It took me all of four days to cave and buy a copy of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Freedom. I had decided some weeks ago that I would wait to see if all of the hype surrounding the much awaited novel by the author who dared to opt out of Oprah's book club (not to be confused with the author James Frey who had been kicked out) was legitimate. Nine years ago, only a few weeks ahead of the 9-11 event in NYC, Franzen debuted The Corrections and quickly rose to popular attention with a novel that seemed to touch on the growing anxieties and inter-generational tensions of North American society with alarming familiarity. I recall now reading the book over several months and oscillating between loving it for its honesty, and hating it for its pessimism (as a side note, the last book that did that for me was Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, a book I talked about a great deal in my classes last year). It was one of those books you think about again years after reading it.
Hype is an odd phenomenon and it can be double-edged. When Franzen made the decision to take a stand against what he deemed the corporate logo of the Oprah Book Club-- that familiar "sticker" that is actually now permanently affixed to any book that enters her list-- he only added to the publicity surrounding his well reviewed book and drew attention to normally taboo questions about literacy, class, and the social divide in America that also ironically forms the themes of his novels. At the time, Laura Miller at Salon summed up the sentiments in an astute article surrounding the controversy: "The sad and petty truth is that far too many book lovers don't really want a good book to reach a large audience because that would tarnish the aura of specialness they enjoy as connoisseurs of literary merit." Nine years later, I would add that the effect of social networking and "word-of-mouth" endorsements that build interest in consumer items (my blog included) has only complicated the strategy of publishers to sell their books. Is there any doubt that the move to publicize Barack Obama's early endorsement of Freedom a few weeks ahead of the book launch (he was "caught" reading it on vacation in Martha's Vineyard) was just another form of the Oprah book club phenomenon. The New York Times even asked the question this weekend, "Are you reading what he's reading?" in a great think piece. Obama is, after all, positioned as a public intellectual, someone who has little to gain personally from Franzen's book sales. But he is pretty friendly with Oprah..... and so the hype builds.
I held off to read the reviews (and quite honestly to see if a Kindle version of the book would emerge-- and it did) and there seems to be consensus once again that Franzen has written another excellent novel. The New York Times review has gone so far as to call Freedom "a masterpiece of American fiction", but I was finally sold reading Kirk Lapointe's review in the Vancouver Sun which raved about the book for "how modern it speaks and how old-fashioned it reads." Love that. Sometimes the hype seems to measure up, and in this case I am so glad.
Check out this brilliant (and purposely awkward) video of Jonathan Franzen discussing Freedom and the tensions between narrative and visual media.