In a 1996 Harper’s essay Perchance to Dream (subsequently republished as Why Bother?), American author Jonathan Franzen lamented the decline of the social novel, the atomization of American life in the age of mass media and held out a modest hope that, despite the public’s retreat into customizable cocoons of personalization, “there’s no bubble that can stay unburst.” In 2001, Franzen successfully pricked those bubbles, offering his grand masterpiece of social commentary with The Corrections – the rare piece of fiction to win admirers in both critical circles and commercial book clubs.
Some 17 years, a few more novels (Freedom, Purity), and a some very public failures later (including the collapse of two TV shows based on his books, some feuds and a general perception of being an out-of-touch, internet-hating luddite), Franzen is more modest, if not exactly humble.
His newest essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth reveals something of the author’s softer side. Amid the sustained gripes about social media and the fracturing of collective experience, the fate of the literary essay, and prescriptive guides for how to write a novel, Franzen explores his obsession with birds, his relationship with his late uncle, his appreciation of Edith Wharton, and, especially, his consuming interest with the pressing reality of climate change. The Globe and Mail spoke to Franzen about the book, social media solos, and how to find meaning at the end of the earth.
You use this word in the new book, “silos” – those spaces where people only engage with like-minded people. What is the effect of this on a novelist or an essayist? You were once someone who held out great hope for the unifying power of fiction.
In order to keep working as a novelist I had to stop believing that it would change in any meaningful way. Instead I focused on the fact that it is an exercise in empathy. That’s basically the praxis of fiction: trying to understand what it’s like to be someone else, and also acknowledging the possibility of your own error. It’s one of the ironies of the Internet. It was supposed to democratize and create these new forms of empathy, and it has done precisely the opposite in most cases. It’s a bitter irony. But perhaps not an unforeseeable irony.
I came of age online and celebrated all the rhetoric of the democratizing effect of the Internet and social media. But what seems to have borne itself out historically is that corporate power and politicians exploit this potential effect to more nefarious ends. Have you always been suspicious of these utopian claims?
I’m nearly twice as old as you are. I was reading all those techno-utopians in the mid-90s and all their promises were clearly hogwash. The Internet is a giant shopping mall. You expect a giant shopping mall to make people better, to bring about a world of peace and understanding? And giant companies control this. You expect these giant companies to be worthy and generous, unlike every other company in the world?
We have a lot of conversations about who can tell what stories. Here in Canada we recently had a literary scandal involving people not only telling Indigenous stories, but even co-opting an Indigenous identity to do so.
That’s ugly. I hadn’t heard about that one.
Well you’re someone who’s well-known for creating fully realized female characters. Do you think there’s a way for people to tell stories that don’t belong them?
There’s a responsibility to get it right. There are some experiences that I don’t know well enough that I feel I can responsibly write about. Like the experience of being a black person in America. That’s something I haven’t done, except in a very small way in my first novel. I feel in my bones that I’m not sure I have the right to do this. I do write a lot about women. Half my characters are women. Half the human race is women. Two out of the three readers when I’m working on something are women. They are the first people to read anything I write, because I want to know if it’s an authentic representation. And I can smell – oh boy, can I smell – fantasy in male writers writing about women. Fantasy and misogyny. I’m all over it. If you’ve got a book and someone can make it better by saying, “Sorry, this is a total stereotype" then it’s the novelist’s job not to do stereotypes, not to do cliché and not to imagine things in a halfway way.
Your new book sees you writing extensively about birds and birding. Does describing your encounters with birds offer a model for radical empathy, for identifying not only with other people, but another species?
It’s an interesting theory. I’m moved to write about birds because I love birds. My agent has lately worried that I say too much about birds and that people who don’t care about birds have lost patience with my continuing writing about them. I think empathy is integral to love. So anything you love you’re going to empathize with.
You write about climate change while seeming urgent, but not hectoring. When you write about the fate of birds, are you trying to write about climate change without finger pointing and saying, “Don’t drive an SUV, don’t have kids, don’t eat beef”?
Writing about the environment and writing about nature are two of the most difficult rhetorical challenges a writer can face. Because most of the news is bad. And if it’s not bad then you’re writing about being on a really beautiful hike. It’s hard to know which of those two things I’d least like to read. I come to a very natural way to writing about climate change, because I’m writing against a certain rhetoric about it. I’m writing a corrective to much of the way you might otherwise read about it.
Part of that corrective, in my reading, responds to a certain, Naomi Klein-ish optimism, which holds that we can still reverse the course and write letters to our government representatives and so on. You almost accept the fact of the apocalypse and offer a guide for how to live inside that fact.
It’s a weird thing. We always lived knowing that we will die. A person lives knowing he or she will die. And enters into loving relationships with other people knowing he or she will die. There’s always been a hazard to that love. Now you look at this natural world we come out of, which is still is present, still is hanging on, still is loveable and you think, “Wow. It’s not just me and my friends. It’s everything that’s going to go.” I think it’s valuable to recognize that fact and think about what it means in terms of priorities. To me, what comes out of that reflection, is to keep working for what’s right in front of me. You know, I’m not leaving my partner because I know she’s going to die in the next 40 years. I’m doing anything I can to deepen that relationship, because it gives my life meaning.
Perversely, climate change has become the sort of unifying, collective experience that has been drained of American life. Do you see it as being able to draw us towards some common understanding?
That’s a nice, optimistic thought. I have a more pessimistic take. The virtual world is being developed as fast as it can because if we live in a completely virtual world, emblematically sitting in a dark room staring at a screen, then we don’t have to feel the loss of real world. But the silos only go so far. There’s this cultural understanding that goes far, that cuts across the silos. If we have an ice-free Arctic two years from now, that’ll be visible no matter what silo you’re in.
This interview has been condensed and edited.