#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

coverGrowing up in Scotland, I knew several farmers who pronounced with Delphic confidence on the weather. On a clear December day they would forecast a blizzard; in the middle of rain they would claim a drought was coming.

In the spring and summer of 2001, people who were listening could hear The Corrections coming. This oddly titled novel, by this interesting writer, was finally about to emerge. It was published on September 1st. and, despite everything else that happened that autumn, there was an unusual degree of excitement around the book, not just among critics but among readers. People read it, people talked about it, people registered that something important had occurred.

The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us – and the world inside us – in new ways. For once, the prophets were right.

Snow on the mountain. The winged horseman is coming. Read The Corrections.

Read an excerpt from The Corrections.
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was born and grew up in the Scottish Highlands. She teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of a collection of stories, a book of essays and nine novels, most recently The Boy in the Field.


  1. I loved this book as much as anyone else, and it’s one of my favorites to be sure, but I don’t agree it is the #1 example of exceptional writing of the decade. And, after reviewing your entire list, I have to ask, why didn’t Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ even make a showing? I mean, did you read it?

  2. I kinda saw this coming. While the list was being dribbled out I kept wondering when I’d see _The Corrections_ pop up. And here it is. Probably my favorite book of the decade.

    I wouldn’t have thought to include short story collections on my very own personal best-of list, but maybe that’s why _Oblivion_ didn’t do as well. Or, to be completely honest, maybe _Oblivion_ wasn’t 100% awesome. Because it wasn’t. It was good, but not even _Brief Interviews_ good.

    As for Mr. J. S-F… I thought his first book (_Everything Is Illuminated_) was much better than _Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close_. But that’s just me.

    Finally, regarding _Tree of Smoke_ (which I’m currently reading); maybe it’s just too new? Too recent? I’m about 100p into it and so far it doesn’t crack my top 10 list, but maybe it gets way better or something.

  3. So not! I’d be willing to see this on the list but number 1? No way. It’s a good book (I guess–personally, I prefer Franzen’s essays) but not at the top. On the other hand, it is silly, as Lydia mentions, to assign merit numerically. Compelling–and I was glad to be a part of it–but I need to remember that part too.

  4. Keep in mind that this #1 slot goes to the book with the most votes. Everyone picked their 5 favorites, in no particular order. This just means that the most people had The Corrections on their list. Whether it was anyone’s favorite, #1 book, we can’t know.

  5. You made the right choice. There has been a backlash against the book, really more against Franzen personally than the novel itself. It’s true that he handled the whole Oprah thing in a way that made him look like something of an ass, and some of the non-fiction stuff he’s written since has been, at best, ill-advised. But the novel itself is just simply remarkable and deserves its place at the top of your list. Considering said backlash, a brave choice.

  6. Margot, since everybody else seems to want to use the comments to grind their ax against Jonathan Franzen, I will point out that you’ve written the best piece of the 20 on the list, in my opinion. Beautifully written and summing up much of the excitement that surrounded the book, a book by an author, who, at the time, wasn’t considered a master.

    I was working at an independent bookstore when The Corrections was released, and I’d just started to think of fiction as something more than a diversion. This was the first book that I remember being excited about in advance. A storm is an apt metaphor, I suppose.

    (As an aside, I remember seeing the galley in the back office in the owner/buyer’s pile. Attached was a note from the sales rep. It said, “I know you don’t think you can sell Franzen, but don’t overlook this one.” Things have changed, haven’t they?)

  7. Oh come on.

    “People who were listening” to what, the marketing copy in the New York Times? This was the most pre-hyped novel I’ve ever seen, and the biggest disappointment.

    First page, thrid paragraph: “Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety.”

    That’s not writing, that’s posing. No one with taste above the level of a high-school poetry class could continue reading past these two sentences. The Corrections is crap.

  8. Well, yes it was hyped, but think back to when it came out. It was published on September 1, 2001.

    I read my review copy in the days immediately following 9/11. Despite the competition for my attention from real world events, I finished it. But because of its association in my mind with 9/11–an acute visceral association–I could never bring myself to re-read it.

    Strange to say, when fall rolls around I tend to pick up and re-read Moby Dick, if only a few chapters.

  9. In other news, the Academy Award for Best Picture doesn’t always go to the best picture! Usually I’m happy if the winner is in my top fifty. The Corrections is on my list of top fifty fiction books of the decade, somewhere in the middle, but more importantly, it’s funny. If you’re going to single out an American book, it might as well be one with good jokes.

    I’m still more interested in the list of also-rans, since this seems likely to turn up a higher proportion of oddball picks.

  10. This is an excellent novel and a worthy pick. Works like The Corrections make me stand up and cheer for the future of literature. It’s not perfectly written but it takes taste “above the level of high school poetry” to appreciate this novel’s important place in contemporary literature. Good choice.

  11. The Corrections #1? Ahead of The Cloud Atlas and 2666? No way. Sorry. Corrections is well written and mildly diverting, but it’s really just a family soap opera. You have other books on your list far more daring and well written.

  12. Enough with the lisiting and the besting. Unless you’ve read them all, you’re just burping in a whirlwind of presumptuous narcissism.

  13. Cynthia writes, in part: “you’re just burping in a whirlwind of presumptuous narcissism.” Seems like a pretty good description of Franzen and the novel. And you don’t have to read every novel to recognize the deficiencies of any one of them. Logic fail.

  14. This is a deserving choice, but I’m a little surprised, because it somehow seemed to have become cool to dislike this book (probably because of Franzen’s public persona).

    The biggest miss on the list in my view is Wallace’s Oblivion. This book is hugely underrated right now, but I think people will look back on it as a genuine step beyond Infinite Jest (whereas Brief Interviews was more of the, admittedly brilliant, same). Everything depends on The Pale King of course – it’s too early to understand the shape of Wallace’s career, but for the best writer of his generation not to appear on this list is a shame. Especially when Pastoralia, from a similarly-minded, very talented, but manifestly lesser writer than Wallace, is so high up on the list.

  15. … The backlash is funny. Great book.

    Interesting how the DFW fans continue to beat the drum. And he’ll always be free from backlash a la lil Kurt Cobain as it’s not good to criticize the departed.

    Great list no matter what the muckrakers say. Anything that gets the conversation started is worthwhile. The publishing business is suffering.

  16. I decided to read The Corrections because I had heard it was “serious” in some sense — seriously literary, I suppose. I thought it would be hard to read. Not hard, but tedious, for me. The commenter above who calls it a family soap opera was not far off the mark. Words that I’d use to describe The Corrections (and I carry no feelings of vitriol for Franzen — I can separate my opinions about the Oprah brouhaha from his work) include funny, peculiar, unpleasant, interesting, and at times memorable. But not great literature, and certainly not something I’d put on this list.

    I was pleased to see the short story collection, which I loved.

  17. The real problem with Franzen’s book is that its themes and topics are so trite. Oy! My family is so crazy! You should see! Compare with the themes of 2666 and The Cloud Atlas (and others), and there’s just no comparison. It’s like comparing an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Gravity’s Rainbow. And by the way, I’m not a DFW fan and hardly consider him beyond reproach.

  18. I thought “The Corrections” was a good book. Not the greatest ever–the voyage to Eastern Europe at the end was more adventure shlock than anything, to me–but if I were going to write up my own list I’m sure it would make my top 5, too, so I won’t much argue.

    And then I’m just going to throw this out there: DFW, way overrated. Although I’m very sad he killed himself, I’m even more sad that his death is creating a cult of worship around him, as if his imaginitive powers were anywhere near those of a Roberto Bolano or David Mitchell.

    I do have to ask, however: how did Margaret Atwood not make this list between The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake? Is there a greater novelist alive today than Margaret Atwood?

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  20. I’m a little late to this conversation, but I think a lot of the language used to deride Franzen’s book is very interesting. I read it and found it interesting, although not my favorite by a long shot. And I loved Cloud Atlas, for one. But to claim that Cloud Atlas is better because it deals with quote unquote major themes, while The Corrections is simply a “soap opera” is insulting. The idea that the family novel is lesser has been around for a long time, used to discredit much of the literature written by women, and, ironically, is what Franzen was trying to distance himself from when he turned down Oprah.
    I think that the other line of inquiry going on here, about conventional novels vs. those that push the envelope of the genre, is very interesting. But to say that Franzen’s themes are somehow lowbrow or pedestrian is silly.

  21. The CLoud Atlas and 2666 are not better books simply because they pursue grander themes than The Corrections, though that is one reason they are both better books. Remember, we’re talking about the best book of the millennium, not just books we happen to like or don’t like. In that contest, a certain amount of conceptual daring counts for a lot, if the execution is also well done. There’s nothing original about writing about a messed up family. Franzen isn’t trying anything different or difficult. He’s just doing a good job at telling a very conventional story. Stephen King does the same.

    And it’s certainly not inherently lowbrow artistically to write about family life. One can write very deep, surprising novels about family life. I hope one day Franzen gets around to writing such a book.

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