Why Does Jonathan Franzen Make It So Hard to Like Him?

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Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

Dear Jon (I hope it’s okay if I call you Jon!),

Well, well, here we are again, together in the midst of yet another news cycle. As you may have heard — or not, because Twitter stands for “everything [you] oppose” — some people are annoyed about remarks you made to Slates Isaac Chotiner, in which you said you would not write a book about race because you “have never been in love with a black woman.”

You went on:

“I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”

I agree. I think it’s probably a good idea for you, Jonathan Franzen, who can’t even write about birds without inciting an international incident, not to try and write the Great American Race Novel (even though, as you later put it, “race is big in America”). While some white authors have indeed written sensitively from the perspective of nonwhite characters, it makes sense not to tackle race if you don’t feel that you can fully understand or empathize with the experience of black Americans.

But there’s a way to make this point in a way that doesn’t offend people, to consider how your remarks might read to people who don’t necessarily share your worldview. I’m just spitballing here, but perhaps something along the lines of: “I respect people enough to know I couldn’t accurately write from that perspective. I should try to get out there and meet more people!” instead of implying that you’ve never met a black woman you desired enough to love.

I really want to like you, Jonathan Franzen. I like your books, even the chapters of Freedom that were about birding. When you’re not courting outrage, I think you make some insightful points, and I respect your Kanyesque tendencies to say what you feel regardless of what people may think. But you and I seem to find ourselves in this position time and time again, where some tone-deaf remark of yours bolsters public perception that you’re completely out of touch with the rest of the world; for example, when you accused Jennifer Weiner of “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias,” or talked about adopting an Iraqi war orphan for story research. And yet you refuse to do so much as listen to your critics. As you told Slate, while you’re more than happy to weigh in on controversial topics, “you can only be hurt if you hear the response,” and so you “don’t even read positive reviews unless they are absolutely certified by eight different people to not contain one thing that could upset [you].”

Eight is a lot! But if this somehow gets past the firewall, I hope you’ll take my advice into consideration.

Jonathan Franzen Makes It Too Hard to Love Him