Features & Columns

Endings: Jonathan Franzen Loves a Good Argument

Jonathan Franzen came all the way to the Golden State to escape New York's literary world, but his new book of essays shows he still loves a good argument

He is famously fond of birds. But you could argue that Jonathan Franzen's spirit animal is of a different phylum altogether.

Like some exotic Amazonian butterfly pinned under glass, Franzen has for years been the object of a brand of obsessive public curiosity like no other writer of his generation.

Franzen's landmark 2001 novel The Corrections is a consensus choice for the canon of the greatest novels of the 21st century, and you could make a good argument for its follow-ups, Freedom and Purity. So, he is in no way undeserving of widespread recognition.

But Franzen's fame is as much a condition of the mosquito-swarm nature of today's information-decadent media culture as it is of his literary accomplishments. Just in the last few months, he has been the subject of several broad-shouldered feature stories in the national and international media, which by their general aimlessness indicate that editors feel about Franzen as a mom feels about her daughter away at college: "Just checking in to see what's new with you." One New York Times feature was titled "Jonathan Franzen is Fine With All of It." Another in the online magazine The Outline says only "Jonathan Franzen is Fine."

At the same time, Franzen, 59, still finds himself trapped in the online dunking booth of social media, where little more than clearing his throat can draw shrieks of derision. Last week, with the publication of his new collection of essays The End of the End of the Earth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Twitter exploded in response to a list of rules for writers that Franzen included in the collection. If such an assertion as "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction" had come from any one of 10,000 creative-writing professors, it would have barely merited a shrug. But from Franzen, such a mildly provocative notion turbo-charged the outrage machine for days.

It's the kind of situation that would drive many writers into vampire-like misanthropy or at least a Salinger-esque self-exile. But Franzen's strategy to cope with this particular kind of trending-topic hell is simple: 1) keep working, 2) stay off social media and 3) live in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Horizontal

In October, I followed the path, already well-worn by other feature writers, to Franzen's front door to discuss the new book of essays. He lives with writer Kathryn Chetkovich on Santa Cruz's West Side. Franzen's history with Santa Cruz County goes back two decades to when he and Chetkovich first lived together in Boulder Creek. He has lived on and off in Santa Cruz for years, but in 2018, he sold his New York City apartment, making Santa Cruz his only home address.

"I'm a '70s guy," he said. "When I first came here, it was, 'Oh, I recognize this. This is what I liked about the '70s. And it's still here.'"

For such a literary heavyweight, he has maintained a refreshingly regular-guy lifestyle. This year, he has made public appearances in such decidedly cozy local venues as the Porter Memorial Library in Soquel and the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. At Porter, he even read a passage from his new novel, a project not likely to see publication until the next decade. On Thursday, Nov. 29, Franzen, as he has done for most of his books, will begin his tour with an appearance at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

"There are a lot more horizontal relationships among writers here than there is New York," he said. "In New York, everything is vertical. You have your agent, your publisher and that's generally who you're dealing with. I had my friends in Brooklyn, certainly. But the horizontal relationships weren't organized [in New York] the way they are here. I find that very sweet. The idea of community is taken seriously here."

Franzen is originally a Midwesterner—he grew up near St. Louis—and ended up in California, a pattern that fits many of his literary peers such as George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and the late David Foster Wallace.

"My worry before coming here was that I would never get any writing done, because it's the good life. I had the wrong idea about California. When you live in the East and grew up in the Midwest, California exists in your imagination in this kind of golden light—red wine, golden hills, hot tubs, redwoods. It looks like your brain is going to rot there."

To Franzen's delight, he found early on that, at least in Santa Cruz, the Beach Boys' endless-summer fantasy gave way to gray summers and fog-smothered mornings. Of the summer of 2018, he said, with satisfaction, "It was the best summer in a decade for morning fog and low temperatures. I just love the weather."

Not that the weather or anything about his surroundings matter when it comes time to write. Franzen calls his home office a "sensory deprivation chamber," a signifier of his ongoing personal vendetta against distractions. Not only does he keep the internet and cellphones out, he cannot even tolerate a window. "I look at some venetian blinds that are shut. I can tell that there are some redwood trees out there. But I can't see them well enough to risk getting distracted by a bird."

Franzen's new book, however, belies the notion that he's a hermit trapped in his writer's distraction-proof booth. It's a wide-ranging collection of his nonfiction, much of it published before, though "in completely invisible places." The short piece that finishes the collection was actually originally published on a Chipotle's bag.

"Literally nothing in this book is exactly the way it was when it was published," says Franzen. "In a number of cases, there have been substantial revisions."

The book features mostly recent material, the outlier being a piece written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Franzen owes the success of The Corrections, in part, to a quirk of timing at the intersection of commerce and tragedy. The novel was released the same week as the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and became the book people turned to as an escape from the tragedy.

"I went on the road almost as soon as the planes got back in the air," he says, "and everywhere I went, people were like, 'Oh my God. You're the only writer coming to town. We're so happy to think about something that isn't what we're seeing on CNN.'"

Bird Watch

The rest of the collection is a potpourri of memory pieces, literary and arts criticism, reported travel pieces and polemics, much of it touching on the dimensions of climate change and even more of it about birds, put most urgently and succinctly in the essay "Why Birds Matter."

"After my first two novels, I stopped trying to persuade people of anything with the novel. Part of what enabled me to stop that is that I discovered the essay. I'm an opinionated guy. I'm an argumentative guy. When it comes to certain issues, I can be an angry guy. Argumentation, opinion and anger are not the best things to make a novel out of."

In the realm of anger comes a takedown of the National Audubon Society, "better known for its holiday cards and plush-toy cardinals and bluebirds, which sing when you squeeze them, than for generating hard science, taking controversial positions, or partnering with groups that do real conservation work."

More memorable are Franzen's astounding field reports including a trip to Albania to see firsthand an avian apocalypse at the hands of hunters, a killing field in which thousands of birds entered and none escaped. These accounts are reported somewhat dispassionately, as a way to tackle the inconsistencies and paradoxes of modern-day conservation. Still, Franzen's piece on Albanian hunters' indiscriminate slaughter of migratory birds was partially responsible for a two-year ban on hunting birds there.

Franzen realizes that his writing about birds is only effective insofar as it avoids sentimentality. 'If you take birds seriously and find out about them and watch them carefully, it's hard to be too sentimental about them. My friend [UC Santa Cruz professor] Todd Newberry refers to birds as killing machines. Most birds are all about killing, killing, killing and being killed, often by other birds. I don't sentimentalize them. I respect that they are different from me, and I do love them. But when I see a dead bird, the only time I get upset is when I hit one myself. I've killed three birds with cars that I know of, and I can describe exactly where each of those bird deaths happened."

The book's showcase essay may be the title piece, which weaves together personal reflections of fraught family relationships with a vivid account of traveling to Antarctica on a Lindblad cruise ship. The takeaway image from the story features a majestic emperor penguin, spotted by Franzen from aboard the ship, holding court for a bunch of orange-bejacketed eco-tourists with cameras, as if it were holding a press conference. Franzen, always the contrarian, had already vowed he would not take a single photo on the trip. But he allowed himself to bathe a bit in the congratulations of his fellow tourists for spotting the penguin: "I finally had an inkling of how it must feel to be a high-school athlete and come to school after scoring a season-saving touchdown," he wrote.

There is no indication in the essay, however, of the other travelers' acknowledgement that they were with one of the world's most famous bird lovers and a man who once appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline "Great American Novelist." Antarctica is far to go to escape the pressures of literary fame, but they were there when Franzen returned to the unfrozen world, and they remain today, including the flaming arrows launched from social media.

"By living in Santa Cruz, it's much easier to ignore it all than it is being in New York," he said. He said he does not participate in social media. He has not googled himself since 2001. He points to Chetkovich—who he slyly refers to his in his new book as "The Californian"—as his anchor to the non-internet world. "My first line of defense is Kathy. She knows who I am. Whatever persona I have publicly is meaningless to her. I know who I am. My friends know who I am. I do feel there is less of all that stuff here in Santa Cruz, that this is a self-selected cultural community that looks inward, not in a bad way, but in a good way, that's not obsessed with the world's opinion. And that feels good."

Jonathan Franzen will read from his new book of essays "The End of the End of the Earth" at 7pm on Thursday at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. www.bookshopsantacruz.com.