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.