The Man We Knew Too Much

Article excerpt

Byline: Jennie Yabroff

Jonathan Franzen is a great writer. Should it matter if he's not a great guy?

Jonathan Franzen spends most of the three-minute author video for his new novel, Freedom, explaining how uncomfortable he is with the idea of author videos. In his now familiar mix of prickliness and pretension, Franzen complains that making the video somehow corrupts the "still place" that reading occupies, because you can't really "multitask reading a book." (Apparently, he never reads in a doctor's office--or in the bathtub.) "I loved The Corrections," one commenter wrote on Vulture.com, "but I fear I'll never pick up Freedom--I'm already starting to feel Franzen fatigue sinking in."

Join the club. So far, critics have been careful to review Freedom and not Franzen, almost uniformly praising the novel without letting their feelings about the seemingly insufferably self-important writer color their views. Will readers be as generous? There's no getting around the fact that Freedom comes with an ever-expanded set of baggage. The Corrections was written by a fairly unknown, earnest-looking guy with glasses. Freedom comes from the man who dissed Oprah, complained that the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening was a bastardization of the 1891 Frank Wedekind play (which Franzen himself had recently translated from the German), called book critic Michiko Kakutani "the stupidest person in New York," and claimed such affectations as writing in an earmuff-and-blindfold-equipped -sensory-deprivation chamber.

To be clear, not all these characterizations are accurate or fair: the Oprah thing was more complicated, and the blindfold is only an occasional accouterment. What is true is that in the nine years between The Corrections and Freedom, the Internet has exposed writers to a level of personal scrutiny formerly reserved for pop stars and teen idols, making it difficult to separate how you feel about an author's personal life from how you respond to his work, despite your best efforts to read the writing, not the writer. …