Taxonomies change, as keen birder Jonathan Franzen knows, in culture and in nature. As a species, the “Great American Novelist” — as Time once called him — seems more mythical than ever. The canon is undergoing a correction to admit diverse, once-suppressed voices; critics and readers are rejecting notions of a single spokesperson or dominant culture. Franzen — white, middle-class, male, cisgender, heterosexual, author of classical naturalist fiction — doesn’t carry the authority he once did.
In fact he carries some rather troubling baggage. After a series of tragicomic mishaps worthy of one of his characters, he has over the years been labeled an elitist, a misogynist, a climate-change denier. He was criticized for dissing Oprah back when she selected 2001’s “The Corrections” for her book club. When that Time cover came out, Franzen found himself at the center of a social-media firestorm, stoked by Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, in which he became the love-to-hate avatar for a sexist publishing industry. More recently, he fell foul of feminists, after he wrote a reappraisal of Edith Wharton’s novels that seemed to hinge on her attractiveness, and the Audubon Society after a dispute that saw him branded a “birdbrain” for his alleged climate-change denial. After all this, does Franzen the Great American Novelist succeed, in his new collection, in drowning out the noise that threatens to subsume his reputation?
“The End of the End of the Earth” collects five years of essays, reviews and speeches covering politics, art and the environment, and like many such anthologies, it’s uneven. The title essay is excellent, part family memoir, part Antarctic birding cruise, with both elements playing to Franzen’s strengths. In fact, all the bird bits are good. With an enthusiast’s glee, he introduces sword-billed hummingbirds, mountain witches, Jamaican lizard cuckoos, John crow (a.k.a. the turkey vulture) and dozens more. His imaginative engagement with his feathered subjects produces a sense of wonder. “There was never a time when the world seemed large to them,” he writes. His resolve not to photograph the emperor penguin he encounters in Antarctica is vindicated by the image he conjures in words: the penguin, he writes, surrounded by the ship’s curious passengers, “appeared to be holding a press conference . . . in a posture of calm dignity.”
Elsewhere, though, Franzen falters. The Wharton piece, originally published in the New Yorker, should have been revised — the relationship between her alleged plainness and the question of sympathy in her books is, frankly, ill-developed. Perhaps it was a failure of irony, but a musty chauvinist air still lingers. The constant shifts in focus are also disorienting — lurching from Manhattan dinner to African safari, seabirds to social media, Donald Trump to Sherry Turkle — and the balance feels off. We get too much of Franzen the neurotic traveler, and so many birds that one wonders why the editors didn’t just go all-out natural history. Several shorter pieces could have been omitted rather than interrupt what inchoate thematic unity there is.
But despite the shifting subject matter, a theme does emerge. Whether it’s in politics, environmentalism or art, with each subject he approaches Franzen finds value in difficulty over simplicity, a more complicated truth, however inconvenient.
Take his dispute with the Audubon Society. In 2015 he accused them of bad faith in calling climate change the single biggest threat to bird life, remarking, “Climate change is seductive to organizations that want to be taken seriously” and arguing, with numbers, that the real killers are more mundane (cats, windows, etc). The Twittersphere struck back, with some labeling him a climate-change denier and posting decontextualized fragments of his work to prove their point. It’s the kind of simplistic thinking Franzen rightly abhors. To his credit, though, he takes stock here and admits he could have written with “more sympathy for the other people I was angry at.” Had he foreseen the response, he concedes, “I would have kept revising.” Ultimately, Franzen wants a conversation, not victory.
In any case, his point about climate change was never that it isn’t an apocalyptic threat; but rather, that thinking about it can short-circuit serious consideration of practical steps like conservation. “As long as mitigating climate change trumps all other environmental concerns,” he writes, “no landscape on Earth is safe. Like globalism, climatism alienates.” It dominates the discourse because it’s easily understood and “everyone’s fault — in other words, no one’s.” Conservation, meanwhile, with its emphasis on problem-solving here and now, is difficult: “No two places are alike, and no narrative is simple.” But embracing this difficulty can generate positive action while worrying about climate change has produced only inertia.
His avoidance of easy answers has always made Franzen worth reading. Coupled with a self-consciousness that appears to second-guess his critics, it makes his work stimulating even when it isn’t comfortable. He is at home with his own discomfort and often explicitly uneasy about his privilege — notably, here, his whiteness in ’80s Harlem and his conservationism in countries recovering from colonialism.
Franzen’s war on social media and what he calls “the polarizing logic of online discourse” has previously made him an object of scorn. But haven’t the past few years given us all pause about our lives online? Franzen, unlike many, listens. It’s what makes him one of the best living writers of fictional dialogue, and it’s what makes his arguments productively provocative. Read his latest for the avian rhapsodies and nuanced climate politics, but also because there’s more to any good argument than can easily be summarized on social media. Read before you tweet.
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.
By Jonathan Franzen
FSG. 240 pp. $26.