No Boys Allowed: A Book Club to Discuss Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

November 23, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 18 4 min read

coverLast month, a group of women between the ages of 25 and 35 got together in Los Angeles to talk about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom.  I was one of these women.  I loved the idea of getting together to discuss a big book, one that people across the nation were also buying, and reading, and meeting to talk about.  It felt like we were participating in a cultural moment–it was like getting a Cabbage Patch Kid in the 1980s.   Plus, there would be snacks.

Since the novel is 562 pages, we decided to discuss the book over two meetings–crazy, I know.  Because I actually get paid to facilitate a different book club (can you believe that?), I held back from planning questions and discussion points for this new one.  I would not let this group become a job. I would not bring a highlighter.  However, I did bring one quote, from Garth Risk Hallberg’s review on this very site.  To start the meeting off, I read the quote aloud to the others:

It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.

“Who wrote that?”  someone asked.
“What? You don’t think a man can write from a woman’s perspective?”
“Was the reviewer a man or a woman?”
“How does he know?”
“The question isn’t whether a man can write a woman’s perspective, but if Franzen can. Was he successful?”

The responses were mixed to this question.  All of us felt Patty Berglund, midway through the novel at least, was a complicated and believable character, but a few of us–myself included–did not buy the conceit of her autobiography.  It did not feel as if she had written it; arbitrarily capitalizing words does not render a perspective true!  To me it felt half-assed, almost offensive. Why present these words as Patty’s, when they are really the author’s, barely concealing himself?  It didn’t seem like a true investigation of a character’s world or her use of language to describe that world.

But I digress.  We talked a whole lot about Patty.

“Why did Richard keep saying she was tall?  She’s only like 5′ 9″!” (So said our tallest member.)
“Did anyone really imagine her as attractive?”
“When I think female basketball player, I’m unable to imagine a good looking woman.”

What’s interesting to me about an unguided book club is how quickly it dives into content, with only brief exchanges about form.  There is analysis, but it’s about the characters.  Why did Patty marry Walter?   What is the nature of the love between Richard and Walter?  What the hell was up with the dirty talk between Joey and Connie?  (“That was my favorite part!”)  The great fun of these meetings–and perhaps why they’re not particular productive–is that you get to talk about the characters as if they’re real.  People describe emotional reactions to the events in the book.  They make value judgments.  They psychoanalyze the characters–and this inevitably pulls the discussion away from the text.  I recall one moment, as we were debating the potential selfishness of the characters, when someone said, “Well, first, we need to define selfishness.”  This led us down a thorny but fascinating path, which had little to do with the Berglunds and their problems.  In a book club about Freedom, it’s easy to go from a discussion of Walter’s environmentalism to a discussion of overpopulation to a discussion of having babies to a discussion of orgasms to, “What do you think Jonathan Franzen’s lovemaking style is?”  No wonder Franzen hemmed and hawed his way to a dis-invitation from Oprah nearly ten years ago!  He understood how dangerous a group of women can be.

It turned out, after our first meeting (four hours long, no joke), we were all talked out.  Our second meeting was shorter and more subdued.  We discussed the ending, and the relative happiness of Patty and Walter.  Had anyone changed?  Could anyone really change?  We discussed the structural and narrative similarities of the first and final sections–was that return to the elevated perspective beautiful, or a cop-out?  (My answer?  Both.)  We talked about whether or not the sections about mountain top removal were sort of interesting or incredibly boring, and how we reacted to real-life details in fiction.

“You think Jonathan Franzen listens to Bright Eyes?”
“Is there a real life version of Richard Katz?  I never believed he was actually famous.”
“What the fuck is up with the band name Walnut Surprise?”
“It was so silly!”
“Should have been Walnut Hotel or something.”
“Walnut Surprise sounds sexual, and scatological–like a Joey and Connie thing.  Franzen is obsessed with poop.”

In both meetings, we came back to this question of whether or not Freedom is a masterpiece.  Why was Jonathan Franzen, out of the many talented and important authors, the anointed one?  We all agreed it was pretty great to see a writer on the cover of TIME, but was he truly “the great American novelist”?   He is both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, and few can claim that mysterious combination these days.   We were saddened, or sobered, by the fact that a woman, at least in the present day, would not be given that title.  Everyone agreed with that.

Of course, we spent the last twenty minutes discussing the most important question: “What should we read next?”

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Patty! I’m with you on the Autobiography. (Mistakes Were Made? Was Patty a twenty-something blogger?) Less with you on believable–when I read Freedom (which I loved), I thought a lot about why I was so riveted by a book whose main character seemed so… unlikely.

    With the exception of Melissa the coed, the women in The Corrections felt more plausible to me.

    By the way, it comforts me to know that there was extended confab about what Patty actually looked like. Franzen was not forthcoming on this subject, except about height and toned arms. I need visuals!

  2. I kept thinking about his portrayal about the interior life of a depressed woman. I thought he got Richard’s depression in a way that he never got Patty’s. He described her actions as the actions of a depressed woman (namely, drinking too much) but we never really got to see her disillusionment in a way that felt real to me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book, and I loved the autobiography, but it was a woman as described by a man, for sure.

  3. The book group is in LA and you didn’t relay the requisite closing question: who would be cast as each character? Careful, that omission could get you thrown out of tinsel town. In the midst of my multi-hour LA based discussion, I asked whether a men’s book group would focus so much on Patty or would they see more in Walter and Richard, who we found a bit stereotypical and flat. SPOILER ALERT: I found the ending unrealistic and that caused a flurry of discussion until I asked “would you get back together with your ex-husband?” At which point every divorced woman in the room (whether she wanted the divorce or not) looked horrified.

  4. Just to stir up the pot, a few obvious questions:

    1. Apart from Franzen, are there any living male writers who write well about women?

    2. If there are, what makes them different from men who don’t write well about women?

    3. Joyce Carol Oates and Pauline Kael both said that the greatest writers are neither particularly male nor particularly female in their viewpoint. Any thoughts on this? Is it just the rationalization of an older generation of women who were trying to get the male literary establishment to take them seriously, or is there something worthwhile to their opinion?

    4. Is Franzen being scapegoated for larger issues — the sexism of society in general and of the literary establishment in particular? Or are there good reasons to hold him particularly accountable as a symbol of these issues?

  5. Thanks for all your comments. Chelsey, I really enjoyed your blog post–very well said! We talked a lot about Connie in the group. Some of us found her to be a cipher, and only a cipher. Others found her cipher quality to be incredibly complicated and fascinating. We all wanted more Jessica, and we wondered at her absence of perspective.

    Lydia, I agree that The Corrections had better female characters overall. I still think of Denise when I’m cooking…

    Kim, our club actually talked a lot about Walter and Richard’s relationship, and we did wonder how male readers reacted to their conflict and connection. Someone wondered if Franzen had considered a particular gender for his reader. That is, is this a book written for men? Or was that not a question in his mind? He certainly had his misgivings about going on Oprah (the first time) because he’d had the hope of getting men to read fiction.

    Great questions, Bill! Everyone in my group thought men could write about women, and women could write about men. If not, then we would have very little faith in fiction. But what one woman finds believable, accurate and complex about a male-created female character might strike another female reader as unbelievable, inaccurate, simplistic, and so on. I mean, one’s consciousness isn’t wholly defined by gender, and not all women think the same, nor do all men think the same. So it’s murky territory.

    I think Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn is a great example of a believable and nuanced female character. I think Tom Drury’s female characters are great too, and Dan Chaon’s, Charles Baxter’s, William Styron’s. These are just from the bookcase next to me! It’s harder to pinpoint why some writers can’t write characters–it has less to do with gender, in my mind, and more about a failure of imagination and deeply inhabiting that character’s consciousness. It’s as if the writer can’t truly get into that character’s experience of the world, can only see it through a veil of assumptions, stereotypes, etc. Perhaps, a male writer who writes a female character poorly cannot see beyond her body and what he perceives as her feelings for men–she is wholly created by the men around her. Of course, women writers could also be guilty of this. And, some women might actually be like this.

    Your third question is really making me think. I hope someone else weighs in on it!

    I certainly think Franzen’s been blamed for a whole lot that has nothing to do with him and the book. It’s not his fault who does and doesn’t get reviewed in the NY Times, for instance.

  6. Franzin? Maybe this isn’t altogether to the purpose, but I am concerned about those brave Millions readers who fret over Franzin’s Freedom, a book that, if I have it correctly, is THE searing written record of the present day, a living chronicle of the times, yet still manage to misspell the surname of the times’ biggest star, lamentable and incredible though that stardom might be. Probably there are greater things to worry about in this world than the spelling of “Justin Bieber.” Of course there are. Sure there are those for whom the AMA’s can’t quite match up to the NBA’s, and Twitter might be just a platform for Kanye and kids with smartphones and a field of free time to play in. But the mistake, if it was one, made me feel weird. The fact that it was made twice made me feel even weirder. If the move was intentional, I withdraw the comment. If not, I join in ROFLMAO.

  7. Edan at al: First, I loved “Mistakes Were Made” and found those sections the most compelling and insightful of the entire book. I am eager, though, to get a female perspective on those chapters, so thanks very much for the post.

    You say that you “did not buy the conceit of her autobiography” and asked “Why present these words as Patty’s, when they are really the author’s, barely concealing himself?” Since I loved the autobiography, I thought the idea of Patty writing objectively about herself (at the request of her therapist, she indicates) in the third person made a ton of sense as a conceit. I would feel much more comfortable, were I to try and write a memoir, making myself a character in the narrative of my own life. I can imagine, therefore, that Patty would feel similarly — especially in regard to those episodes in her life she is ashamed of, or embarrassed to recount.

    Further, is “Mistakes Were Made” all that different, in terms of form, than writing from a limited 3rd person perspective? The rest of the book, when narrated in the 3rd person, still seems to come from the perspective of one of the characters — for instance, we feel inside the head of Joey, even though he’s not actually narrating his own sections, whereas we never get inside the minds of Connie or Jenna. Is “Mistakes Were Made” so different? I appreciated the break from a true (limited) 3rd person perspective to get a more questionable blend of 1st and 3rd person narration in the form of the autobiography. The perspective is not terribly different from the rest of the book, but you feel closer to Patty’s understanding of herself. Structurally, I also appreciated the change of pace offered by the autobiography sections.

    In terms of the writing itself, I never feel strongly that the narrative/writing styles of different characters need to be wildly different. (Maybe that’s intellectually lazy on my part.) I’m aware at all times that Franzen is at the wheel, while appreciating that he switches lanes, so the readers (passengers in his car) can get different perspectives from different characters. I really don’t need each section to be written in utterly different vernacular or idiom; I get what the Actual Author is doing and simply appreciate the different perspectives without concerning myself so much with form or word choice. It’s like an author telling me that a character is southern. I can hear that character just fine without needing the text itself to be full of “y’all”s and “dang”s.

  8. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for your thoughts! For me, the ‘conceit’ of Patty’s autobiography, in theory, is great–I like the idea of a first person writing in the third person, for the sake of self understanding and whatnot. It’s how Franzen executed it that I had trouble with. He didn’t really commit to the conceit, in my opinion. If Patty were truly writing this part, in the third person, about herself, it would be pretty different than the other sections in the book–if Franzen wanted this section to be similar in voice/style as the other sections, then why introduce the conceit?

    I had no trouble with the other sections of the book, narratively speaking, or with their veracity of voice/character. The more elevated third person sections at the opening and ending were well-handled, and the close third person sections, with Joey, Walter and Richard, read smoothly as well. In these, yes, you get a sense that Franzen is narrating, while also channeling the character’s consciousness. A classic example of James Wood’s Free Indirect third person perspective. (I think that’s what Wood calls it….)

    But with Patty’s section, I wanted more, because it was presented as a first person character writing it, in the third person. In that case, I don’t want to feel Jonathan Franzen there–I want to truly believe that Patty is writing this, that she is attempting self-presentation. But aside from a few early attempts–the random capitalization of words being the most apparent–it didn’t seem like Franzen was really invested in Patty’s consciousness, to make it believable. Perhaps he didn’t want to sacrifice the wit and skill of his prose; that’s fine, but why the conceit then? In the end, I kept feeling Franzen hijacking her voice and style, and I wondered why he didn’t just do the free indirect style, if that’s what the narrative seemed to want to do, perspective-wise.

  9. Charlotte, that info is very easy to find on the site. (Hint: click on “About”)…

  10. Am on page 165, but from the off have been struggling to get over this whole autobiographical thing.

    Seems as though every 20 pages or so, Franzen’ll throw in the occasional ‘according to the autobiographer’ line just to remind us who’s writing.

    But given the amount of dialogue contained are we meant to overlook that fact?

    Disappointingly not doing it for me based on that simple conundrum.

    Must surely be missing something.

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