It’s for the best. Really. Really. Now he could fully turn toward the projects that had been whispering in his ear during all these months of writers’ rooms and outlining and script writing. He wanted to write a story for National Geographic about seabirds. Their population is down two-thirds since 1950. “Seabirds are in great trouble,” he said. “Seabirds are amazing, and they are in great trouble.”
He had more to say about seabirds. He had more to say about every topic we discussed. But here’s the thing: When he speaks, he enunciates down to the soul of every single letter. He takes this lingual habit and out of his mouth he erects complete cities — rigorously formed ones, with firehouses and railroad stations and schools and coffee joints and community centers. He makes no points that are complete at the usual magazine-article quotable size. He makes no points that can be distilled to a few words and still be understood in their breadth. The breadth is the point.
Oh, he said, there was also the new novel he wanted to write, which was coming along in the initial thinking-about-it phase. He had three character names picked out. “Everything is subject to negotiation, but once you get a name,” he grinned with his lower lip over his upper teeth, his head quivering in delight. He didn’t finish the sentence.
There was also the book of essays that Susan Golomb, his agent, wanted to sell — a collection of the nonfiction he had recently published. It would take considerable time to edit them, and even do some rewriting. He’d been surprised at how some of those essays were received in the world — that his Edith Wharton essay in The New Yorker that mentioned her self-consciousness about her looks could be misconstrued as sexist when she herself was so obsessed with appearances (“His depiction of Edith Wharton was so mean-spirited and off-key that I tossed and turned,” Victoria Patterson wrote in The Los Angeles Review of Books), or that his New Yorker essay on threats to birds more immediate than global change — like the proliferation of glassy buildings that blindside birds in flight — had resulted in the vitriol it did. (“It’s not clear what the Audubon Society did to piss off Jonathan Franzen,” the editor of the Audubon magazine wrote in response to the essay, which itself was a response to the Audubon Society.) Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He had to look at those essays again. A writer doesn’t write to be misunderstood.
And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five. This is a problem, because as much as he (to some controversy) is the symbol (to some controversy) of the White Male Great American Literary Novelist for the 21st Century (to much controversy), he is also someone who has to sell books. And lately, Golomb, a maternal figure whom he privately calls the “tawny lioness of publishing,” had been wringing her hands over the fact that people don’t seem to understand him or his good intentions — that she can’t figure out when exactly they all turned on him. It was the kind of thing that Franzen would like to ignore, but in addition to being a process guy, he is also a team guy. He likes to fulfill his obligations. He likes to go on book tours. He likes to do right by his publisher.
And, well, sales of his novels have decreased since “The Corrections” was published in 2001. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1.6 million copies to date. “Freedom,” which was called a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph of its New York Times review, has sold 1.15 million since it was published in 2010. And 2015’s “Purity,” his novel about a young woman’s search for her father and the story of that father and the people he knew, has sold only 255,476. The Los Angeles Times called it “consuming and extraordinarily moving.”
What had he done that was so wrong? Here he was, in his essays and interviews, making informed, nuanced arguments about the way we live now — about anything from Twitter (which he is against) to the way political correctness has been weaponized to shut down discourse (which he is against) to obligatory self-promotion (which he is against) to the incessant ending of a phone call by saying, “I love you” (which he is against, but because “I love you” is for private) — and though critics loved him and he had a devoted readership, others were using the very mechanisms and platforms that he warned against (like the internet in general and social media in specific) to ridicule him. Hate-pieces, mean hashtags, reductive eye-rolling at his various stances, a nit-picking of every quote. Accusations that he is willing to pontificate but not to listen. Accusations that he’s too fragile to face his accusers! Him! Too fragile!