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How to Be Embarrassed: Brief Encounters with Jonathan Franzen



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Morgan Macgregor is a reader living in Los Angeles. She blogs at Reading in LA and is working on her first novel. 


A couple of days ago, in response to yet another episode in the long and rich history of Jonathan Franzen publicly hating things, Rebecca asked Book Riot readers,“Who cares?” It’s a question that gets asked a lot, actually: who really does care what Jonathan Franzen thinks? Oh god, I wish I didn’t care. But I care. Despite his singular ability to humiliate me and make me say things that make absolutely no sense, or else say something himself that makes absolutely no sense but somehow do it in a way that makes me feel like I’m the stupid one, I care what Jonathan Franzen thinks. First, a brief history of my love for the man:

1996: I’m thirteen. Franzen has already published The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, but I’m only inchoately aware of a serious interest in American literature and have never heard of him. I’ve recently decided that I should start reading literary magazines, so I pick up my first issue of GrantaIssue 54: Best of Young American Novelists – and there he is.

1996-2001: I read his first two novels, fail to understand them, decide that I like him anyway. Then The Corrections comes out, and actually, I don’t love it. But I love his prose. I feel like I can feel the effort of his writing in the sentences. They seem alive with writing, if that makes sense. The Oprah thing happens, he becomes pretty notorious, etc.

2002: He releases How To Be Alone and I’m obsessed with it. I watch him on Charlie Rose –not the 1996 one, where he appears with long hair and insanely nerdy glasses alongside David Foster Wallace (which is hilarious, and if you haven’t seen it, look it up) — and it’s solidified: I love Jonathan Franzen. But more acutely: I really want to meet him. I convince myself that I must meet him. I’m not sure why. Does he hold the key that will unlock my own dormant writerly genius? Will he say something that will change my life? I don’t know. I just really really want to meet him. So far, the outcomes of my efforts have proved… less than inspiring. Here’s the unbridged, chronological history of my interactions with Jonathan Franzen:

2002 How To Be Alone reading: Interaction consists in its entirety of him signing my book and me looking at it and saying, “Holy shit,” and then walking away.

2006 The Discomfort Zone reading: Having this time practiced the question I’m going to ask him for the three hours preceding, I proceed to sit through the whole reading and Q&A and don’t ask the question.

2010 An Evening with Jonathan Franzen: I’ve just finished Freedom, and I’m primed. I’m doing this thing. When it’s time for the Q&A, I jump up from my front row seat and literally run to the microphone, lest I lose my nerve again.You can listen to a  podcast of the entire event, but here’s the transcript of our interaction:

Me: Hi. I loved the novel. I thought it was the best novel I’ve read in years, so thank-you for that.

Franzen: Thanks.

Me: Um, I was really moved by it, but my main experience while reading it was laughing, which was lovely, and the part I laughed the hardest at was —

Franzen: You’re not going to give anything away, right? Or not too much?

Me: No, not too much, not too much. So, when Richard goes to the Washington mansion for the first time, and he sees Jessica for the first time in years, and he overhears her sort of accosting Lalitha, and she’s saying, like,if you didn’t have cell phones in high school, then you don’t know what our generation is like, there’s a big difference, do you even know what texting is?” and my experience of that was to sort of cringe at her entitlement, and at her, really, and by extension, her generation. And so… as a member of that generation, my question is: do you fear for us?

AUDIENCE LAUGHTER. I walk back to my seat thinking, I can’t believe I said, “for the first time” twice in such close succession. I’m an idiot.

Franzen: Um, I spent…I got so frustrated in my attempt…after I accepted the money and slapped the title ‘Freedom’ on this book proposal, I was given a ten month deadline, and after four and a half months of getting absolutely nowhere, I decided I needed to take a year off. I am going somewhere with this. And one of the things I tried to do in that year was write about six people who had just graduated from school and moved to New York, at 22 to… be in New York.

It was a bunch of Cal kids, Berkeley kids, and so I did a lot of interviews with them, spaced over nine months. And they were so frank, I couldn’t write the piece. Because I’d become so fond of them. But, it’s not like I didn’t know anybody else that age, but I was really getting… I was able to ask all the questions I wanted to ask and I came to…because I would occasionally have these moments like Patty Berglund in the book does, feeling irritated with you all because you seem, in certain ways, happier, and because some of the happiness sometimes, on a dark day for one of us who’s much older, seems to consist partly in the ability of closing out certain bad news…but at the end of that nine months of hanging out with them, I didn’t have any anger left in me and I had a great deal of hope because…actually, it’s impossible to feel anything but optimistic because…and I…pretty much…no! I’m not despairing at all. Thanks.

AUDIENCE LAUGHTER. I’m just sitting in my seat, smiling at him dumbly.

Later that night, at the autograph table:

( ) = my internal dialogue

Franzen: It’s you.

Me: It’s me. (Holy shit he said it’s you.)

Franzen: Thanks for coming.

Me: Thank you. I’m glad you don’t fear for me. (What am I saying? Say something else!.)

Franzen: No no, not at all. I love young people. (I’m a young person. He loves me.)

Me: Thanks for coming to LA. Thanks for doing this. (OMG I love him. Stop saying thank-you.)

Franzen: Thank-you.

2011 New Yorker Festival: I find the green room, walk in and see him standing with David Remnick, pretend my cell phone is ringing, look at it, and walk out.

The next day, at a signing at McNally Jackson: The security guard who’s funneling the line through two streams – one toward Colson Whitehead’s table and one toward Franzen’s – suddenly, when it’s my turn, disappears. So I’m just standing there, and Franzen’s just sitting there at his desk, looking at me, and there’s no protocol because the security guard is gone, and I don’t know what to do.

Franzen: Hi.

Me: Oh. Uh, hi. I walk over to his table in this really weird shuffle-y way I’ve never done before or since.

Me: I thought, uh, I thought the security cop guy had to escort me or something. So I don’t like, jump you. (Why would I say that?)

Franzen: Uh, I guess they trust you.

Me: They don’t trust me at the airport. I’m always the one that gets pulled into the like, interrogation room. (What are the words that are coming out of my mouth?)

Franzen: It’s probably your nervous demeanor.

Me: HA HA HA. Uh, yeah, probably. (I want to die.) Uh, the talk with Remnick was really good.

Franzen: Oh good.

Me: Uh, could you sign this one to my boyfriend’s dad? His name is Ed. Could you write Dear Ed, Merry Christmas?

Franzen: Sure.

Me: Now I’m done all my Christmas shopping! (Je. Sus. Christ.) And this one’s for me, my name is Morgan.

Franzen: Here you go. Thanks for coming, Morgan.

Me: Thanks. (He thinks I have a learning disorder.) I stand there too long. He looks away. I leave the store.

End chronology. After this last disastrous attempt, I actually ask myself why it feels so important for me to meet him. I love his writing, I revere his career, but like…what do I want from him? And (my god, I can’t believe it took me this long to grasp) I realize the answer is: nothing. There’s nothing I want from Jonathan Franzen. I don’t want to meet him. I want to be him. So here’s my idea: I think I’ll stop trying to talk to him and focus a little more on my own writing. Yes. That’s a good idea. There! Done! I don’t care about meeting Jonathan Franzen! Whew. But like…let’s just say, just to be safe, that if at some point in the future he just happens to be somewhere that I also happen to be, and if he happens to be standing directly beside me, and happens to look at me with this, like, ‘I’m-ready-to-reveal-to-you-the-secrets-of-my-craft-and-I’m-likewise-ready-to-receive-your-personalized-brand-of-genius-which-is-just-emanating-from-you-by-the-way’ look…if THAT happens? I know exactly what I’m going to say.