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December 10, 2018

Jonathan Franzen Is Really The Great American Essayist

by Anne Paddock

He’s not the richest or the most famous. His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future…but he shows us the way we live now.

Lev Grossman wrote those words for the cover of the August 23, 2010 cover of Time magazine, calling Jonathan Franzen “the great American novelist.” In the midst of the great recession when most people were thinking about the economy, unemployment, and the sinking real estate market, America needed a hero and with the recent publication of Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, Time magazine found their guy but fell short of naming him “Man of the Year” for writing what most critics considered great literature.

Although Franzen is truly a gifted writer of novels (Freedom, The Corrections, Purity, The Twenty-Seventh City, and Strong Motion), I would argue that Franzen is a better American essayist than a novelist. Not that he doesn’t write great fiction, he does but Franzen is completely underappreciated as a writer of essays (as was Alice Munro, the writer of short stories before being recognized in 2013 with the Nobel Prize in Literature when she was 82 years old).

In the literary world, the novel rules. Most MFA graduates dream of writing the great American novel; not the great collection of essays (non-fiction) because the novel holds more prestige (although not necessarily more monetary rewards) and award potential (i.e. Pulitzer Price, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, etc). But, a really good essay is like that flaky, golden Parisian pastry that tasted even better than it looked, when you were in Paris years ago. It was real. It was delicious. It was rewarding even though it didn’t last long, and you never forgot it. To be fair, anything written by Franzen is good but his essays are that much more memorable because the stories are so real and so about him and what goes on in the world according to Jonathan.

A few years ago (2012), Franzen published a collection of essays in a book called Farther Away, several of which are still with me (just as that Millefeuille Fraise from Ladurée is) including I Just Called To Say I Love You about our obsession with cell phones and public conversations, and Hornets, the hilarious account of Franzen dealing with a pest control problem while house sitting, and, of course the essay for which the book was named, Farther Away that chronicles Franzen’s self-imposed exile to a remote island  after a hectic book tour and the loss of his dear friend, David Foster Wallace. All three of these essays are authentic, relatable, and contemporary, which is what an essay should be.

Franzen, by nature is a pessimist. He’s not a total doom and gloom guy but there’s enough bad news out there to make a writer, especially a democratic-leaning environmentalist bird loving guy depressed about the state of our nation and the world.

In his most recently published collection of essays, The End Of The End Of The Earth, Franzen is focused on the very sad state of affairs – global warming, emission reductions (although he made no mention of the detrimental effect the animal agriculture industry has on the environment; he’s angry at the right people just not all of them), and birds. But, he also writes about a friendship that drifted apart (Friendship) and feeling like an outsider in a world of regulars (The Regulars) that many readers can identify with – don’t we all feel like outsiders at times and mourn those friendships that gently faded away? All this coming from a man who freely admits he is “someone who cares more about birds than the next man.” And, that’s exactly why Franzen’s essays are so damn good; because he is as brutally honest about himself as he is about the world around him.

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