Of all the literary Jonathans, Franzen undoubtedly gives the best interviews.
Of course, from his publicist’s point of view, he gives the worst interviews. The author of such acclaimed works like The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen is one of America’s most celebrated living novelists. But every time he opens his mouth in public, he says something that sets literary Twitter abuzz, and not in a good way.
You may recall the time he said he was considering adopting an Iraqi orphan to understand the youths of today. Or the time he publicly disparaged Oprah after she picked his book for her book club. Or the time he began a public feud with the Audubon Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bird conservation.
Why Franzen is not writing about race
To be fair, there is no reason to think that Franzen, who is often criticized for his myopic perspective on women, would be any better at writing about race than he is at writing about gender. But Franzen is apparently pretty sure that he could write about race if he were to fall in love with a black woman:
I have thought about it [writing about race], but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare.
Why not paying attention to social media makes him better at critiquing it
Franzen has never been shy about his disdain for most technology (in the early ’90s he wrote an essay lamenting the death of the rotary phone), and his most recent novel, Purity, spends a long time satirizing social media. Franzen doesn’t participate in any social media, but he thinks that makes him better at critiquing it. Because as we all know, the less hands-on experience you have with something, the more insightful your critique will be:
I am not spending my day on Twitter. [My feeling on this] grows out of my experience as a fiction writer, which is that it’s better not to know too much about something. Go in, get a little taste, follow your intuition: What is your instinct telling you about what you are observing? And then get out and really think about it and use your imagination. So, you know, my beef with Silicon Valley kind of goes back to just this animal instinct that tells me this technology doesn’t seem to have liberated people. It seems like people are walking around enslaved to their smartphones. Just behaviorally, that’s the hit you get.
Why he would totally stand up and be shot if he lived under a fascist dictatorship, maybe
Franzen is, he declares, ready to fight for what he believes in:
I suspect that if this country fell into fascism, and journalists were being persecuted and freedom of speech was being trampled on, I would probably stand up and get myself shot over it, just because there are a few things I really care about.
But when his interviewer points out that in this era of Donald Trump, that scenario is looking less and less hypothetical, Franzen becomes a lot less sure:
Militating against the likelihood of that is my dislike of joining rallies.
New theory: Franzen’s public persona is all an elaborate work of performance art he’s chronicling for a secret novel, and after he dies all will be posthumously revealed.