Jonathan Franzen with Eleanor Wachtel

Freedom-200.jpg First aired on Writers & Company (11/14/10)

He's the first author in 10 years to make the cover of Time magazine, under the banner headline: The Great American Novelist.

Jonathan Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections, won the 2001 National Book Award in the United States and sold about three million copies worldwide. It also had the notable honour of being declared a "masterpiece" by both his New York editor and Publishers Weekly before it even hit the stands. Magazines were lined up for interviews. With foreign sales and movie rights, Franzen had made more than a million dollars by the time the book was available in most bookstores.

Now, almost 10 years later, Franzen's new novel, Freedom, has been greeted with even more hoopla. There was the Time magazine cover, of course, but there were also reviews comparing it to War and Peace and lauding it as a work of genius and the novel of the century.

Freedom has gotten so much attention that, not surprisingly, it has also attracted a backlash. Some journalists, eager to change the story, have started to take pot-shots at Franzen.

The story of Franzen's rise to fame has its ironies, much like his own work. After all, Franzen is the same guy who wrote that famous essay in Harper's Magazine — the one lamenting the death of the social novel in America, the decline in the status of the novelist and Franzen's own despair because of "the failure of [his] own culturally-engaged novel to engage with the culture [he'd] intended to provoke."

Franzen had started out full of hope and enthusiasm for the literary life. He grew up in the Midwest and graduated from Swarthmore College in 1981. After college, he devoted himself to his writing, publishing his first novel, The 27th City, when he was 29.

Four years later, he produced another ambitious book, Strong Motion. That novel didn't do as well as his first. By the mid-90's, when he wrote the Harper's piece, Franzen was stalled in the middle of his third novel. Through many rewrites and the jettisoning of huge chunks, it would eventually become The Corrections, his social novel par excellence. His latest, Freedom, is even more engaged with the politics of 21st-century America, but again, through the experience of a midwestern family.

Recently, Franzen spoke candidly with Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel. Their conversation ranged from the experiences that have fuelled his current fiction, his newly discovered love of bird-watching, what inspires his current work as a journalist and environmental advocate, and the tension between personal freedom and responsibility within American society today. You can hear the full interview in the clip above.

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