A Prick is a Prick: Still Hating on Jonathan Franzen After All These Years



I know the Ben Marcus V. Jonathan Franzen thing is an old debate, but I’ve been recently reminded of it so thought to weigh in. I’m not responding directly to Marcus V. Franzen, though I’d obviously come down on Marcus’s side. I am instead responding to the argument that it is silly to dislike Franzen- that he’s fine, that’s he’s a good writer just doing something different than Marcus and we should be happy they both write, that instead of engaging in polemics we should just appreciate them both.


I tried to make an argument for Mr. Franzen. Let us assume that we enjoy reading his work, that we find it touching, that we don’t find his very essence to be of smugness and pedantry. We could say: Jonathan Franzen is a competent chronicler of the condition of people of a certain class and period. He uses the conventions of ‘literature’ to produce finely wrought craft items. He is sensitive to and thus helps make sense of the human condition in his era, and in so doing he entertains and enlightens his readership.

At the very most, he is a member of a rather large class of very talented writers. Quite frankly, I don’t see how this is a laudable position. This kind of literature is not, at the level of its construction and goals, in relation to or in conversation with its moment. It is stale by design, a decadent expression of nostalgia, an analgesic comfort food for a self-satisfied middle brow.

I firmly believe that Ben Marcus’s work is of greater worth and greater artistic value than Franzen’s. I believe there is a place for a polemics that stresses the value of innovation, ambition, and serious grappling with the material and ontological condition of text as a medium.

Still, I am well aware that, as much as I dress it up with theory, any opinion I may have on Mr. Franzen and his work is only a matter of taste. However, laying aside general questions of the literary value of innovative vs. traditional writing, I think there is still a strong case to be made against Franzen. It ought not be controversial to say that there are more very well written conventional novels published every year than any person could possibly read. Many of these books are written by people with humility and a simple desire to tell a good story; by people who don’t take lack of artistic ambition and market-based aesthetics as badges of honor.

Which is to say: No, I don’t think that A) -it’s ok for people to like what they like- correlates to B)- it’s ok for people to like Jonathan Franzen. Given the volume of equivalent writers of erudite middle-brow fiction, it is unethical to support a huge fucking asshole who contributes nothing new to literature.


2 Responses to “A Prick is a Prick: Still Hating on Jonathan Franzen After All These Years”

  1. 1 deweydecimal
    June 9, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Keep in mind that before I say anything, I’ve never read a word of Marcus, and I haven’t read the Corrections. However, I have read ‘Discomfort Zone’ and I enjoyed it, minus the chapter on birding. I enjoyed it like I enjoy a great pop song. It was familiar, the experiences were relatable even though I’m not a child of the 70s, I’ve never been to a church camp, never studied German, because he is capable of reducing them to a basic human element that most people can recognize. An ‘I have been in that position’ sort of realization, without, I think, being overly nostalgic. Why is this appealing? That’s like asking why the radio is still listened to, or the same sorts of movies still make millions. But is Franzen doing that? And that only? No, he is, as you say a prick, as well. And this is why I appreciate it more. I was interested in reading something by him because he rejected Oprah’s book club, I loved the audacity of that. When I did read something I could see exactly why Franzen enjoys the sort of success that he does. Sure he tugs at heartstrings and that’s part of why you hate him, But he’s not Nicholas Sparks, there’s more to it than that. It’s denser and more complicated than that. I would also posit that part of your distaste for Franzen, if not most of it, has more to do with Oprah’s book club and his sales than anything else.

    What Marcus would you recommend?

  2. 2 butttub
    June 9, 2009 at 6:57 pm


    To take this point by point:

    I tried to separate my argument into two parts, but may not have been totally successful in doing so. My problem with Franzen is partly that I think he is a boring and bad writer. I have attempted to read several things by him and never finished any of them, even short stories, because I find his prose so cloying and self-satisfied. I honestly just do not ever get into anything he does. I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of Franzen-level writers who are, I think, better writers in a similar mode (like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers…), although it is true that my very favorite writers are typically ‘weirder’ or more challenging.

    Still, and this was my second point, I recognize that Franzen’s writing is appealing to a lot of people. However, there are a lot of non-assholes who do the same thing as Franzen, so why support him? The Oprah thing, for example, smacks of rank hypocrisy. Franzen goes out of his way to deride small presses and then makes a big point of sticking his nose in the air at Oprah. He wants to be both wildly popular and above popularity. His aesthetics are based on competing with other media for audience share, and yet he rejects the largest force in our society for doing exactly that. Then he attacks small presses as being detrimental to literature as a cultural force.

    Marcus, on the other hand, says: fine, like what you like. If people want traditional narrative fiction, they can have it. But there is no place for someone like Franzen to take his cultural cache as a much-lauded author and use that to disparage writers working in less popular modes.


    Ben Marcus has two major books: Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String. Both are great.

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