Saturday 22 October 2016

Is it open season on middle-aged men?

Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30

Copping some flak: Author Jonathan Franzen is getting some stick in the media.
Copping some flak: Author Jonathan Franzen is getting some stick in the media.

I have been reading interviews with Jonathan Franzen. I'm interested in Franzen for a few reasons. Firstly because having not got very far with Freedom, his last novel, I am rollicking through Purity, his new one, and I'm enjoying it. I also had the pleasure of meeting Franzen when he becoming an international superstar due to his breakthrough novel The Corrections, which sold three million copies and then some. We even had dinner and got drunk one night. So then, because of, or despite this, when he was back in town, he offered to do an interview with me for The Saturday Night Show.

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We pre-recorded the interview and I thought it wasn't that bad. But it was never broadcast. We were possibly concerned that people wouldn't know who Franzen was or be interested in him. It's also possible that the interview was actually rubbish. I was new enough to the game at that stage and also I was probably overawed by Franzen, who is, let's face it, a major rock star in literary terms. I'm not a great one for remembering things well, especially when drunk, but I remember that on our few meetings Franzen seemed like a lovely man. Not easy going, perhaps. But then, I'm not easy going myself. And he remembered me and our night the next time I met him, which I thought was impressive.

So I was surprised, then, by the tone of recent interviews with Franzen in all sorts of quality newspapers. I was surprised because the interviews were all about how much people hate Jonathan Franzen. I was vaguely aware that Franzen was getting a reputation. There have been a lot of articles over the last while with headlines like "Why does everyone hate Jonathan Franzen?" and worse again, "In defence of Jonathan Franzen". But the recent interviews were extraordinary. Here he was, possibly one of the most important novelists of his generation, certainly one of the most popular, and probably the most popular literary novelist in years, and all his interviews seem to involve him having to defend himself against charges of being a prick.

The woman from the FT pretty much asked him why everyone hates him so much. The shocking thing was Franzen is clearly not surprised at this question and even seems to have a stock answer prepared, which is: "We have to acknowledge the possibility that I'm just a horrible person."

The Guardian took the same tack with him and he acknowledged that really there is nothing he could do to satisfy his critics except die. Though he did point out that then he would be a dead white male novelist so he'd be even more hated. The Los Angeles Review of Books says that outside of Kanye West, Franzen is the most bitched about artist in America.

So what has this literary novelist done to earn the same opprobrium as Kanye West, a man who is essentially a joke? In fairness, Franzen does seem to pick fights. You will remember that when he came to fame with The Corrections he had a huge row with Oprah. He also seems to have annoyed feminists by having an unattractive feminist character in his latest book, which is apparently a crime now in fiction.

Franzen's real crime might be the cardinal sin of bitching about technology and the internet. Indeed, in Purity, he compares the internet to the former East Germany. In interviews, too, he has been likening the internet and its chilling effect on dissenting voices to totalitarianism. "Technology itself is the Stasi", he says, "And the Stasi didn't actually need to do that much. It didn't arrest that many people. Even with all its resources, it couldn't do that many full operations.

"So it counted on people censoring themselves. And controlling their own behaviour for fear of the Stasi, without their needing to lift a finger."

And maybe this extraordinary treatment of a great American novelist is proof of that. He speaks his mind, and so the online Stasi needs to make an example of him.

I'll admit that the middle-aged white man in me thinks that none of this would be happening if Franzen was a black woman. Just because some middle-aged white men rule the world, it seems the rest of us have to pay the price by living in a culture where it is open season on other middle-aged white men.

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