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A New Approach to Jonathan Franzen

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Jessica Woodbury

Staff Writer

Jessica Woodbury's professional life has taken her to prisons, classrooms, strip clubs, and her living room couch. After years as a Public Defender in the South, she now lives in Boston with her two small children. Cursed with a practical streak, she always wanted to pursue music or writing but instead majored in Biochemistry because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. These days she does absolutely nothing with science or law and instead spends too much time oversharing on the internet. She has a soft spot for crime novels and unreliable narrators. And the strip club gig was totally as a lawyer, she swears.  Blog: Don't Mind the Mess Twitter: jessicaesquire

Jonathan Franzen has another book coming out. People have opinions. If you haven’t seen it all start to shake out, let me tell you what’s going to happen for the next few weeks as we await its early September release.

A bunch of people will say that Franzen is a genius. These people will mostly be white dudes and talk about his brilliance and “the canon” and all that. They have yet to dislike a Franzen novel.

A bunch of people will say that Franzen is overrated/sexist/curmudgeonly/any-other-insult-they-can-find. These people will mostly be women who bristle at how much attention Franzen gets, and many will not read his book on principle.

But there is hope: you do not have to follow either of these groups. Even though they dominate the conversation, there is room for another way.

Jonathan Franzen is an author. He writes books, mostly novels. Many of them are very long. They explore, in some way, the intersection of the domestic and the universal, when large issues play out in small lives. They often center on dysfunctional families. They fall into “literary” fiction, but are accessible and enjoyable for a variety of readers.

The problem we have now is that you cannot read a Jonathan Franzen novel without all the gigantic baggage that comes with knowing it is by Jonathan Franzen. You cannot simply read it and see if you enjoy it. You cannot have an opinion about it without being able to expound on the Franzen-ness of it.

Franzen PurityI have read Franzen’s new book. As you have probably already heard, it includes a major female character (three, actually). People are freaking out about this. If there were no women in this book, people would freak out about that.

The new book is about the internet and privacy, and since Franzen is often called a Luddite people are freaking out. If the book ignored the internet, people would freak out, too.

This is ridiculous. It doesn’t matter what Franzen writes about or how he does it, everyone is going to fall over themselves to praise it as perfect or throw rotten tomatoes at it.

Here’s my idea. Just ignore all that. Don’t click on the Franzen think pieces. Don’t worry about the big reviews.

My suggestion is: if you think you might like it, read the book. That’s pretty much it.

Treat this book like you’d treat a non-Franzen book. If it sounds like it isn’t your bag, skip it. If you’re curious, read it and form your own opinion. I admit, it’s hard to separate yourself from all that Franzen baggage (and there are times when the author does make it even more difficult). But I believe you can do it.

I’m not saying you’ll like this book. I believe that most books don’t lead to one or two extreme reactions, but a broad spectrum of reactions, as broad and diverse as the people who read the book. You can have a different opinion than famous reviewers. You can have a different opinion than people you respect. You can like something they dislike, and vice versa, and that is all totally good. Because it’s a book and you get to have your own experience.

I’m pretty sure you’ll find things to enjoy and things to dislike. There will be things that surprise you and things you find predictable. Some sentences will be beautiful and sharp, other sentences will make you roll your eyes. And you might find that you have an opinion about the novel that is neither fawning nor vehement. It may be complex or simple, but it will be yours. And you will feel a sense of freedom. Because you don’t have to read any of those think pieces! You read the book, you had the experience, and what it meant to you is all that you really need to care about.

You don’t need to write a think piece. You can write your Goodreads review, decide on your number of stars, select the appropriate shelves, recommend it to friends you think might like it.

In short, you can treat it like you’d treat any other book. Even though it was written by Jonathan Franzen. I know it sounds crazy, but it is possible. You can do it. I believe in you.