitimately good work of fiction a shake.

      As for JF and the Great American Novel…I think a basic rule of thumb is that for a novel to be up for the consideration of “Great American” status, it can’t be partially set in Lithuania.

      • Matt says:

        I don’t get the whole “Great American” thing anyhow. At what point does one qualify? Peter Carey was born in Australia, but he’s been living & writing in the U.S. for twenty years now. He has an American family and an American passport. His latest novel – a Booker Prize nominee – is set in America. He’s already won the Booker prize twice, including for one book that was written in America. So at what point does he get to be a Great American author?

        Or is it like the presidency – you have to be born here to qualify for the position?

        • Greg Olear says:

          You have to be born here, or else in Kenya, with a doctored Hawaiian birth certificate.

          Joking, of course.

          As Jonathan Ames pointed out in Wake Up, Sir, all this talk about trying to write the elusive Great American Novel is moot, because Fitzgerald wrote it a long time ago, and it’s called The Great Gatsby.

  12. Matt says:

    I’ve never read Franzen. Just never seemed to have much interest. Technically, The Corrections is on my To be Read list, but way down there near the bottom. I feel no enthusiasm to read it, haven’t much cared for either side of this “Franzengate” “Franzen vs. Chick Lit” etc. debate*, as it’s had the intellectual discourse of a high school feud. I mean, I’m happy people are talking about a book other than Twilight, but for fuck’s sake, we can do better than this.

    *I will, however, throw a “Fuck you!” at Jennifer Weiner for her continued tactic of co-opting song lyrics into the titles and themes of her books. Lady, it’s a cheap attempt to add narrative legitimacy where there isn’t any, and if you want to be taken seriously, maybe you should knock it off. Also, if you’re tired of the “chick lit” label, maybe you should fucking stop approving cover art that hits all the semiotic marks that chick lit has been wallowing in for decades now, hmm?

    • Greg Olear says:

      >>I mean, I’m happy people are talking about a book other than Twilight, but for fuck’s sake, we can do better than this.

      Well said, Matt.

      I’m also tired of the ubiquity of Swedish detective fiction, but that’s just me.

      • Matt says:

        Speaking for myself, I really enjoyed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Played With Fire (haven’t read the final one yet). Enjoyed the films as well. But the novels are by no means flawless. There’s a certain clunkiness to the prose that I’m willing to attribute to the process of translation, and of course the Larsson/Blomkvist author surrogate stuff. But it’d been a while – possibly since TK a year ago – that I read anything with a plot other than comic books that kept me that entertained and interested in the characters.

        I’ll also admit to giving Larsson a bit of a get out of jail free card, since a.) he’s dead and b.) fiction isn’t his forte. Sort of the way you might appreciate an earnest, amateur attempt that shows a lot of promise even if it doesn’t quite deliver the goods.

        I see that the trailors for the Americanized and craptacular-looking English language version of Let the Right One In have hit the airwaves. The Swedish version was phenomenal, and based on a novel; perhaps it’s only a matter of time until Swedish vampire fiction supplants Swedish detective fiction, what with the crossover appeal to the Twilight crowd and all.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I feel like I missed the boat on the Larsson. I’m going to skip it and wait for the Estonian police procedurals. But I appreciate your take on it.

          Fountains of Wayne have a song called “Red Dragon Tattoo” that starts playing in my head whenever the title of the book is mentioned. My brain enjoys torturing me in this way.

        • Irene Zion says:

          I loved “Let the Right One In.”
          Thanks for letting me know it was a novel, I didn’t know that.
          The Swedish versions of the Dragon Tattoo books are good films too, especially the main actress. I was just in Sweden and they’ve already seen the third one, but it hasn’t come out here yet.
          Sorry, I’m too sleepy to make to much sense.
          (Whose post is this, anyhow?)

        • kristen says:

          Ooh–I didn’t know Let the Right One In was a novel either! Must read soon.

          And, Franzen… Pretty neutral on the guy myself. Haven’t read him to date, and considering there’s been ample opportunity/fuss, I’ve gotta think there’s reason behind that. Something getting in the way of my adding him to the ol’ library hold queue.

          That said, I might give Freedom a shot, given a few friends’ rave remarks. I don’t know, we’ll see. It’s admittedly pretty hard to justify reading something that doesn’t clearly call one’s name, given the dizzying number of books out there that do.

        • Irene Zion says:


          Just saw “Let Me In.”
          The acting was great and the story captivating,
          but I prefer “Let the Right One In.”

  13. A large woman asked me once, while I was waiting to step onto a bus in San Francisco, if I was Daniel Handler. “Excuse me?” I said. The woman grinned, positive she’d nailed me. “You’re Lemony Snicket!” I mumbled something about having to clue what the fuck she was talking about, and sat way in back, where she kept turning around and staring/winking at me. Someone later informed me who Handler actually was. I looked at the pic on the back of one of his books. Huh. About a month later, this guy in a bar comes up to me and goes “You’re Steve Beuerlein!” who at the time was riding out the end of his career as the 3rd-string QB for the Raiders. I told him no, but he insisted on buying me beers and kept smiling with his buddies from the end of the bar and occasionally doing a chant of “GO RAIDERS!” Interestingly, Daniel Handler and Steve Beuerlein look about as much alike as Sonny and Cher.

    All this to say, Greg, that I feel your pain on the Franzen recognition.

    To your literary points: I agree that the first two chapters of The Corrections are TERRIBLE. I almost gave up. And I don’t for a second think it was intentional. But I’m glad I kept going, because, let’s be honest, there’s a lot of fantastic writing in that book. Franzen is smart and funny and astute and a good storyteller. It’s a very readable 600 pages. Does it cover a lot of worn territory (family dysfunction, affairs, malaise, white mid-westernism?) that we are all understandably bored by at this point? No question. But you have to remember that before Corrections came out, Franzen had two unsuccessful books under his belt, and had just made a pre-publication splash with a NYT essay essentially daring his fellow authors to attempt to write “wider scope” novels that grappled with real social issues, along the lines of Tolstoy, instead of the shitty meta/post-modern/ironic trend that dominated then. It was a ballsy move, and I think he backed it up. Oprah made him a household name, but the guy spent 7 years writing a multi-generational novel of manners that could not have been expected to move Vampire numbers of units.

    I understand (and regularly get spurts of myself) having out-sized expectations/resentment for writers who receive as much hype as he does. But I think if you’d read The Corrections after finding it in some remainder bin, without ever having heard of Franzen, you’d think “Wow, that was unexpectedly good.”

    I say all this without having read Freedom yet. And I will admit I’m in no hurry to. But still.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Daniel Handler is also the accordion player for the Magnetic Fields, and conducts the book-length interview with Stephin Merritt that comes with 69 LOVE SONGS. (I just found out this week, after reading the Merge book, that he was also Lemony).

      As I said, there is plenty to like about The Corrections. The part about the sister and the restaurant, if memory serves, is really great, and I enjoyed the Lithuania stuff more than most people did.

      But maybe that, too, is part of my frustration. From an artistic standpoint, nothing is as infuriating as a flawed masterpiece, something that could have been so great, except for [fill in the blank]. The big moment toward the end, where the theme is nakedly on display — “When did we become our parents’ parents,” or some such thing — is about as bad as bad gets.

      As for his exhortation in the NYT, that makes me like him less, not more.

      Steve Beuerlein, eh?

      • I now feel foolish that I’ve put myself in the position of defending Franzen, I guess mainly because I don’t care about him much either way. I did think his NYT essay was incredibly pompous, but I liked that he was willing to go out on a limb in that fashion. In other words, especially at that time, it was refreshing to me that he’d sacrificed any possibility of being Cool by penning such a Maudlin Manifesto. And I guess I also thought The Corrections was a welcome corrective to the impermeable sense of ironic hipness so in evidence then.

        Mostly, I think the backlash against his halo of Oprah/Celebrity/Time covers/Big Ideas Novels overwhelms the prose itself, which, though imperfect, is actually pretty good.

        But, yeah, PLEASE, next Franzen novel? Call it “Railing Against The Fustian” and have it be a 200 page bodice-ripper about murders in the Hmong community in San Diego.

    • Dana says:

      I have no opinion on Franzen as I haven’t read him and only know the name because he’s mentioned so often. I’ll admit a bit of sneer comes to mind though as he’s so often linked to Oprah. Who knows, maybe she’s got great taste in literature, but when I see that little sticker on a book it just annoys me and gets my back up. Can’t we have one thing that isn’t endorsed for chrissakes?

      I do have a question though; what exactly is LITERARY fiction? I’m sure most wouldn’t consider Stephen King as literary, but I think he’s written some things* & ** that will endure for centuries.

      As for Mr. Olear, you keep on keeping on Greg. And when Oprah has you on for Fathermucker, I’ll make the ultimate sacrifice and watch.

      *he’s also written some crap, but with so much output I forgive him.

      ** This morning while walking my dog she was dawdling by a storm drain. I dragged her away lest a hideous clown stretch its stripey arm out and rip her to shreds.

  14. Art Edwards says:

    Is “Freedom” a Hendrix song? Something deep on *Cry of Love*?

  15. Zara Potts says:

    So timely, Greg.

    I’m just reading ‘Freedom’ to review it for our Sunday newspapers here in NZ.

    I have to say that I like it better than ‘The Corrections’ which I struggled with, but on the whole I have been unpleasantly surprised by Franzen’s writing. Given the hype around this offering, I would have expected some amazing, breath-drawing prose and characterisation, but no.

    There are some truly terrible metaphors in this book, phrases I have had to read two or three times just to comprehend how awful they are – but I guess he can get away with it because he’s Jonathan Franzen.

    Having said all that – it’s readable. It’s recognisable and entertaining-ish. I’ve read worse.

    It feels similar to me to a play I saw recently called ‘Osage County’ – a 3 hour marathon of familial dysfunction and white middle class suburban malaise.

    Interesting enough, but I want fantastic. Give me beauty. Give me horror. Don’t give me middle of the road bland dressed up as the ‘great American novel.’

    By the way – you’re much better looking than JF!

    • Greg Olear says:

      That’s about what I expected. Personally, I like my familial dysfunction and white middle-class malaise in smaller doses.

      And thanks for the compliment. I’ve also been told I look like Stephen King, over whom JF is an improvement…

  16. I’ve no opinion of his work, and his success doesn’t bother me, but I read the Time piece, and Franzen seems to be one of those writers that suffers for every word. Meaning: writing doesn’t seem fun for him. I admire his work ethic, but, jeez, you can see what it takes to be that guy just looking at him–he looks seriously dour, exhausted, humorless. Not my kinda guy.

    And he needs to unbutton that top button.

  17. Great post, Greg!

    I thought The Corrections was entirely mediocre, but some people I really trust have promised me that Freedom is good. I do want to read it, because I think ANY literary novel getting this level of attention is “something” in today’s climate. But I don’t want to read it in hardcover, when writers who are just as talented and way under-recognized could be getting that money out of me instead. So anyone who wants to send me their already-read copy of the book, let me know. I think we should have a Franzen pass-on-list. Otherwise, I’m waiting for the damn paperback.

    I do think it was a combo of classy and gimmicky that Oprah/Franzen have reunited for her last book club. That kind of makes me smile and yet throw up a little at the same time. Hmm.

    I’m a lot more interested in being furious at the Stephanie Myers phenomenon, though, than I am at JF. I mean, I think there are a lot of things out there really sabotaging intelligent thought and literary culture, but Jonathan Franzen not being the great American novelist (which, surely, he is in fact not) is really that high up on the list of those things. I think we get more pissed at him because he’s “one of us,” in some ways, no?

    • Greg Olear says:

      Oprah and JF deserve each other. I’ll leave it at that.

      As for Stephenie Meyer — and I love that you spelled both of her names incorrectly! — there always have been, and (one hopes) always will be, writers who write disposable novels that sell a whole lot. I give her a pass, because her sales keep the houses flush, or closer to flush, and allow them to take fliers on people like me. I know adults read her, but I haven’t seen adults raving about how great the books are in the way they do about her literary equal in the fantasy aisle, J.K. Rowling (don’t get me started). Needless to say, the Twilight books will not enjoy the longevity of the Cullens.

      • I have another for you, then, Greg. I was once asked in an interview, back when I edited Other Voices magazine, what I would do if Dan Brown sent me a story. I originally answered, “Who’s Dan Brown?” Then I was embarrassed, thinking maybe Dan Brown was some awesome writer I was supposed to know, so I looked him up on the internet and found out who he ACTUALLY was. Needless to say, I’ve not read Twilight. I’ve read the Harry Potter series and I think it is a good kids’ series. I mean, I’m not trying to argue here that JK Rowling should have more money than god; I’m just saying I think these are nice books for kids. From what I know of Twilight, based on the concept, I’m not sure even that can be said of those books. Albeit I’ve not read them.

        What I object to, though, is the way Potter or Twilight or Bridget Jones or what-have-you in genre fiction basically gets all of the publishing industry’s knickers in such a collective twist that suddenly every pitch of a book has to have vampires or zombies or a fat girl on a diet who buys a lot of shoes, or whatever-the-fuck, and that this becomes THE THING in the entire industry, so that basically even books that are not part of a series are effectively part of a series, thematically and stylistically. This, I think, is hugely destructive to the literary world. I mean, not to be one of those “remember the good old days” people, but, I mean, a “pulp” novel used to be considered, like, GONE WITH THE WIND. Now it’s Twilight! I find it horrifying, to think that massive numbers of people are reading that kind of thing, and it’s influencing what editors have to seek. Rather than thinking this allows big publishers to take a chance on literary writers because their bread is buttered elsewhere, I think it does the opposite for the most part. Far fewer literary writers can eek their way in when everyone is looking for a fucking zombie book. Even Jodi Picoult is looking literary by these standards. It all seems like a train wreck to me.

        At the end of the day, I ask myself: If a bunch of writers end up–based on Franzen’s (perhaps unmerited) success–saying, “I’d better write a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s,” this would be a better thing for life, literature and the state of the universe than if they are all saying (as so many are), “I’d better write a vampire story.” I don’t think Franzen is half the big shit people make him out to be, but even if he’s a dickwad hack I’d rather see him influencing literary culture than . . . uh, these people whose names I can’t spell properly.

        But probably I should withhold any further proclamations until after I’ve read the book–which, again, I hope not to actually have to pay for =)

        • Greg Olear says:

          Yeah, back in the day, THE WINDS OF WAR was pulp fiction. The standards do seem to have dipped quite a bit.

          And you’re quite right that aspiring to write a better Corrections is a more ambitious aim, and better for the culture, than going for a better Twilight.

          As for Dan Brown, have you read Da Vinci Code? I want a video of you reading it, to see how quickly you hurl it across the room.

        • Dude, you KNOW I have not read Da Vinci Code! I haven’t even read the Dragon Fire Hornet books (though I did dig the Swedish film.) I am an idiot about pop culture, pretty much in all regards.

          Time it would take to hurl the book across the room: .03 seconds.

          I’m an asshole.

          Come on over and film it, baby!

        • Greg Olear says:

          I read it, and it was a torture. I felt violated. Twilight is Tolstoy in comparison.

          As for Rowling, it’s well and good for her books to Get Kids Reading, but if that was really the point, why allow them to make the movies? She was already loaded without the movie money; she could have told them no, or made them wait ten years or something. Now I think kids watch the movies instead of read the books…and, for the record, it literally took me less time to read the first book than it did to watch the first movie.

          I’m dispatching my camera crew now…

  18. Patricia Brinkmann says:

    Just came upon this site, because of Subversia

    I disagree Frazen is rock solid did you listen to him on Terry Gross I think he deserves some respect.


    btw I think he looks a tad like Ben Folds 😉

  19. Irene Zion says:

    I’d like to take this opportunity to say that I love you, Greggie.
    (I’m sure Stephanie won’t mind cause I’ve been married a hundred years and I’m old and creaky.
    Also, if I said anything inappropriate, please delete me, since my brain has not yet arrived from the land of rain and fjords and rain and cold and rain.)
    (But I think it will be okay because it’s so cold there that it should keep, unless they leave it outside on the runway in the Miami heat too long.)
    (How many parenthetical expressions can one write while missing a brain, but still be correct, speaking grammatically, Brad?)

  20. Brian Eckert says:

    I get the impression that TIME made up its mind to have a cover story about a writer, and came up with Franzen. Let’s face it: TIME is uber mainstream. They’re not going to take a risk and put some unknown on the cover. For chrissakes…they listed Lady Gaga as a top five most influential person in the word, which leads me to believe that influential to them means recognizable. To be fair, no matter what writer ended up on the cover, there would be disagreements, because writing means different things to different people. TIME is not a magazine geared toward a literary crowd. It is a news magazine. Franzen makes the news, hence…

    I think another factor is the guy’s personal life. He fits that stereotypical writer profile of the shut-in who shuns the world at large and sacrifices his life to the written word. I certainly think that Franzen sounds like an interesting guy, and is extremely devoted to his work. Plus, he was friends with David Foster Wallace, who lots of people have a hard-on for.

    Bottom line: anytime somebody graces the title of a magazine like TIME with the words “great” or “best” or “most” associated with their name, it is going to spark a debate. There is no best writer. There are great writers, good writers, halfway decent writers, kinda shitty writers, downright dog vomit writers. But depending on who you ask, the same person could be described in any of the preceding ways. My opinion is that writers player-hate a little bit. It burns our ass hair a little bit when somebody that we think we’re just as good as (or better than) is more successful than us. Let’s face it: we are all competing with each other. If Franzen gets on the cover of TIME, another writer does not. If you get a book deal, somebody else is probably getting rejected.

    And yeah. You’re definitely cuter than Franzen.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Good points, Brian (especially about my cuteness). In the end, it does really come down to taste. And it should also be noted that TIME is the magazine that put a mirror on the cover and named YOU Person of the Year.

      That said, Lady Gaga does wield enormous influence in this house. My daughter lovers her, and I think she’s fab. In fact, I am using the music book for “The Fame” as a mousepad.

  21. Art Edwards says:

    I’m reminded of a Maroon Five interview I just heard on NPR. The band is promoting a new album, and the singer–I presume it was the singer–said something to the effect of “We’ve made an album. I know that’s kind of old-school, but we purposefully wanted this to be an album and not a collection of songs.” And I thought, are we so far gone that we have to defend making an album?

    We may not agree that JF deserves the title of Great American Novelist, but I’ve got no problem being a soldier in the camp that says we still can have a Great American Novelist.

  22. Richard Cox says:

    Since you’re going to re-quote yourself with the “Isn’t St. Jude the patron saint of lost causes?” line, I feel like I ought to go back to my Tiger Woods post and cut/paste my rebuttal. But I don’t want to be accused of repeating myself, or heaven forbid writing about universal themes that other, better novelists covered 10 years before I was born. Jesus.

    To me this post reads like the reverse of the Joe Daly skewering, except that because you are David instead of Goliath, and because you’re among the most well read and loved contributors to TNB, almost everyone is agreeing with you. It would be rather pointless of me to debate the merits of Franzen or his writing here since you and I have already done so, and in any case Middle East peace is more likely than us changing each other’s minds on this.

    I will point out, however, that unlike so many of his fans, I am not a literary snob who is looking for a difficult-to-read hero. I cut my teeth on Stephen King for heaven’s sake. And though King is no fan of Franzen, I get a similar feeling when I read them, especially their younger characters. I feel like Franzen has a great love for his characters, and even his readers, though I recognize that he is a writer’s writer and does have a tendency to get a little too cute in his search for the perfect turn of phrase. When I’m struggling to find a rhythm with my own writing, I pull out The Corrections to inspire myself. I think it’s that good.

    Of course I’m extremely biased, but I love that TIME put Franzen on the cover. Better him than a pseudo-intellectual bestselling author of Umberto Eco wannabe novels, right?

    You know I love you and your writing, Mr. Olear. But I’m not going to stand up as the wave reaches my section in the TNB stadium. I think if we are going to skewer bestselling authors here, there are plenty more deserving of our jealous ire than a guy who writes serious fiction and won the National Book Award.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I knew this was coming…

      Yes, you and I have traded our opinions on this one on the boards. For the record, your defense of him buried in the comments of the Tiger Woods post (of all places) — the one where you quote the long passage about him cooking and eating — was so convincing that it did cause me to soften my stance and take another look. I did, and do, respect your opinion, and I send love right back.

      But ultimately, I can’t get past JF’s transgression (which probably seems, I realize, like nit-picking). I don’t even care so much about the TIME cover, but when his mug popped up on the iPad commercial, enough was enough.

      Ultimately, this is all about taste. His writing doesn’t do it for me; it does it for you, and it does it for many, many others. I don’t begrudge anyone that, especially if the writing is meaningful enough to be inspiring. Mine is the minority view, or so I thought, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered with the post.

      Thanks for chiming in, Richard.

      • Richard Cox says:

        You’re right, it’s totally a matter of taste. I don’t begrudge your dislike of his work or even your having the balls to write a post like this. What I found curious was the near universal agreement of your opinion in the comment section, particularly by some who claimed they hadn’t even read his books. It seems to me that on a site like TNB, where the majority of contributors write and read serious fiction, that from a demographic point of view we should overwhelmingly be fans of Franzen…as compared to the work of Meyer or Brown or Sparks.

        I mean, if you’re going to be an elitist, at least do it properly. 😉

        • Greg Olear says:

          I’m generally uncomfortable going negative on these pages, for reasons I elaborated on in my “Something Nice” post. There are writers — Dale Peck comes to mind — who seem to enjoy the hatchet job; I’m not one of them. But I feel like my little rant is not going to affect JF’s livelihood, and if I can’t write about something like this at TNB, what’s the point of being here?

          As for JF, I judge him on a different scale than Dan Brown et al. I’m sure the others feel that way as well. Basically, he’s writing to be criticized; he’s thinking about what college professors will say about his work. It’s apples and oranges. Clearly he’s vastly superior to the others (although Sparks does fancy himself the Second Coming, from what I’ve read).

  23. J.E. Fishman says:

    Hey, Greg. Aren’t you the guy who wrote the post about not saying anything unless you have something nice to say after I wrote the post pissing all over the New York Times?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Could it be that moving to New Jersey has changed you?

    • Greg Olear says:

      Yeah, well, you know.

      My comment about niceness was more about the TNB community. I did end my piece by calling Spencer Pratt a Svengali motherfucker. So, I mean, I wasn’t that nice.

      Or maybe it’s just my Jersey coming out…I’d say my re-Snooki-ing, but she’s actually from Milton, not far from where we lived upstate.

  24. jmblaine says:

    Somewhere in an airport
    someone is asking
    “Aren’t you Greg Olear?”

  25. Judy Prince says:

    Seriously, I thought the TIME cover of JF was painted by Andrew Wyeth of “Christina’s World” fame. If you’ll just paste in the first page of JF’s novel, I’ll eagerly let you know my opinion of his writing, Greg OH-lee-ar. Right now I’m learning how to be a man by reading SELF-MADE MAN by Norah Vincent, recommended by Gloria Harrison’s acupuncturist.

    Norah Vincent pretended to be a man for a year and:

    “With her buddies in the bowling league Norah enjoyed the rough and rewarding embrace of male camaraderie undectable to an outsider. A stint in a high-octane sales job taught her the gut-wrenching pressures endured by men who would do anything to succeed. She went to strip clubs, dated women hungry for love but disappointed by men, and was welcomed into all-male communities as hermetically sealed as a men’s therapy group, and even a monastery. . . . . Far from becoming bitter or outraged, Norah ended her journey astounded—-and exhausted—-by the rigid codes and rituals of masculinity. To other women, Norah says, ‘Men aren’t what you think. To men, she says, ‘You have it harder than people know.'” (from flyleaf descrip)

  26. Jessica Blau says:

    Listen, you just moved to a new hood–it’s a perfect time to reinvent yourself. Take that TIME cover, frame it, hang it somewhere that shows you care but know that all things of that sort are somewhat bullshitty, like in the downstairs half-bath, or in the laundry room where the dog bed is. Then, let your wife let it slip up somewhere (picking the kids up from school or something) that you ARE J.F. but that you prefer to write under you alternate name Greg Olear and that most people who “count” agree that the work you’ve done as Olear is greater than your Franzen work, but pshaw, you don’t care for accolades and awards, you just want it out there. Word will take off, the gossip chain begins and VOILA, your amazing book TOTALLY KILLER actually OUTSELLS all Franzen novels and you all live happily ever after.

    I’m calling this PLAN D (for doppelganger). Go for PLAN D and all will be right in the world.

    • Greg Olear says:

      You’re on to me, Jessica. I thought this little piece of Franzen-bashing would throw them off my scent. Apparently not.

      Oh, well. At least I have my other lucrative sideline, authoring Thomas Pynchon novels…

  27. Huh, I thought you looked familiar.

  28. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    I haven’t read a Franzen novel so I can’t say whether I like his writing or not. I’ll give him a fair shake. I actually “liked” this cover on my tumblr site but not because of Franzen who is dead center. I’ve been fascinated with carp lately since I moved to my new place. There are two monster carp in one of the lakes I always see when walking my dog. They are effin’ water beasts.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Ha! Yeah, the HOLY CARP line is pretty good.

      You know that the birthplace of American fly-fishing is in Roscoe, NY, not far from where I used to live? Those guys all had really cool names, like things the Simpsons writers would come up with.

  29. Dana says:

    WTF? My comment should be here. D’oh!

    • Greg Olear says:

      I’ll respond here, then.

      What is literary fiction? Good question. It’s like Judge Potter’s definition of pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

      To me, it has to have a stick-with-you quality, which comes with a certain depth. It’s not just about the writing per se — there’s plenty of great writing that isn’t what I’d call literary, and a lot of literary writing that isn’t what I’d call great.

      As for Oprah, I think she’ll be off the air by the time by book comes out. Oh well. I’ll have to settle for the hope of a prominent mention in her magazine…

      Thanks, Dana!

  30. Amanda says:

    A month or two ago, I reread a couple essays from the collection How to Be Alone, and was struck by his assertion that the Internet wasn’t really a thing to take seriously, as a venue for anything intellectual or weighty, nor could it be forecast as fated to do anything but doomed to sparkle then fade away.

    Somehow, that, more than the condescension and notoriously plodding novel intro, made him seem…hmmmm…I’m not sure how to put it…Perhaps out of touch, in a stubborn way. Like, I didn’t really believe that *he* really believed the Internet was a useless tool. It seemed like that was a single salmon against the stream type of thing to declare and thus, he declared it.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Sheesh. I just keep liking him less and less…

      I don’t see how he’s able to “tell us how we live now,” as TIME says, if a) it took him nine years to write the book, and b) he doesn’t respect the Internet.

      Incidentally, I’m reliably informed that he’s a painfully shy, insecure person in real life.

  31. Marni Grossman says:

    Burn, Greg! Tell us how you really feel! (I tease because I love.)

    I just finished the mammoth “Freedom.” And I must have at least partially enjoyed it because a) I finished it and b) I finished it in a week. But the thing that bothered me was that his central character- a middle-aged woman- never seemed to think how a woman thinks. “But,” I said to myself, “no one else has made this criticism. Moreover, “woman” is a meaningless category. To suggest that all “women” think one way is essentialist. They should take away your WMST degree.”

    You’ll have to get around to reading it and give me your unvarnished opinion.

    • Greg Olear says:

      My unvarnished opinion is that JF has no fucking clue how a middle-aged woman thinks. I didn’t believe him at all, not for a second. Novelists can either do the gender-reversal thing well (Norman Rush, Russell Banks), or they can’t. I stick JF in the latter category. (See? I don’t even need to read it to agree with you).

      Also: if women don’t at least tend to think differently than men in some appreciable way, they should take away the option of having a WMST degree in the first place, no? ; )

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Greg, have you read Jim Harrison’s “Dalva” or any of his others in which he works with female voices? I think he’s pretty good at it, but more to the point — so do the women I know who have read him.

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