Is Jonathan Franzen the greatest writer who's ever written?

Jonathan Franzen can kiss my ass while I’m passing gas, but I mean no disrespect to the man or his work.

Several years ago, I tried to read a novel by Jonathan Franzen, and didn't make it to the end of the second chapter. But, hey, what do I know? I've also given up on novels by F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Clearly I don't know great literature.

Jonathan Franzen topples critics like pins at a bowling alley. In every magazine, newspaper, and website, there's relentless praise for Jonathan Franzen. In the Washington Post, a review of his new book opens with the line, "Thank God for Jonathan Franzen."

It’s unanimous that Jonathan Franzen is more brilliant than the midday Sahara sun, so I must've been mistaken when his book fell out of my lap and I started snoring. Jonathan Franzen must be a very, very good writer — thank God! — but I’m skeptical that he’s writing for me, or anyone like me.

Did you know that a lot of "big-time writing" does not exist until someone in a suit sees potential profit in it? Successful authors submit proposals, not manuscripts, and usually won’t begin writing until a publisher is lined up and contracts are signed. If an author's proposal doesn't sell to a publisher, that book simply isn’t written.

If the contract is signed and the book is written, it’ll then be edited and re-edited, and well-paid professionals will plan the marketing. Successful marketing is what I see, more than books, when I see so many stark raving reviews for Jonathan Franzen.

Sometimes I wonder whether a boring book was more interesting before the publisher's editors sandblasted away everything in it that was quirky or personal or passionate. I like quirky and personal, and I'd rather discover a writer whose name the world doesn’t yet know, than be the x-millionth reader of the next book by Jonathan Franzen. 

You're probably thinking I'm bonkers about all this, and you're probably right. You'll say, I should at least read a few paragraphs of a second book by Jonathan Franzen, before airing my mostly-uninformed opinion.

This isn't about Jonathan Franzen, though. Thank God for Jonathan Franzen! What grates me with steel wool is the marketing of literature, and the unanimity of judgment that one author is Great, or The Greatest, or Among The Greatest.

Whether great or merely good or gawdawful, which writers we read should be a conversation, an argument — not pronounced as a plain fact, or a prayer of hosanna to the heavens.

If anyone reading my shitty words feels strongly about Jonathan Franzen’s words, please speak up. I’d take your recommendation more seriously than all the reviews in The New Yorker and Harper’s and Publisher's Weekly and The New York Times and Esquire and The Atlantic and AV Club ... 



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  1. Just an anecdote - I've given up on plenty of books partway through. The most recent, and the fastest I've given up, was American Psycho. My god, it was attempting to be capital-L Literature, and the prose was fucking awful. I quit after fewer than 3 pages, I think. Go to the Amazon page, you can read the first few pages and see.

  2. You are a very good writer Doug, but do I detect some sour grapes over Franzen's success?

    1. Doug had at least one GOOD offer of a toehold in the "Literature" realm. If he still has the original Pathetic Life issues, it'll come up eventually.

      His grapes are not sour. Rather a piquant smoothness.

    2. Captain, I give up on 2/3 of the books I read. Thank cripes for the library.

      Knut99, your suspicion is understandable but nope. I like good reading, and hold no grudge against good writing.

      Captain again, I had to look up piquant to be sure, but thank you.

  3. Jonathan Franzen sucks a donkey's ass! I try not to read any living writer - especially if they didn't already publish before, say, 1980 - it only leads to frustration and resentment. Some modern books I have liked and recommend (your mileage may vary):

    Endless Love - Scott Spencer - No joke, this is one of the best books of the last 50 years. Has maybe my all time favorite opening and ending. Not just about love (not really about love at all, actually) but obsession, crime, family, politics, etc. It's also one of the most sexually explicit books I've ever read from a mainstream publisher; there's a 75-page (!) love scene that is basically the climax of the book that compares favorably to David Cronenberg's bloodiest, goriest films. Never seen the movie, don't care -- I can only laugh when I think of all the teenaged girls that unsuspectingly pick up this book. At the same time it's one of the tenderest stories I've read.

    The Enthusiast - Charlie Haas - Very funny, very sad, very dry. Hard to explain. Set in the world of itinerant magazine publishing but feels more like zines to me.

    Wish Her Safe at Home - Stephen Benatar - Character study of mental illness and sociopathy. Thought I would hate it but loved it. Like Mike Leigh's Naked but with a polite female protagonist and PBS/BBC veneer. Deceptively disturbing.

    Song of Kali - Dan Simmons - Favorite modern horror novel, bar none. Probably a bit xenophobic, blah blah blah, but criticisms like that miss the point: the utter despair and degredation and misanthropy of the main character, a writer who thinks he's worldy.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, added to the list. It's a long list, though, including a few novels purchased months ago and still unopened in the package they came in. I'm currently reading the short story (expanded to a book with lots of white space) that The Day the Earth Stood Still was based on. Great movie, and I am *astounded* by how bad the source material is.

    2. Didn't realize TDTEST wasn't an original screenplay. I like the film but think it's a little didactic, which keeps it outside of my favorites.

      Recent sci-fi films have been atrocious (since the early 1980s!) but three good ones come to mind (briefly, because I could go on forever about this subject, and no one wants that):

      PREDESTINATION -- Based on one of Heinlein's most radical and interesting short stories. Excellent time travel story with very tight structure but which nonetheless pays more attention to the human consequences rather than plot pyrotechnics. Ethan Hawke is good, but Sarah Snook gives one of my favorite female performances ever in a genre film. I'm not an "avoid spoilers" guy, but if you haven't already seen this, it's best to go in blind -- again, not because of plot mechanics but because the emotional and identity quandaries in the film really hit harder that way. I figured out what was going on about halfway through, but I was so surprised the filmmakers had the balls to follow through with it that it deeply affected me.

      PRIMER -- Low-budget ($7000?!) but beautifully made, extraordinarily intelligent time travel story. Ambiguous and disturbing. Interesting analog for the entire internet/ponzi era of "making something out of nothing". His next film UPSTREAM COLOR is also great.

      COMPUTER CHESS -- Hilarious and ultimately surreal historical look at early computing/artificial intelligence. He made another film (not SF) called RESULTS which I also loved, starring the great Kevin Corrigan.

    3. Man, I like your taste in movies!

      That's fair about The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's basically "teaching us a lesson" in disguise. I'm not even sure I like the lesson, but for its genre -- old-school sci-fi with Something To Say -- it's a favorite for me.

      Primer is brilliant but more brilliant than me. It's complicated. I've seen it three times, and still haven't quite figured out the story, but always enjoyed it and it's time to see it again. Maybe this time I'll figure it out!

      I saw Computer Chess a few years
      ago, and today I'm surprised when
      Google tells me it's from 2013.
      It's so authentically "early era
      computers" I was misremembering it
      as having been much older, "filmed on location" in the 1980s or 90s.

      I may have seen Predestination too, but I'm not sure. You've kept the details under wraps (and I appreciate that!) and the title is also kind of non-distinct, so I've added it to my list.

    4. Computer Chess was the most boring movie I ever saw in the theater. Not the worst, but the most boring.


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