Freedom (Franzen) - Author Bio

Author Bio
Birth—August 17, 1959
Where—Western Springs, Illinois, USA
Education—B.A., Swarthmore College; Fulbright Scholar at Freie Universitat in Berlin
Awards—National Book Award; Whiting Writer's Award; James Tait Memorial Prize;
  American Academy's Berlin Prize
Currently—lives in New York, New York, and Boulder Creek, California

Jonathan Earl Franzen is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel, The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earning Franzen a National Book Award. His next two novels, Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) garnered similar high praise. Freedom led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, and both novels continue to elicit the epithet "Great American Novelist." 

His next two novels, Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) garnered similar praise. Freedom led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, and both novels continue to elicit the epithet "Great American Novelist."

In recent years, Franzen has been recognized for his blunt opinions on contemporary culture:

  • social networking, such as Twitter ("the ultimate irresponsible medium")
  • the proliferation of e-books ("just not permanent enough")
  • the disintegration of Europe ("The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people.")
  • the self-destruction of America ("almost a rogue state").

Early life and education
Franzen is the son of Irene Super and Earl T. Franzen. He was born in Western Springs, Illinois, but grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

He majored in German at Swarthmore College, studying in Munich during his junior year. (While there he met Michael A. Martone, on whom he would later base the Walter Berglund character in Freedom.) After his 1981 graduation, Franzen became a Fulbright Scholar at the Freie Universitat in Berlin. He speaks fluent German as a result of these experiences.

Franzen married Valerie Cornell in 1982 and moved to Boston to pursue a career as a novelist. Five years later, the couple moved to New York where, in 1988, Franzen sold his first novel The Twenty-Seventh City.

Early novels
The Twenty-Seventh City is set in St. Louis and follows the city's decline from what had been its place in the late 19th century as the country's "fourth city." The novel was well received and established Franzen as an author to watch. In a conversation with novelist Donald Antrim for Bomb Magazine, Franzen described the book as "a conversation with the literary figures of my parents' generation[,] the great sixties and seventies Postmoderns." In a Paris Review article, he referred to himself as

...a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable middle-aged writer.

Strong Motion (1992), Franzen's second novel, focuses on the dysfunctional Holland family and uses seismic events on the U.S. East Coast as a metaphor for quakes that can disrupt the veneer of family life. Franzen has said the book is based on the ideas of "science and religion—two violently opposing systems of making sense in the world."

The Corrections
The Corrections, Franzen's third novel, came out in 2001. A novel of social criticism, it garnered considerable acclaim, winning both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The book was also a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (won by Richard Russo for Empire Falls).

The Corrections was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club in 2001. Franzen initially participated in the selection, sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah, but later expressed unease. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he worried that the Oprah logo on the cover would dissuade men from reading the book:

So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry—I'm sorry that it's, uh—I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking.

Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded. Winfrey announced,

Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book.

These events gained Franzen and his novel widespread media attention. The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction. At the National Book Award ceremony, Franzen thanked Winfrey "for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections."

In 2011, it was announced that Franzen would write a multi-part television adaptation of The Corrections for HBO in collaboration with director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale). The project was canceled, however, because it was feared that the "challenging narrative, which moves through time and cuts forwards and back" might make it "difficult...for viewers to follow."

After the release of Freedom in 2010, Franzen appeared on Fresh Air. He had drawn what he described as a "feminist critique" for the attention that male authors receive over female authors—a critique he agreed with.

While promoting the book, Franzen became the first American author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King in 2000. The photo appeared alongside the headline "Great American Novelist."

In an interview in Manchester, England, in October 2010, Franzen talked about his choice of a title for the book:

I think the reason I slapped the word on the book proposal I sold three years ago without any clear idea of what kind of book it was going to be is that I wanted to write a book that would free me in some way. And I will say this about the abstract concept of "freedom"; it’s possible you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are, than if you maintain this kind of uncommitted I’m free-to-be-this, free-to-be-that, faux freedom.

On September 17, 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be an Oprah book club selection, the first of the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show. On December 6, 2010, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote Freedom where they discussed that book and the controversy over his reservations about her picking The Corrections and what that would entail.

Purity, released in 2015, is described by the publisher as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents. The novel centers on a young woman named Purity Tyler, or Pip, who sets out to uncover the identity of her father, whom she has never known. The narrative stretches from contemporary America to South America to East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall; it hinges on the mystery of Pip's family history and her relationship with a charismatic hacker and whistleblower.

Like Franzen's two previous novels, Purity was published to strong reviews: New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that it was Franzen's "most intimate novel yet" and that the author "has added a new octave to his voice." Time called it "magisterial," while Ron Charles of the Washington Post referred to Franzen's "ingenious plotting" and perfectly balanced fluency." Sam Tannenhaus of the New Republic said of Franzen that "his vision unmasks the world in which we actually live."

Other works
In 2002, following The Corrections, Franzen published How to Be Alone, a collection of essays including "Perchance To Dream," his 1996 Harper's article about the state of the novel in contemporary culture. In 2006, he published his memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006), recounting the influence his childhood and adolescence have had in his creative life.

In 2012, two years after his release of Freedom, Franzen published Farther Away, another collection of essays on such topics as his love of birds, his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on technology.

In various lectures given while on tour, Franzen has mentioned four perennial questions often asked of him that he finds annoying:

  1. "Who are your influences?"
  2. "What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?"
  3. "I read an interview with an author who says that, at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters 'take over' and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?"
  4. "Is your fiction autobiographical?"

Personal life
Franzen and Valerie Cornell separated in 1994 and are now divorced. Franzen still lives part of the year in New York City but also spends time in Boulder Creek, California. While in California, he lives with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich.

In 2010, Franzen's glasses were stolen, then ransomed for $100,000, at an event in London celebrating the launch of Freedom. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/7/2015.)

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