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Freedom Ain’t So Great: Why Franzen’s No Genius

Publishing needs its darlings to keep afloat – its Dan Browns and Tattooed Girls and Meyerses – and what is true for genre is true for literary fiction as well. And so 2010 brought us Franzen’s “Freedom,” the great white hope of American Letters.

I’m always puzzled (no, not puzzled … annoyed) by literary types who sneer at Dan Brown or Steig Larsson and their ilk. What that sneer means is: “I enjoy a different kind of writing, and if you enjoy this kind, you are stupid.” But people buy Brown and Larsson, and love them, and those clumsy sentences don’t seem to bother most people one whit. Perhaps those “clumsy” sentences are just what the mass market wants: the kind of sentences they themselves would write. And good for them: Brown doesn’t pretend to be Tolstoy, and so shouldn’t be held to that standard. Instead Brown et al should be assessed on their own terms: as entertainments that people enjoy to read; if you don’t enjoy them, that’s a matter taste, and criticizing Dan Brown for bad dialogue is like criticizing Keith Richard for his poor flute skills.

Franzen’s “Freedom,” on the other hand, is trying to be something different, and so opens itself up to more literary knife-wielding. Because Franzen (painfully) does pretend to be Tolstoy (so much so that he has to remind readers twice). Which in itself is fine, by the way, and doesn’t justify knives, necessarily. Anyone in the world is perfectly in their rights to write a novel they wish were as good as “War and Peace,” and I wouldn’t say a peep. There are thousands of such books published every year.

But what ripens “Freedom” for attack is the glowing talk of Genius that came with it.

I can’t get my head around it. Numerous serious ciritics read Franzen and agreed with the author’s own wishes for the book. It’s been call “Great,” a “Masterpiece” and “Genius,” which is par for the course in book blurbing, but with “Freedom” there was a breathless sense that this was more than your run-of the-mill “masterpiece,” this was, rather, a “Major Book,” a “Masterpiece,” the kind of book that comes once in a generation, a kind of “Masterpiece” that all writers and readers ought to pay attention to.

And I can’t figure that out.

I mean… really?

Do you, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of NY Times Book Review (and a conservative to boot!) *really* think that this is a “masterpiece of American fiction” ? I just cannot believe it. I mean, literally, I cannot believe that Sam Tanenhaus could read this novel and think it a masterpiece. Ron Charles at the Washington Post was more reasonable – but he too (begrudgingly) called the book “brilliant.”

I don’t know if I’m like the Dan Brown haters out there, but I just can’t let this slide. So, here are 10 reasons why “Freedom” is not a masterpiece. It may be a good book, or perhaps a sweeping look at American culture. Certainly it’s popular. But, it’s so riddled with flaws and laziness, that I just can’t believe it’s a masterpiece.

Here are 10 reasons why it isn’t (NOTE: I haven’t backed up my complaints with examples, mainly because my iPhone version of Kobo won’t allow for note-taking, and … yes … when you want to look at a book more closely, you want paper). Anyway, the list of crimes include:

1. The Expository Essays.
Franzen wants to tell you about strip mining and birds and Iraq. And every time Franzen went off on one of these tangents I felt like I was reading the third draft of a first novel by an earnest high school student. When these essays were shoehorned into dialogue, I was just about ready to throw the book (contained inside my iPhone) across the room. This is genius? Editor, please.

2. The Voice(s).
In two sections of the book, Franzen presents a manuscript supposedly written by Patty. You have to be kidding? That’s Patty’s voice, Mr. Franzen (and editor)? Come on. Ironically, I found Patty’s first section the best part of the novel (though I didn’t realize till the end that Franzen was putting in “the autobiographer notes…” I kept reading “the biographer notes …” – my brain had decided this wasn’t Patty’s voice, and took appropriate action). Anyway, this section was the part of the book I enjoyed most (Franzen should have stopped here). But it sure wasn’t Patty’s voice.

3. Where the hell did the editor go?
There were so many clumsy, ugly sentences I just couldn’t believe it. Franzen has been called a master stylist. I suppose he does the odd interesting thing with dialogue, but for so much of the book I was cringing.

Look: genius doesn’t have to be perfect. Probably it shouldn’t be. But I don’t think a work of genius should display such laziness. And that’s what this book felt to me: lazy, in so many different ways.

4. Conservatives
Do you think Franzen has ever spoken to an actual conservative? His conservatives were plastic, juvenile caricatures, and not worthy of a writer of genius.

5. Joey
Joey is the most phony, inconsistent and completely unbelievable character I’ve read in a book in ages. Describe him for me. Does *anything* about him make any sense? The relationship with Connie? He’s described one way, but behaves totally differently. The whole Joey chapter was a complete disaster. I think I might have enjoyed the book somewhat if it weren’t for that dog’s breakfast of crappy writing.

6. Conspiracies
I don’t know how other writers come up with their satirical conspiracies, but do you get the feeling Franzen kept reading an article in Harper’s, and then throwing in another “subplot,” for padding, with the plan to edit later? And then he just never got around to editing. Is it too much to expect a little bit of work? You know, I liked his Estonian satire in Corrections. Maybe he got too much flack for that, and tried to pull back in this one. With the result: milquetoast. Or rather, the butter that sits on the surface of milquetoast.

7. Characters
Franzen has been lauded for painting a portrait of a family. But these characters just didn’t make any sense to me half the time. Patty who careens all over the place. The relationship between Patty and Joey. Walter: I mean, tell me about Walter. Connie? Totally baffling. Not to mention bit players Jonathan and Jenna, completely cardboard, unbelievable. Read War and Peace, and then lets talk about character.

8. The Disdain
I don’t think I have ever read a writer who is as disgusted by his characters as Franzen is. Thankfully, the disdain dissipated as the book went on. But that first section just dripped with disdain. It was so strange.

9. Adverbs.
Sorry, but I just can’t abide so many adverbs. And glib adverbs too. The worst kind.

10. Technology
Franzen should be banned from writing anything about technology – Twitter, blogs, cell phones. Write what you know, Mr. Franzen. You ring false when you try to talk about technology.

Now look, I’m not saying that the book’s no good. I read the whole thing, so I was entertained enough. I’m a sucker for love triangles, and the Walter/Patty/Richard made a good one, a very good one. And I suppose it’s heartening that someone’s taking a stab at a big sweeping novel about America. He tries, which is good, to tackle some of the big themes of our time: war and the environment, not to mention sex. It’s accessible and in a grand old tradition of literary fiction. I won’t fault Franzen for any of those decisions. But still, it’s not a great book.

So Franzen gets a B for intent, a C for effort. His editor gets an F for letting Franzen’s “Freedom” go out into the world looking like such a shoddy, lazy piece of work.

And, no, it’s no masterpiece.


  1. Martine Martine 2011-01-07

    I was curious to see what your conclusion would be as I followed your growing impatience with the book on Twitter. Guess it didn’t get better for you, did it? ;) Seems like I enjoyed it more than you did, though just like you, I can’t quite understand how the book managed to get so much praize. My biggest problem was the Patty character. She’s an American sport jock, a bit naive,very confused, and then she writes this articulate, somewhat intellectual autobiography. That part, by the way, was also my favorite part of the book. Good sense of humour and irony along with some emotional truth. I’m also a sucker for a good love triangle – my master’s thesis was around that subject (in film) – and I thought this was the most interesting and honest part about the book. I found my sympathy to be switching constantly between the 3 characters at different times, which I’m sure is what Franzen intended.

    Earlier in 2010, I read a book of his essays and I preferred it to the novel. You might appreciate his non fiction more than his novels.

  2. Michael Michael 2011-01-07

    I have a weakness for wanting to read books that I may feel like throwing across the room… so now I definitely will read Freedom now! Hmmm, Kindle reader or iBook???

  3. Hugh Hugh 2011-01-07

    It wasn’t terrible, and I enjoyed parts of it.

    I just can’t understand the Genius reviews, unless:
    a) there’s payola
    b) I have an outdated understanding of what Genius should be in a book.

  4. John B John B 2011-01-07

    I was curious to see what you thought as well, after seeing some of your reactions on Twitter. I guess I’ll hold off on reading it until it’s available in paperback, or maybe second-hand paperback, (also, my neighbour tried to recycle a ton of classics recently, which I rescued and haven’t read yet).

  5. maurizio maurizio 2011-01-08

    Although, I enjoyed the book more than you by the sounds of it, your comments are spot on. It’s no masterwork. (But Frantzen did prompt me, on both occasions, to put War and Peace in my reading queue.)

  6. Lisa Duggan Lisa Duggan 2011-03-04

    Maybe it’s the masterwork a lazy, mediocre country earns.

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