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Happy Franzen publication day (or not), in 10 easy steps

Franzen_freedomJonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom" officially goes on sale today. For some readers, and the reviewers who've been kvelling over Franzen's achievement, this is good news. For others, who have pointed to such kvelling as symptomatic of many, many of the things that are wrong with contemporary criticism, the release means nothing so much as another occasion to voice frustrations.

In case you haven't kept up on the kerfluffle, here it is:

1. Time Magazine puts Franzen on the cover. It's been a decade since a living author has appeared there. People get excited.

2. With more than two weeks to go before anyone can get their hands on Franzen's new novel (except for reviewers and President Obama), excitement builds.

3. The N.Y. Times runs its first review on Aug. 15, more than two weeks ahead of publication.  "His most deeply felt novel," Michiko Kakutani writes, "...both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times."

4. New York magazine also gets in an early review, from Sam Anderson: "the book would probably be insufferably dull if it weren’t for the fact that it also happens to be a work of total genius."

5. Jennifer Weiner does not take the buzz about Franzen's book lightly. In a series of tweets, she coins the hashtag #Franzenfreude.

6. Weiner is joined by Jodi Picoult; the two contend that book review sections pay negligible attention to commercial, popular fiction like they write. A conversation with them at the Huffington Post garners almost 400 comments in five days.

7. More reviews roll in: rich and nuanced; a masterpiece of American fiction; Franzen delivers the massive, old-school jams; very, very good; a complexly layered, richly imagined domestic tale; and big enough and thoughtful enough to engage and irritate an enormous number of readers.

8. The backlash begins. Newsweek -- by no coincidence, Time's rival -- writes of Franzen fatigue, saying, "There’s no getting around the fact that 'Freedom' comes with an ever-expanded set of baggage."

9. Weiner is hardly mollified. She appears on All Things Considered -- in  an interview recorded earlier in the week -- defining her term: "Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."

10. So is this about a book or its coverage, or is it, to steal a phrase from Mel Brooks in "High Anxiety," a case of cultural pee-pee envy? That's the theory floated by Lizzie Skurnick at the Daily Beast. What's next? Maybe the drama will continue. Or maybe people will get the book today and, instead of talking about the buzz and counterbuzz, finally be able to discuss the novel itself.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

 Websites linked to in this post: Time Magazine, the N.Y. Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Newsweek, Esquire, New York magazine, Salon.com, Mediabistro's Galleycat, the Millions, the Rumpus, the Huffington Post, USA Today and Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Comments () | Archives (3)

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All I know is that my MFA buddy couldn't get to Borders fast enough today. I haven't read Franzen, but I am feeling a bit curious. I think The Guardian was pretty bold in their assessment: novel of the century.

Good lord! There's still 90 years of writing left.

I was lucky enough to review an advance copy. And at a time when everyone is proclaiming death of the book isn't this just a great ray of sunshine that we are 300,000 copies and counting??? Any way I look at it, putting this novel in high regard and garnering broad attention with smart, reading public is great.

I saw Jodi P's comments and I wanted to say: no one pays attention to you because you stink, not because you are a woman.

The other piece we can just give credit to is Franzen knows how to stir it up. His snub of Oprah nearly 10 years ago says this guy may be just playing his own game. I am willing to just say maybe he or his publicist just know how to make it happen. Kudos all around.

And finally, it was just a really good book. Not perfect, not likely the novel of the century but certainly well above every other book I have read on the Top 10 NYT in recent months.

I get so tired of authors like Weiner and Picoult (Stephen King is another one) who whine and complain about how their books get no critical respect, don't get reviewed in NYT, don't get taught in literature classes. First, your books don't get critical respect because there's nothing that special about them. Second, your books sell many, many copies and have been made into feature films. Rather than complaining about what you don't have, why don't you show some gratitude for what you DO have? In other words, go dry your tears on your big pile of money, and don't expect my sympathy.

Also, if you really want to be critically acclaimed, write a more ambitious novel. Don't just write the same thing over and over again and then cry that everyone isn't completely bowled over.


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