A year ago, I surveyed my media habits after six months of pandemic living. I looked at bookish blogs, YouTube channels, and podcasts. My podcast consumption had suffered the most, since I didn’t drive anywhere. I was also feeling too burned out and disconnected to keep up – imagine, we weren’t even in the second wave yet! Now, from deep in the fourth wave, it’s time to take stock.
Lately I find myself drawn to podcasts. They lend themselves to projects, conversation, and retrospectives, rather than roundups and book hauls, and the tone tends to be more soothing than your average YouTube video. My only frustration with podcasts is that, unlike blogs and YouTube, there’s no comment section.
But that’s the whole point of a blog, right? Spouting off unqualified opinions? Who needs a comment section!
A new bookish podcast launched this month, and it seems tailor made for me. Mr. Difficult is a podcast devoted to Jonathan Franzen, both his works and his public persona. The “project” is reading and discussing Franzen’s novels in order of publication, culminating in Crossroads.
The hosts, writers Erin Somers and Alex Shephard, plus producer Eric Jett, are not fully fledged Franzen stans. In the first episode, they acknowledge that he is difficult to love, and easy to dunk on. Alex says he’s “attracted and repelled” by him, and Erin says she’s somewhere between a lover and hater. Personally, I find his dunkability endearing, but that’s just me…
Episode one is all about Franzen’s debut, 1988 novel The Twenty-Seventh City, which is a bit of a mess. The comparisons to other “systems” novels like those of his BFF David Foster Wallace, and other big names like Pynchon and Wolfe, was illuminating. I agree that by the time he wrote The Corrections, Franzen seemed to figure out that the family was also a system, and describing the various way the family system can break down makes for a compelling story, more so than, say, the zoning bylaws of St. Louis. The discussion helped me think about what Franzen was trying to do with this novel, and helped me remember that he was just an ambitious, competitive, and probably insecure guy in his 20s when he wrote it.
Other assorted thoughts on episode one of Mr. Difficult:
- At about 8 minutes in, the hosts talk about the difference between Franzen’s fiction and nonfiction, with a clear preference for the fiction. Personally, I celebrate his entire catalog.
- At 13 minutes in, the hosts give their rankings of Franzen’s novels. To do a proper ranking, I have to read Strong Motion, and probably reread The Corrections. I’ve read Crossroads, but it’s a tough one to rank, given that it’s only book one of a trilogy.
- Draft ranking: The Corrections, Crossroads, Freedom, Purity, The Twenty Seventh City, and everything I’ve heard about Strong Motion leads me to believe it will be dead last. This ranking is identical to Erin’s.
- At about 21 minutes in, Alex asserts that Franzen is the “great Generation X novelist”, which I find fascinating, because Franzen is absolutely a baby boomer. He was born in the 50s for goodness sake! That said, he’s not wrong. I might just clarify that he’s writing for and about Generation X. His most memorable characters are Gen Xers: all the Lambert children, and Patty and Walter Berglund. The label also feels right because he came to fame in the early aughts, alongside other genuine Gen X novelists, like Zadie Smith, and the other literary Jonathans; he just wasn’t a 25 year old ingenue at the time.
- The phrase “Jonathan Franzen’s penis” occurs at about 38 mins. Just a warning (and there go my search terms…)
I’m not sure how frequently these podcasts will come out, but I borrowed Strong Motion from the library, so I hope I’m ready.
As for my other bookish media habits, I may review those too in future posts. I’m still committed to book blogs, while my Booktube and Bookstagram consumption has fallen off a cliff. And I guess I’ll eventually have to acknowledge the existence of BookTok.