Until his award-winning novel The Corrections was published in the fall of 2001, Jonathan Franzen was probably best known for a somewhat dyspeptic 1996 essay he wrote for Harper's entitled "Perchance to Dream." In it, Franzen decried the state of modern American fiction and, by association, that of his own career.
Part of Franzen's frustration may have stemmed from the reception of his first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). Although both books showcased his formidable literary skills and earned respectful praise from critics, neither one sold well. He won a Whiting Writer's Award for City and, in 1997, the British literary magazine Granta named him one of the 20 best American novelists under the age of 40. Still, major recognition seemed to elude him.
All that changed with The Corrections, a sprawling tale of American family dysfunction that was immediately acclaimed a "postmodern masterpiece." At long last, Franzen had found his voice, emerging from the pressure of trying to emulate his literary heroes Don DeLillo and William Gaddis. The New York Times Book Review called the novel "marvelous"; The New York Observer called it "brilliant"; and the Boston Globe called it "smart and boisterous and beautifully paced." In short, The Corrections put Franzen on the literary map.
A month later, Franzen's star lost some of its luster, when he became embroiled in a public relations fiasco. Kingmaker Oprah Winfrey selected The Corrections for her popular Book Club, but when the author expressed his discomfort with the endorsement, the show quickly withdrew its certification. A vilified Franzen hastened to explain himself, the book was re-Oprahcized -- and in a final salvo, Franzen wrote about the entire experience in a widely read New Yorker piece that only served to compound the controversy. As the line from his book goes, "What made corrections possible also doomed them." No matter; what Franzen lost in Oprah's esteem he gained in untold sales from the publicity, and The Corrections went on to win the National Book Award.
In 2002, a collection of Franzen's cultural criticism (including the famous Oprah piece and a reworked version of "Perchance to Dream") appeared under the title How to Be Alone, reaffirming his status as a writer of elegant nonfiction; and in 2006, he forayed into memoir with The Discomfort Zone, a self-lacerating look at his youth, his family, and the forces that shaped him into a writer.
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