On Franzen’s “Farther Away”

My review of Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen’s new essay collection, ran in today’s Boston Globe. You can get to the review here. And here’s a chunk of the piece:

The rest of the collection isn’t as engaging. Franzen decries the vulgarity of contemporary technology; Franzen writes about not having a TV on 9/11; Franzen discusses literature and writing, which necessarily means Franzen discusses Franzen.

The problem reveals itself here, you see, because most of “Farther Away” takes Franzen himself as subject. Self-obsession is a hallmark of the essay. From Montaigne to Joseph Mitchell and beyond, sensibility, voice, and insightful idiosyncrasy offer the compelling arguments for publishing them. But Franzen isn’t Mitchell, and he’s surely not Montaigne. High standards, to be sure, but Franzen often invites himself into discussions of literary greatness, even though what we have to contend with in this collection isn’t the shadow of greatness so much as the stain of celebrity. Here’s my point: Without knowing that these essays are the product of Jonathan Franzen, many don’t merit re-publication.

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