“I think she was surprised that I wasn’t moaning with shock and pleasure,” Jonathan Franzen says of his phone call with Oprah Winfrey in Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, recently excerpted at Slate. “I’d been working nine years on the book and FSG had spent a year trying to make a best-seller of it. It was our thing. She was an interloper, coming late, and with an expectation of slavish gratitude and devotion for the favor she was bestowing.”
Here’s the thing: I like Jonathan Franzen as a writer, but if Oprah called me and told me she and told me that she liked my book, and essentially wanted to wave her magic wand and make the novel I worked so hard on into a bestseller, I would be a hell of a lot more grateful. And even if I made that mistake, you can bet that I wouldn’t pretend to make nice with Oprah before turning around and calling her an “interloper” because she helped make me rich. Just the idea of Franzen’s initial ungratefulness sorta backs up my idea that just because you’re a smart writer, doesn’t mean you necessarily have any common sense.
But that’s far from Franzen’s only sin: like the literary Energizer Bunny, he has kept going and going, writing great books while doing things that have, at one point or another, pissed off just about everyone who’s ever heard of him. Think I’m picking on him? Ever Google “Jonathan Franzen asshole” before?
Now try that with another literary fiction author of Franzen’s caliber, like Jeffrey Eugenides or Zadie Smith, and you’ll quickly find that readers, at least ones who publish their opinions on the Internet, harbor a particular degree of vitriol for J-Franz.
My question is this: are we — am I — taking Jonathan Franzen’s irritating comments totally out of context? Has the Freedom writer just become an easy target? Does he open himself up to these misinterpretations of his words and work, or is he just simply a jerk?