Even after delivering a bestseller like Freedom and being on the cover of Time magazine, Jonathan Franzen is oblivious to the fame around him.
Recently, he stepped up to a small platform at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square and sat behind a long table, blowup posters of Moby-Dick and Gulliver’s Travels hanging high on the wall behind, like literary gods. He placed a dark briefcase beside him and removed a hardcover copy, without the jacket, of his acclaimed new novel and best-seller, Freedom. With a standing room audience of around 1,000 waiting to hear him read, the author squinted as if emerging from darkness, ran his fingers through his wavy hair and stared down.
A store official then introduced him as a Great American Novelist, noting that Franzen was recently on the cover of Time magazine. Franzen smiled and ducked behind the briefcase. To much applause, he approached the podium and put on his familiar dark-rimmed glasses, a design worn by more than a few of his fans. “Hi,” he said, shyly, wearing jeans with a cell phone clipped on the back and a blue shirt, sleeves rolled. He said New York was the hardest place to read, but he wasn’t sure why.
“It’s really weird to see all these people here,” he said, adding that literary writers weren’t raised to expect such appeal. “I’m excited as if this were happening to someone else.” Praised for his three-dimensional portraits of modern men and women, the 51-year-old writer and Manhattan resident has himself become a rich study of ambition and ambivalence, openly wishing to write substantial novels with mass appeal while resisting the burdens, and even the blessings, of success.
His mixed feelings about The Corrections being selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club led the talk show host to withdraw her invitation. He began a promotional video for Freedom by stating that he didn’t care much for promotional videos.
Franzen doesn’t need to say, or write, anything controversial to be controversial. He is the rare writer criticised because reviewers supposedly like him too much. A rave for Freedom by The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani led to an unhappy tweet from best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult, who alleged the newspaper favoured white, male writers.