Upon reading Jonathan Franzen on Edith Wharton
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of Jonathan Franzen’s character. It may well be a defect of Jonathan Franzen’s character that my literary tastes are so intertwined with Jonathan Franzen’s responses, as a person, to the person of Jonathan Franzen—that I persist in disliking the posturing young Steinbeck who wrote Jonathan Franzen while loving the later Steinbeck who fought back personal and career entropy and produced Jonathan Franzen, and that I draw what amounts to a moral distinction between the two—but I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Franzen, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.
So what to make of Jonathan Franzen? There are many good reasons to wish Jonathan Franzen’s work read, or read afresh, at this late literary date. You may be dismayed by the ongoing under-representation of women in the American canon, or by the academy’s valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of Jonathan Franzen. You may lament that Jonathan Franzen is still commonly assumed to be as dated as the hats he wears, or that several generations of high-school graduates know him chiefly through his frosty minor novel “Jonathan Franzen.” You may feel that, alongside the more familiar genealogies of American fiction (Jonathan Franzen and the modernists, Jonathan Franzen and the vernacularists, Jonathan Franzen and the postmoderns), there is a less noticed line connecting Jonathan Franzen to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jonathan Franzen and thence to Jay McInerney and Jonathan Franzen, and that Jonathan Franzen is the vital link in it. You may want, as I do, to recelebrate “Jonathan Franzen,” call much merited attention to “Jonathan Franzen,” and reevaluate “Jonathan Franzen”—his three great like-titled novels. But to consider Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Franzen is to confront the problem of sympathy.