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Franzen Riffs on Current Cultural and Literary Landscapes

By Danielle Charette ’14 and Sherri Kimmel


Jonathan Franzen ’81 shares his personal journey from Swarthmore to literary fame. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

Jonathan Franzen ’81 returned to Swarthmore Feb. 14 with all the angst for which his fiction is known. “It makes me nervous to come back here,” confessed Franzen at the start of an afternoon question-and-answer period, before his reading in the Lang Performing Arts Center (LPAC) later that evening. As the acclaimed author of The Corrections and Freedom, and Time magazine’s 2010 “Great American Novelist,” one might expect Franzen to be less rattled.

Still, he admitted that coming out of Swarthmore rendered him a “crazily ambitious” writer. Part of Swarthmore culture, Franzen noted, is that “No one said it [wasn’t] OK to say I want[ed] to transform American literature.”

Laughing at his own intensity, Franzen said, “Sometimes in sheer desperation, you come up with ideas.” He went on to speak briefly about his student days as a German major and his complicated relationship with his native Midwest. Though Franzen conceded the Midwest as a geographical region may be a “completely content-free concept,” he moved into some of the subject matter in his memoir The Discomfort Zone, reminding us that he had “very old-fashioned parents.”

“Innocence, said Franzen, “is slightly prolonged in the Midwest.”

After a back-and-forth with audience members on whether or not fiction can bring about social change, Franzen said that his main purpose for writing is “to give pleasure.” In terms of his relationship with his characters, Franzen didn’t exactly debunk the idea that he bases his fiction on his own life. But he did say it’s “much harder to draw characters on someone I know well.” His favorite characters, Franzen acknowledged, are the ones who make him laugh. “The humor," he said, “is forgiving.”

Giving the evening’s introduction, Professor of English Peter Schmidt urged the audience not to read Franzen’s fiction as “disguised autobiography.” Doing so betrays our own uneasiness. “It is often a defense mechanism,” observed Schmidt. Franzen’s fiction “touches a nerve; it holds a mirror up to us and shows us all too clearly delusions and difficulties we share with his characters.”

Although Franzen claimed earlier that day that he always gives his “worst performance” at the College due to nerves, the capacity crowd in LPAC would beg to differ. Franzen engagingly read excerpts from a book he is writing about the Austrian author Karl Kraus. Franzen interwove snippets of his own autobiography with details from the early 20th-century satirist’s life, along with comments on the current literary and technological landscape. He also worked in his translations of relevant quotes from the curmudgeonly Kraus’ essays.

Kraus, known as “the great hater,” was the 1913 version of a blogger, as he eventually became the sole writer for the journal Die Fackel, Franzen said. The questions that followed Franzen’s humor-punctuated 50-minute reading continued to explore the theme of social media and technology.

Franzen admitted that, although he doesn’t have a Facebook presence as an author, he appreciates the power of Facebook in his “other life as a bird conservationist and watcher.” Facebook has helped further the reach of the American Bird Conservancy, of which he is a board member, he said. “It’s the tool at hand, and good can come of it.”

He concluded the evening by contrasting the experience of reading an e-book versus a hard-copy book. One disadvantage of electronic reading is that readers can’t handwrite comments in the margins. “Those permanent marks are lost in the e-book,” he said. “We spend most of our days on electronic devices. It’s a relief to read a book. The book is not going to beep at me.”

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