Literary Jonathans

Portraits of the Jonathans as young men

Remember when Jonathan Franzen took a minor swipe at his not-quite-contemporary, Jonathan Safran Foer, in Purity?

“And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire? So many of my students are…So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America.”

I don’t know that I’ve noticed a plague*, but I did just finish Foer’s latest, Here I Am, so let’s do a little comparing and contrasting.

Comparing the Jonathans

  • Breakout novels in the early aughts (The Corrections and Everything is Illuminated)
  • American Novels with side trips across the ocean: Chip’s Lithuanian vacation in The Corrections, Berlin in Purity, the whole Israel thing in Here I Am
  • Voice of their respective generations: Franzen gets that label more than Foer, maybe, but remember, Foer isn’t even forty**. Give it time.
  • Insufferable public personas: Do I really need to link to something for Franzen? And in case you missed it, Foer did… whatever this is.
  • Environmentalist: Franzen is all about looking at birds, Foer is all about not eating them.
  • Fascination and disgust with technology: I love how both include realistic technology in their novels (email exchanges in The Corrections, text messages in Purity; sexting, constant screen time, and a Minecraft-like online environment in Here I Am) but they both really hate it, too.

Contrasting the Jonathans

  • The generation they are supposedly the voice of: Franzen’s a boomer, and Foer is technically a Gen Xer. Really though, he’s on the edge of Gen X and Millennial – just like me. Some call us Generation Catalano, but I prefer baby Gen Xer or elder Millennial, depending on my mood.
  • Experimental vs realism: Franzen has a lot of range, but most of his writing is pretty straight up, realistic, and chronological. Foer experiments; not so much in Here I Am, which is much more Franzeny than his previous work, but in the invented language and mythology of Everything is Iluminated, and the flipbook at the back of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
  • Wunderkind vs Late Bloomer: Franzen was in his 40s with two novels behind him before he found success, while Foer was 25 and a debut novelist.
  • Adaptation: Attempts have been made, but so far, Franzen’s work has not been adapted (Purity was in the works as a mini series but I haven’t heard anything in quite some time.) Both of Foer’s previous novels were made into movies; I wonder if Elijah Wood is free to play Jonathan, I mean, Jacob of Here I Am?

As for the books, I’ve only read two of Foer’s but each of them affected me more than anything of Franzen’s. I love ’em both, don’t get me wrong, but Franzen’s writing is a bit too sterile to give me that emotional devastation I crave. I have teared up for Franzen – but only for The Corrections, and only for one late, revelatory scene which I won’t spoil. Foer’s books don’t just make me cry, they have me weeping through entire chapters. Or the last 100 pages, in the case of Here I Am.

So, who’s your fav literary Jonathan? Meet me here for #FoerinFebruary in 2018?

*Jonathan was the 124th most popular name the year Franzen was born, and the 28th by the time Foer was born in 1977. It peaked in 1988 at #15, which suggests that the plague of literary Jonathans is far from over.

**He turns forty on Tuesday!





  1. Rebecca Foster

    I love your comparing and contrasting! I really enjoy both of these authors and have read most (Franzen) or all (Foer) of what they’ve written, but I had never thought to pit them against each other in this way. In terms of literary Jonathans (I loved that little dig in Purity), there’s also Lethem, Coe, Evison, Tropper and Miles…

      • Rebecca Foster

        Here I Am was very much an outlier/disappointment for me; I’ve loved all of Foer’s other books. I’ve read at least one book each from all those other Jonathans 😉 I think you’d like Evison and Tropper. Both pretty funny.

  2. Naomi

    It sounds like I’d like Foer’s books more than Franzen’s. I have Everything is Illuminated – just haven’t read it yet.
    And I think I like Foer just for saying that Guinea Pigs are the hardest thing a writer has to deal with. I can sympathize with him there. 🙂
    I think you have to find more authors with the initials J.F. See who you can find!

    • lauratfrey

      Right! I knew my heart was heavily involved already. And you know what pisses me off to no end? A review, and I’m not even sure which one, quoted that last paragraph. Not the last three lines of dialogue, thank god, but still, as I was reading it I was like, omg I’ve read this before and I’m sooooo upset about it lol. Am I alone in thinking it is NOT cool to quote from the last page/paragraph or a book? I don’t even care about plot spoilers this much 🙂

  3. Pingback: Franzen in February in May | Another Book Blog
  4. Chris O'Connell

    I don’t view this passage as a minor swipe of Safran Foer. If anything, it is more of a shout-out as the College Literature Professor drops the name, acknowledging his popularity. OK, the name is mispronounced but that is funny. At any rate, I fail to find any implicit criticism or disrespect. And the “plague of literary Jonathans” riff was about the greatest thing I ever read. Huge enjoyment!

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