Novelist Jonathan Franzen Speaks for Living Writers Program


On Thursday, October 23, as part of the Living Writers series, acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen came to Colgate to discuss his most recent novel Freedom (2010) and a collection of the translated works of the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, titled The Kraus Project (2013). The audience was treated to a short introduction by Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice before the author spoke. Love Auditorium was packed with fans of the writer, and there were 50 people from the Living Writers course on Colgate X watching via livestream. Getting Jonathan Franzen to come to Colgate was not a difficult task; the author has a nephew that graduated in 2009, and he enjoys giving readings at college campuses, having just finished similar gigs at Tufts University and Williams College.

 “After ‘freedom’, the most repeated phrase in the novel [Freedom] may be ‘how to live,’”  Brice said of the book, considered by several publications to be the best novel of 2010, when she introduced Frazen.

Franzen showcased the kind of dry wit and sarcasm for which he is praised; after draping a Thanksgiving-themed napkin over the podium for a “festive” theme, Franzen made several quips about Colgate’s remote location. Rather than reading an excerpt from The Kraus Project, Franzen surprised the audience by reading several pages from the rough draft of his upcoming novel.  Professor Brice commented on the sample that Franzen read from his new work.

“I thought the new material was very strong. In his nonfiction – memoirs, essays, journalism –Franzen is at ease in the first-person singular. He has never written fiction from that point of view, though. Any fan of Franzen’s in the audience knew that he was reading something remarkable,” Brice said.

“There was enormous energy around the novel and Franzen’s visit,” Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English Jane Pinchin, who co-teaches the Living Writers course with Brice, said. “We were excited that Franzen read from work that is as yet unpublished, and know that we will all remember this reading, and the listening we did on an October Thursday afternoon in Love Auditorium, when the new novel comes out next summer. What a privilege for us all.”

Following the reading, the author took questions from the audience. Franzen remarked on the structure of Freedom and his decision to write from a female perspective.

“It came later … it’s harder being a male writer writing from a female’s respective in 2014,” Franzen said. 

When asked about his college experience, Franzen praised his German professor.

“He changed my life. He became a kind of second father to me in certain aspects,” Franzen said. 

In response to one question about how he handles life as a “celebrity writer”, the author quoted writer Gore Vidal: “Famous writer has become an oxymoron.”  Indirectly referring to the well-publicized spat he had with Oprah Winfrey in 2001, Franzen was light and self-deprecating.

 “How do I deal with fame? As most people can see, not very well … When writing, you can edit yourself the next day but you can’t in public,” Franzen said. 

Franzen also compared his own profession to that of a musician.

“It’s such a solitary and nonperformative career. Seven days a week, I spend most of the day alone,” Franzen said. He was quick to mention that he was thankful for his success and popularity however, stating that he had always wanted an audience. Following his lecture, Franzen signed books in the lobby of Love Auditorium.

Select students dined with Jonathan Franzen at Merill House following the reading. 

“Over dinner, Franzen surveyed the students for our opinions about climate change and environmental activism, almost like he was doing fieldwork for potential characters. He wanted the perspectives and opinions on post-modern issues from students in different academic areas,” junior Sara Hinton said of the experience. “Franzen was so engaging and funny. It was nice to see such an accomplished and well-known author being challenged by students’ questions. He was so thoughtful in responses, and he was forthcoming in how they relate to his own life and shortcomings.”