Why Should We Celebrate Jonathan Franzen? Because Books Still Matter

On the cover of one of the most widely read magazines in the country, a writer is looking directly back at us, and we are being told that...
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He stares back at us from the red-bordered page, his countenance serious but not by choice, as though a photographer offscreen is warning him of the gravity of his situation and he has had no choice but to react. He is photographed in a way that begs you to take him seriously, but also to let you know that he is quite uncomfortable with being considered in such a manner. He is a writer, after all, someone who makes up stories and characters and lies for a living, not someone who belongs on the cover of TIME magazine or sitting cross-legged on Oprah Winfrey's couch. Franzen is a purveyor of words, not someone whose face should be selling magazines or taking up airtime. But therein lies the rub: we are being told all this with a wink, that despite the oxymoron of being an Overexposed Novelist the fact that Franzen is being granted such exposure speaks to the importance of his work. And this sword hovering over Jonathan Franzen has two edges: on one is hope, on the other scorn. But every time we cleave him with scorn, it is our flesh--not his--that is wounded.

Franzen's history barely need be repeated. In 2001, he penned one of the great literary works of the decade, The Corrections, which has sold nearly three million copies. A number not foreign to writers of popular fiction, but for a literary writer it's like "Twilight" crossed with "Inception." Franzen riled many by seeming not only indifferent, but uncomfortable with an invitation to sit on the Couch of the Mighty O, and due to this attitude he was the first writer disinvited to share her plush furniture (Mike Tyson, post-rape conviction, has sat on her couch, and even James Frey was invited back). Franzen was called elitist, snobbish, unappreciative. After all, Oprah's Golden Touch guarantees sales in the hundreds of thousands and changes the lives of writers. And Franzen slapped the hand away. Even though he really didn't.

As Lev Grossman states in his TIME profile of Franzen, the quotes were taken somewhat out of context, and Franzen did in fact thank Oprah during his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. Because after all, in our sound bite, knee-jerk culture it was easier to cherry pick the juicy quotes rather than try to understand that, at the time, Franzen was a relatively obscure writer coming to terms with suddenly being a literary post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio. And so now Franzen appears on the cover of TIME, is profiled in Vogue, and has riled up the literary community in a way that would make you think he'd spent the last nine years GTL'ing on the Jersey Shore rather than penning his next novel.

So why the animosity? Why the jealousness? Why are people taking potshots at Franzen rather than celebrating the recognition of a writer who is being put out there, front and center, to represent the importance of the written word, to tell people that his profession is worthy of recognition alongside the most important issues of our time?

The sad truth is, with few exceptions, writers are not recognized by the mainstream population or media. My guess is one hundred people could identify Snooki over every one who could identify Toni Morrison. The celebration of being famous for being loud and sloppy has usurped being famous for the act of actually creating. For once, someone who has created something, who is one of us, who not only knows the value of a book but has devoted his life to them, is being presented to society at large as our representative. And some people scorn this, as though they would prefer writers as a whole to remain anonymous, who seem to believe there is some odd nobility in remaining chained to the same desk chair in which you write your books. Or they would rather feud over who deserves what and why until the whole literary culture is fragmented into tiny crumbs that can be ignored and swept under the carpet.

Is Franzen the literary world's ideal representative? Maybe not. Maybe yes. I don't think it matters. What matters is that on the cover of one of the most widely read magazines in the country, a writer is looking directly back at us, and we are being told that His. Craft. Matters. We should have no tolerance for the snipers, the agitators, the petty grievers who lament that Franzen was given this honor rather than someone else who may have been a better fit. When the day comes that writers are commonly granted the accolades and recognition they deserve, we can argue over who deserves what and why. But for now, Franzen is being lifted up for all of us. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When our culture tells us that the ignorant are to be admired, that vacuousness is the new entertainment, the battle over ebooks feels like a battle over who has to sweep the deck on the titanic. When reading and intelligence is presented as overrated or unimportant, these small quibbles seem laughable. Too few know the importance of the written word, how important letters are, how important thinkers are, how important books are.

And so here it is, in big bold letters: Great American Novelist. Whether he is comfortable with it or not, Franzen is the representative for the entirety of publishing. His cover is telling millions of people, shouting from newsstands, that writers are still the soul of our culture. That books still matter. That books still matter. And this, beyond anything, is reason to celebrate. And this, beyond anything, is a reason to be hopeful.

Jason Pinter is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), as well as the ebook exclusive thriller FAKING LIFE, which have nearly 1.5 million copies in print in over a dozen languages. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in November 2011. Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.

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