Franzen at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival.
|Born||August 17, 1959
Franzen was born in Chicago, Illinois, raised in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and educated at Swarthmore College. He also studied on a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany. He lives on the Upper East Side of New York City, and writes for The New Yorker magazine.
The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is set in Franzen's hometown, St Louis, and deals with the city's fall from grace, its having been the "fourth city" in the 1870s. This sprawling novel was warmly received, and established Franzen as an author to watch.
Franzen's The Corrections, a novel of social criticism, garnered considerable critical acclaim in the United States, winning both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The novel was also on the short list for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and named a finalist for the 2002 PEN /Faulker Award. A finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it lost to Empire Falls by Richard Russo.
In September 2001, The Corrections was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Franzen was initially willing to participate in the selection, sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah and appearing in B-roll footage in his hometown of St. Louis (described in an essay in How To Be Alone entitled "Meet Me In St. Louis"). In October 2001, however, The Oregonian printed an article in which Franzen expressed unease with the selection. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he expressed his worry that the Oprah logo on the cover dissuaded men from reading the book:
So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I'm sorry that it's, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say 'If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.' Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.
Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded. Winfrey announced, "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book."
By declining Oprah's pick, Franzen gained himself and his novel widespread media attention. The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction. At the National Book Award ceremony, Franzen thanked Oprah in his brief acceptance speech: "I'd also like to thank Oprah Winfrey for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections."
Since The Corrections Franzen has published How to Be Alone (2002), a collection of essays including "Perchance To Dream", and The Discomfort Zone (2006), a memoir. How To Be Alone is essentially an apologia for reading, articulating Franzen's uncomfortable relationship with the place of fiction in contemporary society. It also probes the influence of his childhood and adolescence on his creative life, which is then further explored in The Discomfort Zone.
In September 2007, Franzen's translation of Frank Wedekind's play Spring Awakening (German: Frühlings Erwachen) was published. In his introduction, Franzen describes the Broadway musical version as "insipid" and "overpraised." In an interview with New York magazine, Franzen stated that he had in fact made the translation for Swarthmore College's theater department for $50 in 1986, and that it had sat in a drawer for 20 years since. After the Broadway show stirred up so much interest, Franzen said he was inspired to publish it because "I knew it was a good translation, better than anything else out there."
Following the success of The Corrections and the publication of The Discomfort Zone and How To Be Alone, Franzen began work on his next novel. In the interim, he published two short stories in The New Yorker: "Breakup Stories", published November 8, 2004, concerned the disintegration of four relationships; and "Two's Company", published May 23, 2005, concerned a couple who writes for TV, then splits up.
On June 8, 2009, Franzen published an extract from his work-in-progress fourth novel, Freedom, in The New Yorker. The extract, titled "Good Neighbors", concerned the trials and tribulations of a couple in St. Paul, Minnesota. Apart from this extract, little is known about the content of the novel, although Franzen has revealed that there will be a German aspect to Freedom, remarking to TV moderator Maybrit Illner, as reported in the Berlin daily Berliner Morgenpost, that "The Federal Republic [of Germany] will play an important role in the novel." Franzen spent the academic year 1981/82 in Berlin.
On October 16, 2009, Franzen made an appearance alongside David Bezmozgis at the New Yorker Festival at the Cedar Lake Theatre to read a portion of his forthcoming novel. Sam Allard, writing for North By Northwestern website covering the event, said that the "...material from his new (reportedly massive) novel" was "as buoyant and compelling as ever" and "marked by his familiar undercurrent of tragedy". Franzen read "an extended clip from the second chapter."
In February 2010, Franzen was asked by the British newspaper The Guardian-along with several other respected and notable writers including Richard Ford, Zadie Smith and Anne Enright-to contribute what he personally believed were ten serious rules to abide by for aspiring writers. Franzen's rules ran as follows:
- The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
- Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
- Never use the word "then" as a conjunction – we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page.
- Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
- When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
- The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than "The Metamorphosis".
- You see more sitting still than chasing after.
- It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
- Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
- You have to love before you can be relentless.