Why I’m Reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity”

I am currently reading a book to impress a guy.

This is a rare occurrence nowadays since I usually read whatever I want whenever I want to read it, and read widely at that. That’s how OutlanderThe Goldfinch, and Battling Boy all get read in the course of a few months. But the book in question to impress said guy is one I’ve wanted to read for a while now anyway, so I really don’t mind.

Anyway, I used to do this all the time, especially back in high school. If a guy I pined for was reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ezra Pound, I added it to my list. I was especially susceptible to reading novels to impress my teachers. I mean, I was a little bit of a Hermione Granger in high school, kind of a suck up, definitely an obnoxious know-it-all…

That was me...correcting anytime someone pronounced "Mercutio" the wrong way
That was me…correcting anytime someone pronounced “Mercutio” the wrong way

I’m surprised I still have friends from that era since I think if I could I’d go back in time and smack that girl in the face and tell her “Stop name dropping T. S. Eliot and Modernism. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about and nobody cares anyway! Also, in ten years you’re going to be reading smutty romance novels so just lean in and embrace your transformation into being a genre fiction advocate!” My dad was a high school English teacher so I felt a constant need to show off and hope that my teachers realized how “brilliant” I was. Well, I had mixed success with that…

But I was also obsessed with impressing my philosophy and government teacher in particular. He was one of those cool, effortlessly influential young guys who we all wanted to be in ten years, or at least be like, so my friends and I would write down whatever pop culture reference he would make (he was a DJ by night) and any book he would reference, looking at these titles and authors and songs as clues to being hip and with-it. It was a little bit Julian Morrow/Secret History, and looking back on it, I doubt he would have been opposed to leading us down a path of Dionysian ritual and human sacrifice. He was that influential to us.

He was especially into the contemporary literary fiction crowd, people like Dave Eggers, George Saunders, and Jonathan Franzen. I remember distinctly the time he told us in senior year that Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections made him cry. Was this the key to literary clout? I thought. Would reading The Corrections make me into the hot, intelligent, “well-read” sexy lady I wanted to be for the boys I’d meet at Columbia next year? Maybe reading The Corrections was the gateway to being the kind of woman men would want to spend time with, I wondered. I didn’t know what these women were like, but I imagined I could become one of them if I just read The Corrections.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen...the key to popularity, success, and maybe sex
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen…the key to popularity, success, and maybe even sex (!)

So I did it. I read The Corrections  in the summer after my senior year of high school. I think I had kind of a unique perspective than other 17 year olds at the time since my dad was in his 60s, so I was starting to see some of the whole “aging parents” themes coming into play. I read it in the slow hours of my day while I worked in an office job at a university. I read it while melting into the concrete of the train station in the middle of a heatwave. I read it on the train on the way home, the pages seeming to turn themselves.

It wasn’t my first “big book” of literary fiction written by some white guy with the name “Jonathan,” and it wasn’t my last, but it was definitely up there as a formative work of literature in my young life, and it remains there to this day, ten years later.

I read Freedom when it came out, too. I got up at 8:00 the morning it was released and walked across campus to the Barnes and Noble college bookstore so I could be there when they opened at 8:30. I imagined crowds of people fighting over their copies or beating down the doors—I mean, Obama packed an advanced copy for his summer vacation to Martha’s Vineyard…and people were calling the book a Great American Novel in the New York Times. In reality, I had to go up to the information desk and ask for it. A sleepy staff member went up behind closed doors and sold me the first copy of the day. I walked back to my dorm room with the comfortable weight of the novel heavy in the sagging plastic bag.

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen

And, it was great. It was so…readable, engrossing, written like a novel ought to be written, which is to say the writing seemed effortless.

I especially liked how the characters seemed so fully realized, and they were all basically hot messes. I love a good story where characters are basically one step away from complete and total irredeemable failure or having nervous breakdowns. I especially like reading about characters who have fallen from grace, or at the very least youthful ambitions. I like it when the first fragile fault lines are starting to spread across the perfectly-delicate egg shell exterior of a person’s mind. When they’re about to crack. It’s fun to watch them collapse and shatter.

Franzen writes characters like that.

(So does Jennifer Egan.)

Anyway, my mom read it, too. So did Leslie Knope…

Ann says "Why am I reading this?" and Leslie replies "Because I'm almost done with it, Ann, and I want to talk about Patty!"
Ann says “Why am I reading this?” and Leslie replies “Because I’m almost done with it, Ann, and I want to talk about Patty!”

And just about everyone.

This year I about flipped the fuck out when I read in The Millions’ Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2015 Books Preview that Jonathan Franzen had a new book coming out. As soon as I saw that it was a fast stop to Amazon for the “Pre-Order with 1 Click” button and a sense of giddy anticipation.

I was aware that Jonathan Franzen is kind of a dick.

I am aware that people were pissed that he appeared on the cover of Time as a “Great American Novelist” as opposed to a woman, a minority, or really anyone else.

Jonathan Franzen, Great American Novelist?
Jonathan Franzen, Great American Novelist? Or Great American Douchebag?

But I read it anyway.

So I counted down the days until September 1st, Purity‘s release date. I was pretty broke for a while and even cancelled my pre-order, crying all the cries, before I sobered up and charged it on a different card so I could still get it when it came out. Oh, the things we do for books…

Jonathan Franzen's Purity
Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

At the same time, at the back of my mind, I felt like I had to steel myself against a wave of criticism for not only reading Purity, but feeling struck-dumb delighted about it. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Jonathan Franzen has been saying a lot of douche-y things lately, like that he considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan to understand young people. Or that he kind of relished being a “villain” for feminists. Jennifer Weiner used this as an excuse to beat her dead horse about lack of coverage of women’s writing in places like The New York Times Book Review. I rolled my eyes. A lotHaving written about this issue a few months ago, my views essentially haven’t changed.

Distilled into one sentence: If we stop valuing The New York Times Book Review, we stop using it as an arbitrary benchmark for how contemporary literary criticism and book journalism is doing in the great (and necessary) push for coverage of diverse writers and books.

Diversity is happening elsewhere. Literary criticism is happening elsewhere. Coverage of women writers and diverse writers does not begin and end with The New York Times Book Review. People my age who read books are reading Book Riot or n+1 or Bustle or BuzzFeed or Flavorwire or The Millions. Our literary salons take place in online social media spaces in shares and likes, in e-mails and upvotes, in pins and hashtags, and The New York Times Book Review, as far as I can tell, is not at the forefront of our conversations. It is on the one way train to obsolescence.

Also, can I just say…Jennifer Weiner is not my favorite face for the quest to be equated with the big boys. And I refuse to dissolve into elitist insults, that her genre is better than literary fiction, that her gender makes her less of a writer. The fact is, I just don’t think Jennifer Weiner is a really talented writer. I cannot get through a novel by her without being unimpressed with the prose or disengaged from the boring and obnoxious protagonists.

This isn’t because she’s a woman.

This isn’t because she writes “women’s fiction” or “chick lit.”

This isn’t because there is romance and sex in her novels.

It’s because I don’t think she is a good writer.

I need to clear something up. I know that Jonathan Franzen is a jerk, but I also know that he is a brilliantly talented writer, at least for me. I can’t excuse what he does or say, but I also can’t stop reading his novels since they feel like they reach me on a personal level. It’s hard for me to ignore that he can be an asshole, but it’s harder to ignore that his novels have shaped who I am as a reader and writer who talks about books. I cannot erase his racist/sexist/classicist/out-of-touch remarks any more than I can erase how deeply his literature affects me.

Jonathan Franzen—contrary to the suspicions of those who haven’t read him—is actually not a pretentious writer. Someone once said to me that she believed Franzen sat around thinking about how to write something really clever and brilliant and smart. I don’t agree. I think he writes with intention, but he writes with the intention to tackle big, serious issues, and he makes it seem effortless. His prose is extremely accessible, his novels aren’t dense, at least not in language but definitely in ambition.

So I will read Purity because Franzen was a formative writer for me, someone who was a gateway author as I transitioned from YA into novels that were designed for older readers and covered more adult themes. The Corrections did not make me cry when I finished it, but when I closed the covers I felt different, transformed, like I had just had a reading experience that touched on my deepest fears about aging and family and relevance, yet something that confirmed what I secretly knew: that literature could talk about big themes and hit you in the gut, could smack you silly with a sobering realism, could transform you, could make you reflect on your life, could make reading and books matter. It was an immediate, high-wattage shock holding my hand and leading me into a professional reader, and it drove my decision to dedicate my studies and ultimately my life and career to talking and writing about books.

I guess, in a way, it was my first book hangover because I had to remind myself to breathe.

Thanks, Sherlock. That's exactly what I needed to do.
Thanks, Sherlock. That’s exactly what I needed to do.

So I’m going to embrace this moment and enjoy the publication of a new novel by a writer whom I admire and who has meant so much to me. I’m going to savor a week when getting my copy of Purity in the mail made me smile and made me get excited about the anticipation of the reading experience.

10 years in the life of a reader…

My reading whims and fancies are no longer determined by trying to impress others, for the most part, this novel I’m reading for the guy being an exception. But over the last 10 years my views on literature have changed as this art becomes more of a presence in my life both personally and professionally. The Corrections was one of those gateway novels into a new chapter of my reading life. I will read Purity because I want to be reminded that reading matters, that books matters, that novels can shape your life.

And I will slog through this book I’m reading to impress some guy because I want books to be at the forefront of our conversations. I want to engage in literary dialogue.

Also, I really like the guy…

And maybe, just maybe, some man will read The Corrections for me.


Greetings Fellow Reader!

Welcome to Broke By Books, a blog by Sarah S. Davis, where the guiding mission is to spread a contagious love for reading through helpful, thought provoking, and enjoyable writing about books. Please join me in growing an inspired, engaged, and fearless reading life.

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