I haven’t read the new one yet, though I certainly enjoyed The Corrections and Freedom. With Franzen, of course, the work may ultimately be the whole story, but not while he’s alive. His identification as a bothersome man who irks people is always part of every profile, and he doesn’t seem to run from the characterization. A person who found fault with Oprah’s meshuganah galaxy of faux doctors, victim-porn and automobile giveaways isn’t exactly incorrect, but a more political person probably would have taken the gobs of money he made from the association and absconded quietly into the night. Other skirmishes since then seemed similarly avoidable, but Franzen wouldn’t be Franzen if he didn’t visibly recoil from the democratic, unchallenging standards of much of American culture, letting us know exactly what he thinks of us. Again: I wouldn’t say he’s really wrong.
While he has been talking we have each been given a large white bowl with a pair of tiny, shrivelled pastries in them and a jug of tepid, cloudy liquid on the side. Franzen eats his without comment, and I ask: does he understand why he makes people quite so cross? “Well, I have to acknowledge the possibility that I’m simply a horrible person.”
He recites the line with a practised irony. Evidently he acknowledges no such possibility at all.
“My other answers would all be sort of self-flattering, right? Because I tell the truth; people don’t like the truth.”
He tells me about a piece he wrote in the New Yorker in March about climate change and bird conservation in which he managed to alienate everyone, including bird watchers. “I pointed out that 25 years after humanity collectively tried to reduce its carbon emissions, they reached an all-time high last year; further pointed out that the people who say we still have 10 years to keep the average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius are, charitably, deluded or, uncharitably, simply lying. And, therefore, maybe we should rethink whether we want to be putting such a large percentage of our energies into what is essentially a hopeless battle.”
His idea of himself as a truth-teller is only partly why people find him so aggravating. There is something about the man himself, and his variety of superior maleness, that also annoys.•