Franzen wrote Corrections, a novel TIME called the “literary phenomenon of the decade” and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002.
He has also penned several non fiction books like The Discomfort Zone, Franzen’s personal history of growing up, and How to Be Alone, a series of essays regarding individuality and the “noisy and distracting mass culture.”
For a while, Franzen was the subject of some controversy when he expressed displeasure at Corrections being featured on Oprah’s book list. He said other books featured on the list were “schmaltzy,” and he didn’t want his work featured among them.
Franzen often features “social criticism” or “social commentary” in both his fiction and non-fiction books. He said, “I no longer set out to do social criticism in my novels, but I don’t mind if other people see social criticism in them.”
“I had a relatively happy childhood. Unlike a lot of writers, I had an especially happy junior and senior year in high school,” Franzen said about why he likes returning to his hometown of Webster Groves. “Junior high was admittedly mostly miserable,” he said, “but I never blamed Webster Groves for that.”
Corrections and Strong Motion are both about what critics call “dysfunctional nuclear families.”
“If I could be king for a day,” Franzen said, “I would outlaw the phrase ‘dysfunctional family.’ If I say my own family is dysfunctional, I sound self-dramatizing and self-pitying. If I say some other family is dysfunctional, I sound like a mental-health professional who knows what’s best for everybody else. Some of the craziest people I’ve ever met have been mental-health professionals.”
Franzen said his Webster Groves experiences are among the most important things in his writing. “In my non-fiction, I’ve written about several experiences that were formative,” Franzen said, “my girlfriend’s fall from a roof at Eden Seminary, the pranking organization I was involved with at WGHS, and the night my brother ran away from home, to name a few.”
About how high school environment and youth culture have changed since he was young, Franzen said, “My personal thought about youth culture today is that a lot of it seems very passive— passive acceptance of technology, of media, of consumerism, and of corporate control of the country.”
“One thing I feel particularly lucky about–one thing that made so many things possible— is that I wasn’t getting text messages and Facebook postings every five minutes. We had an opportunity to really sink into creative projects, and into reading, and into relationship-building, without so many distractions,” Franzen continued.
“Like every kid, I thought my parents were too strict,” he said, “but when I think back on them now, I’m amazed by how much freedom they gave me, and how few questions they asked about what I was doing.”
“I usually succeed in remembering that young people of my own generation had a lot of problems too,” he said.
Franzen advised young writers and other creatives to “read lots and lots of books…That is my advice.”
Franzen’s latest book Freedom came out on Aug. 31, and he signed books and spoke at Christ Church Cathedrial on Sept. 20.