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An author’s story
How literary It Boy Jonathan Franzen spun himself into a tornado of controversy

BY NINA WILLDORF


JONATHAN FRANZEN ABSENTLY digs through his wavy salt-and-pepper hair, tugging slightly on a tuft in the back. He has a scruffy day’s growth on his face reminiscent of George Clooney, and a raspy cough he owes to the taxing schedule of promoting his new book, The Corrections (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), for the past two months. The lanky, bespectacled 42-year-old also has the finely tuned senses of a former Bostonian. "Mmm ... the sweet smell of urine," he murmurs as he lopes through the outdoor courtyard at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. "How very Harvard Square."

By now, many people at least have heard of Franzen. In the past month, he’s been planted awkwardly on the ever-rotating throne of literary It Boy. If Sebastian Junger bore the mantle a few years back, and Dave Eggers last year, Jonathan Franzen wears it right now. Or he would, if he’d just smile, pretty-like, for the publishing industry.

Over a two-month span, the fiction writer has racked up a National Book Award nomination, a slot at or near number one on most bestseller lists, countless rave reviews and probing profiles, and an Oprah’s Book Club peg. Oops, take that last one back: Oprah Winfrey, whose book-club picks famously catapult authors into the commercial big league, rescinded her offer for Franzen to appear on her show after he voiced conflicted feelings about having Winfrey’s Book Club seal — an "implied endorsement" — on his book jacket.

On the face of it, Franzen’s own story follows a familiar arc: austere writer forgoes worldly pleasure for a life of poverty and creative toil. After numerous rejections and a couple of near-successes, he wins big. Powerful publisher spins well-timed publicity blitz, critics drool, readers buy, Oprah approves. Man is rich — but humble and self-abnegating. But then, there’s a twist to the plot: when he disses Oprah’s Book Club, the literary world waxes catty, supplying a dark ending to an otherwise upbeat tale of well-deserved success.

If you believe what you read about Franzen’s recent conflict with Oprah, he comes across as whiny, elitist, and arrogant. Franzen protests, between sips of iced green tea, that the portrait that’s been painted of him amounts to a poorly rendered caricature. "There are one or two, maybe three, formulas when talking about artists," he says tiredly. "And if you don’t fit one of those formulas, they’ll make you fit it." In a September New York Times Magazine profile, Franzen appears difficult, odd, self-denying, and, therefore ... brilliant. "Very dramatic," concludes the author. "And very false."

Writing via e-mail about the Oprah brouhaha, he seems utterly deflated by the game of literary spin. "I have no one but myself to blame for making complicated statements to people whose business, arguably, is quotation out of context," he writes. "And now, having been stupid and impolitic, I am paying the price, which is to be cast as a demon of snobbery and arrogance."

Arrogant or unaware, literary elitist or reckless naif — whatever the truth, the question remains: will recent portrayals of the author affect the reception of his novel?

FRANZEN’S HISTORY reads like an aspiring writer’s how-to. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1981, the Illinois native moved to Somerville to try his hand at a writing career. "Somewhat inexplicably in hindsight, I got married a year out of college and my wife and I decided to come here and start our life," he recounts. "She had a friend [here], I had a friend. That was enough. It was cheap."

Like many hopeful young artists, Franzen found Boston a fertile ground for learning his craft. In small, impossibly cheap apartments in Somerville, he slogged through innumerable manuscript drafts, fielded an endless stream of rejections, and undertook the decidedly unglamorous work of trying and failing — over and over again. "I wrote probably 30 stories in my Somerville years, and not one got published, ever," he says. Still, Franzen remembers this period of his life fondly. "It was, you know, the last line of A Moveable Feast, which was ‘We were very poor and very happy,’ " he says of his five years in Somerville with his now-ex-wife, Valerie Cornell. "We were very poor — and reasonably happy."

Franzen and Cornell, whom he met while working on Swarthmore’s literary magazine, found a $300-a-month apartment near Porter Square and both set out to write fiction. Their lifestyle was austere and single-minded: eight-hour days of writing, dinner at home, then four or five hours of reading. "I was frantically driven," he explains. "I got up after breakfast, sat down at the desk and worked till dark, basically. One of us would work in the dining room, and the kitchen was interposed, and then the bedroom was on the other side. It was workable, for newlyweds."

At first the couple lived off their savings. "We shopped at DeMoulas Market Basket — stretched those chicken thighs and that 10-pound bag of rice ... we never went out." He ticks off their cost-saving measures: "jug wine, cartons of Rolling Rock, enormous bag of chicken legs, whatever the cheapest cut was." But despite the pair’s thrift, their savings ran out, and Franzen decided to put aside his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, and try his hand at journalism. "I decided it was important to make money, so I started writing stories for the New Yorker. It took about 18 months to realize that wasn’t going to work out. In the meantime ... I found this job at Harvard in the seismology department."

Working as a researcher in the seismology lab, Franzen spent his weekends analyzing digital seismograms that track earthquakes. "Someone had to sit there and look at each trace and draw out the noise and keep the signal," he says. "So I threw out a lot of noise and kept a lot of signal."

His eyes light up; he’s made a connection between his novel-writing and the job that funded it: "Which is sort of like what I was doing, come to think of it, with the novel. I threw out a lot of noise and finally found signal. Yeaaahhh. I’d never actually thought about the symbolism of what I was doing."

Franzen and Cornell eventually moved into a bigger, more expensive apartment on Powderhouse Boulevard near Tufts University. But they remained reclusive. "My wife and I had almost no social contact," he recalls, with a hint of pleasure. "We never went to readings. We never had anything to do with other writers, or aspiring writers."

But it wasn’t all work and no play for the couple. "They showed double features at the Somerville Theatre," Franzen says with a smile. "You could get these coupon packs, which would let you in for $2 a head. So, like, pretty much all the movie watching I’ve done in my life I’ve done at the Somerville Theatre for as little as a dollar a movie."

Somerville is also where Franzen started reading some of his favorite literary luminaries. "The Somerville Library," he says. "Wonderful library. Amazingly good public library. That’s where I started reading Don DeLillo. They had all of it in hardcover. Not too heavily checked out."

In 1987, the couple decided to move to New York. Their landlord wanted to raise their rent to $600, and the still-unpublished authors were getting itchy. "I got priced out of Somerville," Franzen only half-jokes, while walking through Harvard Square. "I had to move to New York."

Apparently it was the right decision: weeks after moving into an apartment in Queens, Franzen sold his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Soon thereafter, he went to work on his second, Strong Motion, which takes place in Boston and Somerville and features a seismologist. Both books were critical successes but failed to engage the readers he sought. To add insult to injury, his marriage to Cornell was breaking up.

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Issue Date: November 8 - 15, 2001

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