THE CASE AGAINST JONATHAN FRANZEN goes something like this: He is pretentious and elitist. His disingenuous arguments about Status versus Contract writers are harmful to experimental literature. His miserable depression-soaked characters aren't worth reading or writing about. And his novels' plotless narratives bespeak a failure of the author to imagine aspirations and struggles more ambitious than his own. Oh, and he's a jerk for dissing Oprah.
No other contemporary author of literary fiction has attracted more critical sideswiping, dive-bombing, and swooping-down-upon than Franzen, whose latest novel, Freedom, not only inspired one of the most flattering reviews ever printed in the New York Times but also a typhoon of some of the longest, most relentlessly negative critiques imaginable in an era when long, relentless critiques of any novel seem almost quaint. In this country, he is both more loved and more hated than any other literary fiction writer alive. Reactions as widespread and feverishly divided as those fixed on Franzen practically guarantee that he's doing something right; they prove that someone out there is listening. Many someones. And those someones are too inspired or incensed to let their reactions boil away unproclaimed.
More polarizing than any other aspect of Franzen's writing, if not as widely decried, is just how merciless he can be. One need not read more than a few pages into Freedom or The Corrections to detect the author's oft-begrudged condescension: whether it's Enid and Alfred in a long-seething domestic skirmish over an enormous blue La-Z-Boy, or Patty and Walter in a neighborhood-intriguing zeal to upgrade their home and their lives in their tumbledown portion of St. Paul, Franzen draws our eyes to things that hurt. And the sting of recognition can be intense, especially when that criticism strikes the reader as not quite fair. Doesn't Patty have the right, we might ask, to wallow in a bit of self-pity for having married a man who is morally superior but sexually not all that compelling? And isn't Chip, pushing forty, still allowed to wear leather pants and imagine himself as a kind of dashing intellectual bad boy rather than the aging, reluctantly maturing hipster he's fast become?
Readers who sympathize with Franzen's characters, or aspects of them, often come to the conclusion that either a.) the author is an arrogant, likely bitter, man whose intense dissatisfaction with the world and everyone in it warps his perception of human behavior away from all that is noble towards all that is petty and laughable; or b.) the author is a keenly observant, likely bitter man whose intense dissatisfaction with most of the human behavior he's seen in his short life has sharpened his thematic focus on those aspects of 21st century life most in need of scrutiny; or c.) a combination of a. and b., with an added acknowledgment of how addictively funny the author's books can be.
For those who come to the first conclusion, reading Franzen's novels might feel a little like spending too much time in the company of an overbearing older brother whose imperious unsolicited judgments you're forced to endure. He's got a story to tell, this older brother, and it's worth hearing, but damned if he can't help editorializing. Not that Franzen editorializes. Not exactly. But the behavior he's inclined to portray doesn't necessarily endorse his literary creations ...