September 25, 2010
Last month, Jonathan Franzen became the first author in a decade to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Over a shot of him looking characteristically serious appeared the words "Great American Novelist".
In his famous Harper's essay of 1996, Franzen had bemoaned the magazine's lack of literary pin-ups as evidence of the declining importance of serious fiction, so you might think he'd be in celebratory mood. Being Franzen, he isn't comfortable with the label. "It paints a big bullseye on the back of my head," he says. "I always hated the expression anyway, mostly because I encountered it in stupid or sneering contexts."
He switches to a high-pitched mocking tone: "Still working on the Great American Novel?" Then adopts the barrel voice of a dunce: "I'm thinking of taking a year off to go to France and write a Great American Novel."
The sneering began after Franzen expressed misgivings over the selection of his last novel, The Corrections, for the Oprah Winfrey book club, in 2001. It sold nearly 3m copies and established Franzen as one of the leading literary voices of his generation, but, thanks to his perceived snub to Winfrey, it also established his reputation as, variously, an "ego-blinded snob" (Boston Globe), a "pompous prick" (Newsweek) and a "spoiled, whiny little brat" (Chicago Tribune).
The fallout set back his writing by more than a year. This time, Franzen has toughened up. "Whatever happens," he says, of his new novel Freedom, "it's not going to get to me. It's just not."