Born August 17, 1959, in Western Springs, IL; son of Earl T. (a civil engineer) and Irene (a homemaker) Franzen. Education: Swarthmore College, B.A., 1981.
Writer. Harvard University, Boston, MA, research assistant, 1983-87.
Fulbright fellow at Free University of Berlin, 1981-82; Massachusetts Artists fellow, 1986; Whiting Writers' Award, 1988, for The Twenty-seventh City; Guggenheim fellow, 1996; American Academy's Berlin Prize, 2000; National Book Award, 2001, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and finalist for Pulitzer Prize for Fiction category and for PEN/Faulkner Award, all 2002, all for The Corrections.
The Twenty-seventh City (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1988.
Strong Motion (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1992.
The Corrections (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2001.
How to Be Alone: Essays, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to New Yorker and Harper's.
The Corrections is being adapted as a film by screen-writer David Hare and director Robert Zemeckis, expected release in 2007.
Winner of the 2001 National Book Award for The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen is regarded as one of the best emerging American novelists of the twenty-first century. A strong believer in both the power and importance of literature, Franzen has produced three novels that have identified him as an articulate voice in the ongoing debate over the evolving direction of fiction. The Corrections has been viewed as a potential classic as well as the fulfillment of the early promise Franzen demonstrated with his first two books, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. While Franzen's work is commonly held in high esteem, the author has also been no stranger to controversy due to his willingness to openly state his opinions regarding publishing, writing, and the direction of American taste.
The son of a railroad-company executive, Franzen was born in 1959 in Western Springs, Illinois. His family moved to the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri, and this would be the setting for two of his novels. He attended Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, earning a bachelor's degree in German in 1981, and spent the following year at the Freie Universität in Berlin as a recipient of a Fulbright fellowship. Upon returning home, he married a fellow writer, Valerie Cornell, and for the next few years they lived in Somerville, a low-rent neighborhood adjacent to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they spent eight hours a day writing at desks just twenty feet apart. Franzen supported them with a weekend job at Harvard University's earth and planetary sciences department, where he tracked global earthquake data.
Publishes First Novel
Franzen's widely acclaimed debut novel, The Twenty-seventh City, examines America's present and projects its future. The book is set in 1984 in a fictional version of St. Louis, Missouri, which the book describes as once America's fourth largest but now its twenty-seventh largest city. The city's population is predominately East Indian, and Franzen's story focuses on the political machinations and psychological warfare of the new police chief, S. Jammu. Jammu, a former Bombay police chief who is a cousin of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, resorts to seductions, pet-killings, bombings, and kidnappings to convert opponents to her plan to revitalize downtown business and residential districts. Her radical methods suggest to some that she is actually seeking total control of the city.
Richard Eder noted Franzen's premise in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "The United States is in a decline—in its economy, its health, its social vigor—and risks being superseded by non-Western societies of greater discipline and purpose." Despite joining
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other reviewers who found the book's plot obscure and complex, Eder praised the young novelist's imagination and foresight, adding that Franzen's view of America is "startlingly exact." Calling The Twenty-seventh City "unsettling and visionary," Michele Slung declared in the Washington Post Book World that it "is not a novel that can be quickly dismissed or easily forgotten: it has elements of both 'Great' and 'American.'" Desmond Christy, writing in the Guardian, wrote: "Novelists are expected to understand their characters; few bring a city to life so vividly as Franzen."
Published in 1992, Strong Motion draws upon the scientific seismology Franzen dealt with during his Harvard job. Reviewing the work in Entertainment Weekly, L. S. Klepp stated: "Having upended St. Louis in his first novel … Franzen does his best to rattle the complacency of Boston in his second, employing a series of earthquakes for the job." The book's central characters are twenty-three-year-old Louis Holland, who works at a failing radio station, and thirty-year-old Renee Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist who is investigating a series of mysterious earthquakes. Also central to the plot of Strong Motion are Louis's father, a former hippie turned college professor, his mother, a social climber, and his older sister Eileen, a would-be hipster who is beginning to embrace middle-class values. After Louis's mother inherits a million dollars' worth of stock in a chemical company that coincidentally turns out to be responsible for the quakes, Renee discovers that the company has been disposing of waste products by injecting them into abandoned wells beneath the city. A subplot involves women's reproductive rights and Renee's conflict with a Christian antiabortion group.
Discussing Strong Motion, Franzen told an interviewer for Publishers Weekly: "I specifically set out to write a second book that was different than The Twenty-seventh City. I wanted it to be … a more personal book, I wanted it to be about the kind of people I know, as opposed to the kind of people I knew watching my parents' friends as I grew up in St. Louis." Klepp found that, of Franzen's two novels, "one is wry, meticulously realistic, and good. The other is earnest, melodramatic, and puerile." While offering high praise for Franzen's character portrayals and development, Klepp was critical of the "preachiness" in Strong Motion, saying that the plot—"a sort of children's crusade assisted by well-timed earthquakes—allows the book's tough-mindedness to be drubbed by implausibility and sentimentality." On a similar note, a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded: "After the stunning perfections of Franzen's first novel, this second effort is a paler achievement. Though his descriptive gifts are still in evidence, the plot becomes an all-too-obvious untying of a highly improbable knot."
Seeks New Writing Outlet in Journalism
The deaths of both of his parents, the eventual breakup of his marriage, and the poor sales of Strong Motion combined to bring the novelist to a cross-roads, and Franzen considered quitting writing entirely. Ultimately rejecting this idea, however, he approached the New Yorker with an idea for a journalism piece. The editors accepted his proposal, beginning a long period of collaboration between Franzen and the prestigious magazine. The articles from this association would eventually form the core for his collection of essays, How to Be Alone. In 1996 Franzen published a lengthy essay in Harper's titled "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels," focusing on the reasons authors write. In this treatise, he laments the power that certain media and entertainment outlets, particularly the Internet and television, have over the minds of the American public, as well as the seeming inability of the "literary" novel to engage the masses. Franzen challenges himself to write a "big, social novel" capable of engaging the American reading public enough to motivate them, encourage debate, and open conversations about social issues. Reaction to the article was relatively mild, but earned Franzen a reputation among critics as a high-minded but pretentious writer.
Answers Own Challenge with "Big, Social Novel"
Franzen's third novel, The Corrections, was more than eight years in the making. The book earned extensive critical praise and a National Book Award, as well as becoming the subject of a controversy. Af-ter television talk show host Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her popular Oprah Book Club and invited Franzen to appear on her program, the author, as related by David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times, "publicly disparaged Oprah Winfrey's literary taste—suggesting at one point that appearing on her show was out of keeping with his place in 'the high-art literary tradition' and might turn off some readers." Winfrey withdrew her invitation, but let the novel remain as one of her book club selections. Kirkpatrick went on to note that "instead of rallying to Mr. Franzen, most of the literary world took her [Winfrey's] side, deriding him as arrogant and ungrateful."
Described as a "rare book that engages the heart and the head" by Review of Contemporary Fiction critic Trey Strecker, The Corrections tells the story of a dysfunctional American family. Enid and Alfred
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Lambert are a longtime married couple just entering their twilight years. Alfred, once the dominant force of the pair, is suffering from Parkinson's Disease, forcing Enid to take charge of their lives. Enid decides to invite their three children home for one final Christmas before their father passes away. Oldest son, Gary, is married, with two children and a wife who disparages him. Second son, Chip, has lost his tenure as a college professor after seducing a student and now is trying to escape his problems by having an affair with a married woman. Denise, the youngest of the trio, has been fired from her job as a chef after sleeping with her boss's wife. Franzen reveals the lives of his subjects in great detail, shifting back and forth between children and parents and a host of secondary characters. The family does comes together for the planned Christmas reunion, which is related in the final hundred pages of the book.
If you enjoy the works of Jonathon Franzen
If you enjoy the works of Jonathon Franzen, you may also want to check out the following books:
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 1996.
Don DeLillo, Underworld, 1997.
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, 2002.
Maggie Haberman, reviewing The Corrections for People, described the work as "a spellbinding novel … both funny and piercing." Benjamin Svetkey praised the book in Entertainment Weekly as "a big, ambitious, unwieldy hybrid of a book—a literary novel and a social document, an intimate portrait and a sprawling cultural landscape, a floor wax and a dessert topping … yet Franzen somehow manages to glue it all together with surprising warmth and wit." In contrast, Malcolm Jones, writing in Newsweek, felt that "inside this immense book there is a slim extraordinarily moving story struggling to get out." Jones conceded that the story comes to life in the final hundred pages, which he described as "an unforgettably sad, indelibly beautiful piece of literature," although the preceding portion is excessive in length and both "snide" and manipulative with respect to its characters. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing Franzen's work for the New York Times, also faulted The Corrections as "self-indulgent and long-winded," but nevertheless felt the novel offers "a devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of American in the late 1990s." Sven Birkerts, writing in Esquire, observed: "There are a million novels on just this theme, but none moves so perfectly between black comedy and tragic pathos."
Confirms Reputation as Essayist
In 2002 Franzen published How to Be Alone, "a collection of lucid, saturnine essays," according to Time reviewer Richard Lacayo. How to Be Alone contains thirteen pieces that previously appeared in magazines, including a new version of "Perchance to Dream" retitled "Why Bother?," a look at Alzheimer's disease titled "My Father's Brain," and meditations on conformity and privacy. "In tones that are sober but never lugubrious, Franzen weighs the pressures upon the self in a culture that manages the neat trick of discouraging real solitude and genuine community, substituting for both the paradox of media-overloaded isolation," Lacayo observed, and a Publishers Weekly critic remarked that the essays "are united by a single passionate insistence that, in a cookie-cutter world, people who want simply to be themselves should have the right to do so." A reviewer in Maclean's called Franzen "a first-rate essayist—acutely observant, thoughtful, moving and deadpan funny."
Asked about the challenges and rewards of his career, Franzen told a contributor in the Writer, "The hardest part of the life is that you have to be in this raw emotional state in order to dare to do the things that need to be done and be fully alive to your sensations and your emotions. That makes it difficult to be in the world." The author added, however, "I write fiction because it's what I'm best at. I wouldn't be better at any other profession. Writing is hard, and I love all of it in its hardness."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Dempsey, Peter, Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections': A Reader's Guide, Continuum (New York, NY), 2005.
American Prospect, November 5, 2001, Keith Gessen, "A Literary Correction," p. 33.
Boston Globe, August 14, 1988.
Commentary, January, 2002, Joseph Epstein, "Surfing the Novel," pp. 32-37.
Commonweal, December 21, 2001, Valerie Sayers, "Caffeinated Realism," p. 23.
Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1992, L. S. Klepp, review of Strong Motion, p. 48; September 14, 2001, Benjamin Svetkey, "Domestic Drama: Jonathan Franzen's Carefully Crafted The Corrections Finds One Family on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown," p. 85; November 16, 2001, Ty Burr, "A Smart Writer's Dumb Move," p. 167; October 25, 2002, Karen Valby, "Correction Dept.," p. 23.
Esquire, October, 2001, Sven Birkerts, review of The Corrections.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 24, 1988.
Guardian (Manchester, England), January 29, 1998, Desmond Christy, review of The Twenty-seventh City, p. 17.
Harper's, April, 1996, Jonathan Franzen, "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels."
Library Journal, November 15, 2001, Francine Fialkoff, "Franzen: Too Highbrow for Oprah?," p. 52; October 1, 2002, Nancy R. Ives, review of How to Be Alone, p. 94.
London Review of Books, December 13, 2001, Andrew O'Hagan, review of The Corrections.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 4, 1988.
Maclean's, October 29, 2001, John Bemrose, "State of the Sinful Union," p. 60; November 18, 2002, "Balancing Public and Private in America," p. 127.
New Republic, December 2, 2002, James Wolcott, "Advertisements for Himself," p. 36.
New Statesman, January 7, 2002, Bonnie Greer, "Magnum Oprah," pp. 30-31.
Newsweek, August 29, 1988; September 17, 2001, Malcolm Jones, "The Emperor's New Pravda? Hold on Now—Not Everyone Loves the Fall's 'Hot Book,'" p. 66.
New Yorker, December 19, 1988.
New York Review of Books, September 20, 2001, John Leonard, review of The Corrections.
New York Times, August 17, 1988; September 4, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, "A Family Portrait as Metaphor for the '90s," p. E1; October 29, 2001, David D. Kirkpatrick, "Oprah Gaffe by Jonathan Franzen Draws Ire and Sales"; November 4, 2002, Janet Maslin, "Alone with a Good Book, You Are Never Alone," p. E6.
New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1988; September 9, 2001, David Gates, "American Gothic," p. 10; November 10, 2002, A. O. Scott, "Vaulting Ambivalence," p. 7.
People, October 17, 1988; September 9, 2001, Maggie Haberman, review of The Corrections, p. 51; November 12, 2001, "Novel Approach," p. 83.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1991, review of Strong Motion, p. 79; December 6, 1991, Michael Coffey, "Jonathan Franzen: A Distinct Turn to More Personal Issues Marks His Second Novel," p. 53; September 2, 2002, review of How to Be Alone, p. 65.
Reason, January, 2002, Charles Paul Freund, "Franzen's Folly," pp. 59-62.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2002, Trey Strecker, review of The Corrections, pp. 122-123.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1988.
Time, April 14, 1997, p. 89; November 25, 2002, Richard Lacayo, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," p. 93.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 21, 1988.
Washington Post Book World, September 4, 1988.
World and I, February, 2002, p. 231.
Writer, February, 2002, p. 66, interview with Franzen.
Atlantic Unbound, http://www.theatlantic.com/ (October 3, 2001), interview with Franzen.
Bomb Magazine, http://www.bombsite.com/ (July 25, 2005), Donald Antrim, interview with Franzen.
BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (July 25, 2005), Alden Mudge, interview with Franzen.
Jonathan Franzen Web site, http://www.jonathan franzen.com/ (May 1, 2005).