Jonathan Franzen is for the Occupy Wall Street protests. In fact, the celebrated novelist is for just about any action that “revives a conversation about economic disparities, and how utterly shafted the middle class is.” In a packed session at the New Yorker Festival on Saturday, Franzen elaborated on his politics, his meeting with President Obama, the accomplishments of Richard Nixon and, of course, several more literary topics.
Politics loomed throughout the discussion, not only because searing social critiques undergird Franzen’s most famous books, Freedom and The Corrections, but also because Franzen’s fans take his nonfiction narrative seriously.
Moderator David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief, asked whether Franzen is disappointed with Obama (he isn’t), and while there were audience questions about Patty Berglund (“I wanna talk to you about Patty!,” as they say on TV) and even Oprah (Franzen started graciously, but added a dig about having to sit through “four segments on Michael Jackson’s secret family” before Oprah interviewed him about Freedom), people kept returning to politics.
The Wall Street question, which was first out of the gate, had Franzen channeling Elizabeth Warren. “What Republicans call class warfare,” he said, is actually a vital, neglected effort to address economic inequality. When real unemployment is at 16 percent, Franzen observed, people “should raise socialist questions.”
There is no outlet for that conversation, however, within the major political parties.
In Franzen’s telling, President Obama is caught between the populist desires of a downgraded America and the interests of his elite financial supporters. “I knew he was tight with Wall Street,” Franzen said, recalling his views of Obama before the 2008 election, “the first time I heard about him was from a banker.” Franzen said he still “loves” Obama, though, and it’s clear that support endures not despite Obama’s liberal shortcomings but because they were already factored into the picture. “I got a sense of who [Obama] was,” Franzen said, somewhat cryptically. “I knew he would never do anything for the environment,” he later added.
These are not just idle observations from a distance. Franzen apparently has some pull on President Obama, who nabbed an advance copy of Freedom and then invited the novelist to meet him at the White House last year. Asked about that meeting, Franzen said their conversation focused not on fiction but on Nixon. “He was our last liberal president,” Franzen recalled telling Obama, arguing that Nixon’s legislative achievements were more liberal than anything Clinton or Obama could ever do. Obama laughed, Franzen remembered, and said, Yeah, the only problem is that Nixon was crazy.
The other quality Franzen deeply appreciates about Obama is his openness to other people’s views and ethics. In partisan circles, this has come to be associated with weakness and poor negotiation, but I think Franzen means it more in the idealistic sense of practicing a politics of good faith—or the Jeffersonian ideal that “not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle.” So Franzen credits Obama, he said, for rejecting the common premise “that all the good people share my politics.” Instead, one can acknowledge that there may be perfectly good people who, for example, voted for Rick Santorum. Franzen volunteered, however, that he’d still “have a hard time being good friends with someone who voted for Santorum.” This admission came in response to a question from The Nation’s Eric Alterman, who said that while he probably shares the author’s politics, it feels like reading Freedom might leave one feeling hopeless. Apart from Obama’s ray of light, Franzen said he genuinely felt that the last ten years of politics were worse than usual, with more rampant lying in public discourse. So he is “a little discouraged.” Compounding these dynamics, the media and culture are more driven by technology, Franzen added, stoking a constant desire for stimulation over “interaction or discussion.” (That complaint draws on a media critique Franzen has made for some time, including a widely discussed lecture and essay this year, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts”).
Finally, in more literary news, Franzen confirmed that he is writing an adaptation of The Corrections as a full four-year television series for HBO. The flim rights to that book were actually optioned back in 2001, by Scott Rudin, but a full-length feature never got off the ground. It’s a little hard to imagine the book, which focuses on the grandparents of a Midwestern family, excelling as a movie or series. Yet as Franzen said on Saturday, mainstream success has made him a less angry and more positive person, and with the right attitude, maybe the book will make for great TV. And it will surely do better than "Black Leather Gloves," a screenplay that Franzen said he wrote as a "get rich quick scheme" back when he was struggling to earn a living as a novelist.