Susan Lerner


Jonathan Franzen, arguably the best living American novelist, began his career in the late eighties. His first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, is a thriller set in his hometown of St. Louis. Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, tells the story of the Holland family, who live in a Boston that is beset by earthquakes. But it wasn’t until 2001, with The Corrections, that the author found a wider readership. This book sets the Lambert family’s conflicts and anxieties against the backdrop of larger social issues, like the changing economy of the ’90s, and the rampant use of psychopharmaceuticals. When Franzen expressed ambivalence at having The Corrections selected as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, the ensuing flurry of media coverage secured his foothold in mainstream culture. The author’s fourth novel, Freedom, interweaves the story of the Berglunds with subplots that examine mass consumerism and environmental issues. Franzen’s oeuvre also includes two collections of essays, How to Be Alone, and Farther Away, and a personal history, The Discomfort Zone. His most recent book is The Kraus Project, a translation with commentary of the work of the nineteenth-century Austrian critic, Karl Kraus.

Franzen’s visit to Butler University—as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series—was three-fold: a reading for the general public, a Q&A for Butler students, and an interview with Booth. As the MFA candidate/reader for Booth who was to interview Mr. Franzen, I attended his reading and Q&A so as to get a better sense of what the author is like. Many articles profiling the novelist cast him as a cranky contrarian, but the Jonathan Franzen I saw didn’t fit into any of my preconceived ideas. During his reading he seemed intent on entertaining the crowd. Afterwards he fielded questions from the audience and responded genially. He smiled. He said thank you. When someone asked Franzen if he wanted his work to be a catalyst for social change, the novelist said he wasn’t opposed to the idea, but added, “I’m just trying to give the reader a good time.”

The undergraduates who attended the author’s Q&A had questions about The Discomfort Zone. Franzen said that the first thirty pages he wrote were awful because he was ashamed of his innocence. “Shame is the worst substance on the page, the most contagious of all feelings,” he said. After he rewrote the material using humor, casting himself as a “ridiculous figure,” he was able to let go of that shame. When Franzen was asked about his intense interest in birding, he told the crowd—most of them in their late teens and early twenties—that he didn’t start to grow up until he was in his forties. “I was so self-conscious for so much of my life, especially as a teenager,” he said, adding that it was through birding that he learned how to be in the moment and enjoy it. After the undergraduates left, Jonathan Franzen sat down with me to share some of his thoughts on literature, social media, and infamy.

Cover Page Footnote

A Conversation with Jonathan Franzen was originally published at