In a book about Franzen, Philip Weinstein takes on a living literary giant


Philip Weinstein, recently retired literature professor at Swarthmore College, has written a captivating biography of big-deal novelist Jonathan Franzen in mid-career.

Upon investigation, it turns out that both men have moved out of their writing comfort zones to produce work very different from earlier in their careers. That’s where the excitement begins. Mr. Weinstein’s shift is more recent. It represents a move from academic work to general readership.

Many of us know Mr. Weinstein from his seminar series at the Vineyard Haven Public Library on the work of the likes of Faulkner and Dostoevsky. He is nationally recognized as an expert on the authors. Most of us are familiar with Mr. Franzen’s big and comic novels about dysfunctional American families and our national culture.

Mr. Weinstein’s effort here is a real and engaging story, not dusty academia, packed with footnotes and literary allusions that baffle us as mainstream readers. Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Franzen are friendly acquaintances from a shared Swarthmore College background, and Mr. Weinstein has fashioned their communications and his own research into a personal and literary look at Mr. Franzen. If you are intrigued, as many readers are, by Mr. Franzen’s work and his mystique, this is the first in-depth, full-length opportunity you have to understand more about the man and his career.

We learn, for example, that Mr. Weinstein might have also subtitled his book “Getting Out of His Own Way.” The Franzen story from that point of view has a rollicking flavor to observers, and why not? We didn’t have to survive his crucible.

Franzen the man, after publishing two novels (“The 27th City” and “Strong Motion”) that won critical acclaim but not popular success in the late 1980s, underwent a personal transformation as a result of life losses (the death of his parents and a withered marriage) that led him away from a stance as self-righteous arbiter of American culture. His shift to a reader-friendly writer of the human condition, especially as evidenced in “normal” American family life in “The Corrections” (2001) and “Freedom” (2011), was a move that mainstream readers embraced. His latest novel, “Purity,” was published two months ago to delicious reviews of his satirical, on-point storytelling of cultural mores.

A review snippet notes that Mr. Franzen’s work is concerned with “the erosion of civil life and private dignity; and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America.”

Mr. Franzen was raised in St. Louis, Mo., by God- (or Something-) fearing Midwesterners. Young Jonathan was fabulously inept socially, a loner who knew he had a big brain, could write the pants off anybody around, and desired to write the Great American Novel. He matriculated at Swarthmore, majoring in German because his father would not pay for something as silly as a major in English Lit. Getting the picture? He seems to have viewed pop culture, indeed American culture, as an oxymoron in the vein of “giant shrimp” and “government intelligence.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t culture, and he wasn’t buying it. To his credit and to our delight, that viewpoint remains intact.

At Swarthmore, he produced a reasonably long and horribly mismatched marriage and a first novel which amused critics and left readers unmoved. They weren’t buying it. Mr. Franzen says today that he was writing for critical acknowledgment from the intelligentsia. Critics also favored “Strong Motion,” his second novel, and mainstream readers remained unmoved.

What happened? Mr. Weinstein, Mr. Franzen himself, and a legion of reviewers tell us that the lionization of Franzen occurred after his personal losses convinced him, in brief, to join the human race, to be an inclusive writer. As Mr. Weinstein relates, Mr. Franzen describes the change process as a move from rage to love, from status writing (for peer approval) to contract writing, acknowledging a bond or contract with his reader.

When his third novel, “The Corrections,” came out 10 years later, after his dark night of the soul, critics and readers loved it. Mr. Franzen achieved greater fame by managing to get himself disinvited to the Oprah Winfrey Show as her Book of the Month author after publicly disclosing concerns that the appearance would hurt him as a serious writer. Gotta love this guy. For a writer, appearing on Oprah was winning the lottery. As a happy ending, his next book, “Freedom,” earned him a second Oprah invite. He went.

This is not a neat black-and-white tale. There is a lot of gray. Mr. Franzen correctly points out that writers who say they don’t write to be read are lying, but he also acknowledges that popular accolade is desirable and uncomfortable at the same time.

Mr. Franzen has been unrelentingly clear about his life and work, and Mr. Weinstein has done us a solid in his depiction of Mr. Franzen’s work and beliefs.

Mr. Weinstein spoke with The Times for a Q&A about his new book.

Q: How does analyzing a living acquaintance differ from working with long-dead masters?

A: At the most important level — the text itself — it is not different. The engagement is not with a person but with the work. Once out of text, dealing with a live person who I know, the challenges and temptations are different. The challenge is to be honest. The temptation is that I can’t savage him. I care for him, a living person; I found faults, and became willing to risk it if it was important enough. The way I decided to manage the problem was to decide whether, fundamentally, I like the work. I had to sign on to that criterion first. I believe my generosity to the work would survive the criticism.

The second part is more difficult. Dead writers won’t read or respond. I sent him the galleys for corrections of fact, and he found and corrected 20 or 30 of them, correcting mistakes only he would know, and they have made the book marginally better. But I did not make literary changes.

Q: What about writing for a general audience for the first time after writing for the academic community?

A: That was the other challenge: to write a book for a general, not a literary, audience, without the academic apparatus, such as footnotes or foreign syntax. But I have reached a point in my life at which I don’t want to write a university book.

Q: Your approach smacks of investigative journalism: You uncover small bits of information, prove them as fact, and build on them. Is that true? Do you do that as a matter of course? Was it heightened in this project?

A: That process of building the case — even if you can’t prove it, you provide evidence so others can see where your leaps are grounded — that’s common to everything I’ve written. However, when you do literary criticism, you credentialize with 20 sources. I couldn’t do that with Franzen; he doesn’t have yet a battery of voices. It’s a different voice.

Q:Is post-epiphany Franzen more or less authentic at the end of the day? Can he manage status/contract? Is he selling out for fame?

A: I think that’s a permanent temptation. He knows what they are. All writers want audience. If you are self-alert, and he is, you ask, “What is this wanting doing to me?” On the whole, he’s won the bet, making characters matter for readers without cutting corners.

But the challenge is continuous. He hit paydirt with “Connections,” but he had to change something, and the style in “Freedom” does that. The challenge is how to do it in the next one. Doesn’t get easier. You have to stay alive. What you’ve done you can’t do again.