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An Evening With Jonathan Franzen

January 18, 2013

Franzen4-x copyI never know what to expect when I see Jonathan Franzen, but I know I won’t be bored. He didn’t let me down when he dropped in last week to give a lecture as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures series presented by Literary Arts. The author of Freedom and The Corrections was funny, of course, erudite, that goes without saying, and harshly critical of certain mainstays of our culture that rub him the wrong way. He reminded me of Mae West’s famous quote, “When I’m good, I’m very, very good, and when I’m bad, I’m better.” Franzen was bad, and the crowd loved him.

Since authors in the series are asked not to read from their current work, Franzen merely mentioned his most recent book of essays Farther Away. Then he launched into a 50-minute discussion of the work of Austrian writer Karl Kraus. And yes, I had to Google him after I got home. He is best known as a satirist and, if I understood correctly, Franzen’s next book will be Kraus-centric.

Interspersed throughout his rather complicated reading peppered with footnotes, Franzen managed to work in his extreme disdain for social media, the ridiculousness of all things Apple-related including the commercial featuring John Hodgman and Justin Long, and the wish that people would stop buying their books from Amazon.

Franzen1-x copyDo you ever get the overwhelming urge to yell at an author during a reading? Sometimes I want so badly to break the church-like atmosphere of quiet that hangs like a bell jar over the audience, I can barely contain myself. Apparently there are others who feel the same. After Franzen mentioned yet again his dislike for Amazon, a woman with less impulse control than myself broke the evening’s respectful silence when she yelled loudly into the hallowed Schnitzer Concert Hall that she had bought her copy of Freedom on Amazon. Take that, Franzen! He was unflapped though, and sweetly suggested readers could shop at Barnes & Noble – he does. That got the ball rolling, and someone else shouted “indie’s,” and then, “Powell’s!” And then everyone slipped back under the bell jar.

Franzen was refreshingly sensitive to whether the audience was enjoying the complex piece he was reading, at times checking in with them to underline a point, apologize for obfuscation, or simply to go the “aw shucks” route.

At the end, audience members submitted questions for Franzen that were posed by Literary Arts Director Andrew Proctor. Here are a few things we learned:

When asked about his relationship with his friend, the late David Foster Wallace, Franzen said it was:

“A strong nuclear force situation.” And, “We competed in a loving way that allowed each of us to develop our strengths.”

Do you eschew your Midwestern roots?

“I’m deformed for better or worse.”

Are you going back to experimental fiction or will you stick with social realism?

“The new book is 80% footnotes.”

Thundering applause!

Farther Away


FSG, 2012


Local poet Zachary Schomburg, author of Fjords vol. 1., opened the evening by reading three poems. He was fantastic!

Fjords vol. 1

Black Ocean, 2012

  1. Great to see you back, my friend! and as usual I love your take. Also, now I feel less guilty about combining indie buys with my neighborhood B&N…..

    • It’s good to be back, Ellison! Now if I could only get you back to your blog, that would be great.

  2. Literary critics often note that Jonathan Franzen’s fiction “bears the mark of a Midwest upbringing, his books preoccupied with quiet lives nurtured there.” That description suggests that Franzen is a quiet mannered, disciplined writer, a solitary man, searching for the true meaning of life in communion with his computer, or perhaps a 30 year old Royal typewriter, in a tidy house on a dead end street. The biggest excitement of the morning is a neighbor’s dog chasing the paperboy down the street.
    “Not so” writes Reviewer, Diane Prokop, who recognized the author’s convictions and a willingness to share them, his spirited humor and heated words about books and where people should buy them. He also cited some of his pet peeves about certain “mainstays of our culture that rub him the wrong way.” So much for “quiet lives nurtured there”– and the people who leave that environment.
    Her review also takes note of Franzen’s “extreme disdain for social media,” but ever a realist she chose not to add her voice to his disdain. I did like her use of the Mae West quote which was a playful spoof on Victorian innocence. She used all the elements of the speech to give her readers a sense of what Franzen said, how he said it, and made the point that the appearance by the author was not just a speech, but a ‘happening.’
    Diane’s review makes it clear that Franzen was not only an Award Winning Writer, but also an entertaining speaker, not a usual blend of talents in the same artist.
    Jim Dunne

  3. Thanks, Jim!

  4. It’s a fine mix of admiration and exasperation you capture here. Much as I admire Franzen’s work, I can’t say I’d feel compelled to see/hear him read. I suspect I’d be feeling the same way you did.

  5. John McNeese permalink

    Another great read. Keep em coming Diane.

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