“How to Be Alone” by Jonathan Franzen

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In this age of media-sponsored super-bestsellers, Jonathan Franzen’s name is familiar even to those who read neither The Corrections nor his previous two novels. His famous dismissal by that lovable Queen Bee of correct opinion, Oprah Winfrey, made him something of a household name. As The Corrections gathered success after success, Franzen was courted by the Winfrey production team, who even cajoled him into making a short documentary about a staged “homecoming” to his native St. Louis before his scheduled appearance on her popular daytime show, to which he was later “disinvited” for appearing “conflicted” about the dubious honor he had been granted. This controversy earned him well-publicized disdain and ignominy, some of it voiced in the lowest kind of language, but the author himself survived intact, and continued to write – with confidence – about his wish to preserve those tiny corners of privacy and intellectual purity that remain despite our heavily televised and highly disposable culture; he even displayed the good sportsmanship to offer an articulate and thoughtful defense of what so many had criticized as raw elitism. In fact, the very themes of the Oprah controversy – privacy, individual dignity, and, yes, noble elitism – form the intricate fabric of Franzen’s first-rate collection of essays, How to Be Alone (2002), which may serve as both antidote to and apologia for whatever residual bad blood he incurred in the Oprah debacle.

    As the broad sweep of The Corrections suggests, Franzen’s interests are refreshingly varied; he writes with remarkable skill on subjects as diverse as Alzheimer’s disease, the plight of cities, postal bureaucracies in Chicago, a “futuristic” prison complex in Colorado, and his most intimate preoccupation, the fate of the modern novel. In elegant, deliberate prose and drawing on sensibilities that seem to be of another era, Franzen integrates his concerns for the individual, the artist, and the community into a topical landscape that should rightly dispel whatever “snobbishness” his narrow-minded detractors accused him of airing in interviews. One simply has to read him and think about what he says, which is more than many Oprah loyalists appeared to have done before they targeted him as l’enfant terrible of serious literature. In an insightful critique of what he calls a spate of “pop-sex books” released in the mid-1990s, Franzen writes, on point: “Aesthetic elitism, sexual snobbery: these are not the reprehensible attitudes that our culture makes them out to be. They’re the efforts of the individual to secure a small space of privacy within the prevailing din. All people should be elitists – and keep it to themselves” (255). Given that his bestselling novel left me intrigued but underwhelmed, reading Franzen’s superb essays allowed me to make a correction of my own. Now I see that behind the maligned novelist lurks an intelligent, witty critic of rare gifts, and one whose fiction I feel compelled to give a second chance. Perhaps Oprah’s people will learn to forgive him too; writing of this caliber just cannot permit itself to be ignored.

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