Constance Grady in Vox:
Jonathan Franzen, the novelist who has been lauded and reviled as few figures in contemporary American letters ever are, has a new book out. Which means it is time, once again, for one of the book world’s favorite pastimes: disseminating Jonathan Franzen thinkpieces. Jonathan Franzen has flourished crankily under controversy since 2001, when two big things happened to him. First, he released his breakout novel The Corrections and became known as one of the most important American writers of his generation. Second, he said he was uncomfortable with Oprah selecting The Corrections for her book club because she’s picked a lot of schmaltz, and became synonymous with the worst of elitist white male snobbery.
Since then, Franzen has been named, variously, the Great American Novelist, a noted crank, a human Banksy installation, and simply kind of a prick. He has been embroiled in fights about Twitter (he says it is everything he opposes), birds (he likes them), and conjunctions (pro-and, anti-then). The internet domain ciswhitemale.com redirects to Franzen’s Facebook page. He’s released some of the most celebrated novels of the 21st century so far, and some of the most despised essays, too. He is singular: a novelist-slash-public intellectual, and very much deliberately so, in a time when that career path doesn’t seem to exist for many people anymore. Here is a history of Jonathan Franzen’s career of controversy in four book releases — and why the release of his new novel is poised to meet a more welcoming atmosphere than the one that met his last.
…What was so impressive about The Corrections for many readers was the way Franzen managed to marry pyrotechnic literary ambitions to an immersive, highly readable family saga. It was a strategy Franzen had famously argued in a 1996 essay in Harper’s was the best possible step forward for the novel. TV had made the big novel of social consciousness redundant, Franzen said, and the serious post-modern novelists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo were rapidly becoming irrelevant. To write a novel that mattered in the fast-approaching 21st century, he concluded, a novelist would have to “connect the personal and the social” by rooting social critique in psychologically compelling characters.
There are basically two opposing models of the novel, Franzen would later elaborate in a much-celebrated 2002 essay for the New Yorker. There’s the Status model, in the tradition of Flaubert, in which if a book is great then it’s high art, and if the public doesn’t get it, well, that’s because they’re philistines, isn’t it. Then there’s the Contract model, in which the author is understood to have made a contract with the reader: In exchange for the reader’s attention, the author gives pleasure. If the public “doesn’t get” a Contract book, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s high art or not; the Contract book has failed. Franzen, nervously, could not seem to quite decide which model he aligned with. He sort of seemed to want to do both. With The Corrections, the critical consensus was that Franzen had pulled it off.