Franzen’s Freedom: Great American Novel or Overhyped?

I wouldn’t normally post about a book I haven’t read, but Jonathan Franzen’s new book Freedom has gotten so much press, and generated so many interesting discussions, I couldn’t resist.
A quick recap of some of the events surrounding this book:
  • President Obama is seen purchasing the book on his vacation several days before it’s released to the public
  • The book gets a rave review from the New York Times
  • Several female authors – Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner – stir up debate about whether The New York Times book reviews are biased towards male authors (this despite the fact that neither author writes anything that could remotely be called literary)
  • Franzen makes the cover of Time magazine as the “Great American Novelist”
I enjoyed The Corrections so have every intention of reading this book.  And until last week, I only read glowing reviews.  But two recent reviews have given me pause.
A scathing review by B.R. Meyers in this month’s Atlantic says that Franzen has written a book using “juvenile language” in which “nothing important can happen.”  Meyers describes Franzen as a “Social Writer” who , to gain readership, “thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family ‘typical’ enough to hold everything together.  The more aspects of our society he can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.” Meyers also complains about Franzen’s use of “facile tricks to tart up the story” (an expression I love), including an overuse of obscene language, brand names, pop culture references and current events.
Of course this is just Meyers’ opinion. In fact, his review strikes me as so extreme that I question his judgment — he is altogether too gleeful in tearing Franzen apart.
The other article I read this week was from a different, and maybe more reliable source.  David Brooks, who is a political columnist for the New York Times, wrote an article in response to the Atlantic review.  His review describes Freedom as a book about 1) how American culture is overobsessed with personal freedom and 2) how Americans are unhappy and spiritually stunted.  This description of the book intrigues me.  I’m willing to read a book about suburban families where nothing much happens, if the characters are compelling and I can relate to them — and I think I can relate to these two premises.  Brooks describes the book as being about people living lives of “quiet desperation” – “It’s a portrait of an America where the important, honest, fundamental things are being destroyed or built over – and people are left to fumble about, not even aware of what they have lost.
Brooks goes on to say that Franzen misses key realities about the lives of suburban families, such as work issues, ethnic heritage, military service, and religion.  He charges Franzen with creating characters who do not demonstrate any real strengths of character, and says that the political world is caricatured.
So in these two very different reviews I take away something similar, which is that it’s possible to write a very compelling novel about boredom, frustration, and meaninglessness in American suburbia, but that Franzen’s work seems to go way too far in that direction, becoming meaningless itself.
Am I ready to read a book that someone called a “576-page monument to insignificance”?  I would love to hear what others think.  Have you read it?  Are you planning to?

  4 comments for “Franzen’s Freedom: Great American Novel or Overhyped?

  1. September 28, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Truly terrific post….
    I too have read The Corrections, and I loved it.
    I was also planning on reading Freedom, but not right away as I have too much other stuff I have to get to first.

    I was really interested to hear about David Brooks’ take on it…I had not read his article, but I do generally enjoy his op-ed pieces. This strikes me as a book I really have to be in the mood to read…I remember when I started to read The Corrections, I put it down at first, thinking it wasn’t for me, and when I picked it up later, I found that I really got into it, and have since attributed that disconnect to my frame of mind at the time.

    I will be anxious to see what you think once you have read it.

  2. October 3, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    You know, the problem is that the NY Times Review is biased toward male authors (and male reviewers for that matter), but since it was just Jodi Picoult saying it rather than someone like Margaret Atwood* everyone can ignore it as the complaints of an untalented woman rather than as an actual concern.

    In other news, Franzen is pretentious, slightly sexist, and generally over-hyped.


    • October 4, 2010 at 8:28 am

      You’re right that if someone like Atwood or Kingsolver said it, we would take it more seriously. I certainly would, because those two deserve NYT reviews every time they publish (and I expect they get them). But Picoult and Weiner complaining of sexism isn’t evidence of sexism. If someone can show me that female authors don’t get reviewed as often, I’ll listen. Slate magazine did a study of how many books by women were reviewed by NYT, and the result was inconclusive because they couldn’t determine how many “literary” books are published by female authors to begin with.

  3. January 31, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Maybe this is moot if you’ve read it already, but if you really liked Corrections, I predict you will like Freedom too, but not as much. I think Franzen gets so much attention because his books try to encompass so much and be many different hings, which is rare in literature these days. I wrote a review on my blog, if you’re interested:

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