Jonathan Franzen on writing women characters and his own cult status

Jonathan Franzen and Kerri Miller
Jonathan Franzen and MPR News' Kerri Miller kicked off the 2015 season of Talking Volumes on Sept. 15, 2015 at the Fitzgerald Theater.
David Bowman for MPR News

Jonathan Franzen, who was hailed as the "Great American Novelist" by Time Magazine in 2009, joined MPR News' Kerri Miller on stage to kick off the 2015 Talking Volumes series.

Franzen's latest book, "Purity," debuted in early September to glowing reviews. The New York Times called it his "most fleet-footed, least self-conscious and most intimate novel yet," and the Chicago Tribune declared it "so funny, so sage and above all so incandescently intelligent, there's never a moment you wish you were reading something else."

"Purity" follows a young college graduate, Pip, who finds herself saddled with $100,000 in student debt and no direction in life. Her relationship with her mother is tense, and further stressed by the fact that her mother has never revealed who her father is. An internship in South America puts Pip in the path of a Wikileaks-like organization that traffics in the world's secrets, and may somehow connect to her odd upbringing.

While many publications have issued rave reviews, some critics and readers have taken issue with the way women are portrayed in Franzen's writing. The Guardian wrote that his portrayal of women in "Purity" lacked nuance, and that he fell back on tedious stereotypes. The reviewer, Curtis Sittenfield, said, "I couldn't tell if the limitations of his female characters reflected a deliberate choice or a failure of imagination."

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Kerri Miller jumped right in on this issue, opening the night by asking Franzen about the opinion that his women characters were problematic.

"This is sort of eating vegetables first and we'll get to dessert later, right?" Franzen asked.

"We'll see," Miller said. "It might be all vegetables."

On writing women characters

"I try to divide my books evenly between male and female characters — I always have," Franzen said. "As point-of-view characters, it's been a 50-50 split in all five novels."

"I can imagine how that might be offensive: Shouldn't I just be writing about guys? I come back to the sense that it's inconvenient that I'm not Philip Roth or one of those guys — one of those older guys who really had a hard time getting out of the guy perspective. It was shaky-going when they did female characters."


"I have many female parts — not physically. A personality is a collection of modules. There is no unitary 'I.' Neuroscience, the ultimate authority on such matters tells us that there is no unitary 'I.' ... I think I've been cursed, but also sort of blessed, with 12 different personality modules. Some of them are real girls."

Jonathan Franzen and Kerri Miller
Franzen evoked his Midwestern roots, saying what Miller called "passive aggressiveness," he called "politeness."
David Bowman for MPR News

On his own character

"Part of me is this very excruciatingly moral Midwestern guy, and part of me is this rage-filled person who wants to act out and break out and do bad things. I talk to each of those two parts of me on a daily basis. Mostly the nice Midwestern person keeps things down, but when I get tired or angry, other things come out."

On different kinds of fiction

"The novel is classically the space in which you are allowed to examine conventional ideas of what's right and what's wrong — that is, literary fiction. A lot of genre fiction, because you're reading it for relaxation, you don't want it to be problematized. You want bad people to be bad and you want good people to be good."

"I don't denigrate anyone for reading any kind of fiction ... I don't think anyone should. There's a similar thing: Not everyone's up for watching 'Breaking Bad' Sometimes you just want to watch something else, something simpler, like a 'Law & Order.'"

On the Time cover and his supposed cult status

"No one's burning candles in front of that cover, except maybe my agent," Franzen said. "Someone did come to my door this summer. I was signing sheets to be bound into copies of the British edition of 'Purity.' It was a Sunday morning, 11 o'clock, and tall kid about 24 was standing there, and just wanted to shake my hand."

"He was wearing an 'Old Man and the Sea' t-shirt, and he had a line from Keats tattooed on his forearm. He seemed like a very nice guy, and he said, quite seriously, 'You know, it's a little too easy to find you. My friend and I heard you were in town, and all we had to do was go down to the city records office.'"

"But one guy with a boundary issue doesn't make a cult."

On what he's reading now

"I'm finally reading Elena Ferrante. Suddenly, she's on fire; everyone's talking about Ferrante. Now I can't be cool and talk about her the way I could have two years ago when my friends first told me to read it because I was a busy writing ['Purity']. I'm catching up."


"I would be remiss if I didn't say I was looking forward to the fifth Patrick Melrose novel from Edward St. Aubyn. He may be the best thing going in British literature right now. He's very posh, and the Patrick Melrose novels are quite psychologically violent, and yet they're fantastic."

For the full interview with Jonathan Franzen and Kerri Miller, listen to the audio above or watch the entire video below.