Time Out with Nick Cohen: This week Jonathan Franzen

His mother was desperate to be respectable, yet here was Jonathan Franzen, breaking every rule his p

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If you are a youngish graduate making a career in the media or arts anywhere in the English-speaking world, the chances are you will have bought The Corrections and helped make it the bestselling literary novel to date in the 21st century. It is also likely that you would enjoy 9 Adam Street, a private club in a Georgian town house just off the Strand.

It's a place for London's music and book trades, and as I descended through its dining room to the launch of The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen's memoir of his childhood, I passed faces that were familiar as types rather than indivi duals. Perhaps unfairly, I thought I needed only a quick look at their casually unbuttoned clothes and meals of "authentic" English food of the kind few English people would dream of eating to know where they lived, what they believed and which potential partners they would consider acceptable.

Inside Franzen's party, one woman stood out from the chichi crowd. She was matronly, to use an archaic word, with a bright face and slightly flustered expression. "Hi, I'm Nancy," she said. "I was the girl next door when Jonathan was a boy in Webster Groves." This was too good an opportunity to miss. Although it is stupid to treat fiction as autobiography, Franzen's memoir all but announces that his mother inspired Enid Lambert in The Corrections, the matriarch frustrated equally by her unhappy marriage and the refusal of her children to abide by her conservative values.

I asked Nancy how the novel had gone down in Missouri. Her generation was proud, she told me. No one else had left Webster Groves to become a famous author. But Nancy's parents and other older friends of Mr and Mrs Franzen had bristled. "They say" - and she imitated a shocked voice - "'How could he write like that about his mother?'"

Nancy and I gossiped away, her open friendliness seemed to me the best of the Midwest - a welcome change at a London literary party. I had thought Franzen's embarrassed and brief speech displayed an equally admirable dislike of affectation. Far from playing the great author welcoming his admiring fans, he pretty much said: "Thanks for coming. Now get back to your drinks." If your neighbour had whispered in your ear for a moment, you would have missed it. Then I remembered that Franzen hates publicity. The charge that sticks to him like a Homeric epithet is that he didn't want Oprah Winfrey to make The Corrections book of the month on her televised book club. "Elitist!" "Too cool for Oprah!" screamed critics who seemed to take it as a personal slight that Franzen had turned down the chance to boost his royalties by receiving the blessing of daytime television.

Privacy and confessions

However bizarre their rage, they were right to feel at a subliminal level that Franzen is against nearly everything they stand for. His collection of essays How to Be Alone contains a despairing philippic on how television has all but destroyed the social novel and turned novelists into marginal curiosities. "The writer for whom the written word is paramount is, ipso facto, an untelevisable personality," he writes. "It's instructive to recall how many of our critically esteemed older novelists have chosen, in a country where publicity is otherwise sought like the Grail, to guard their privacy . . . No matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may appear in the short run, the artist who's really serious about resisting the culture of the inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of a certain obscurity."

Fortunately for me, Franzen doesn't want total obscurity, but talking to him back at his hotel in Kensington, I quickly realised that he could never be on television. The electronic media welcome exhibitionism, violence, narcissism and folly. They cannot tolerate silence. Franzen breaks the rules by pausing to consider his answers after each question. Interviews can be treacherously intimate encounters, where one barely formulated thought - on Oprah Winfrey, for instance - may be read by as many people as buy Franzen's book. As he talks, it's as if he is trying to reassert the control of the writer who doesn't release a sentence into the world before polishing and reconsidering every word. This is not to imply he is dishonest. Television's demands for instant response have created the delusion that what you blurt out is more real than your measured opinion. Franzen's care showed he wanted to express what he thought as well as he could, and I was grateful.

Franzen heard his father swear only once, and that was to say, "Damn!" His mother was desperate to be a part of the rest of the respectable community: "all her life she hated not belonging". Yet here he was, breaking every rule they held dear by washing his family's dirty linen in public. His parents are dead, but I asked whether his brothers objected to their childhood home being held up to public examination. Did they see it as a kind of betrayal? There was a pause.

"One of my brothers really gets that," Fran zen said. "Simply naming the fact that my parents weren't very happy together upsets him. He's moderately miserable about the publication of this book privately, but he understands and has never complained for a minute. I think if you have red-hot, scandalous material you can choose any number of approaches, but if you have very low-stakes material . . . you can't afford not to be really frank. I wanted to write a book for people for whom nothing really disastrous or fascinating had ever happened and I wanted to do justice to the fact that, for those people, their lives are no less compelling than anyone else's."

As a starting point for The Corrections and the subject of The Discomfort Zone, Franzen does indeed use his family to illuminate the crises of superficially ordinary lives and the conflict between the generations - the great cultural divide of the Sixties. His family serves many serious purposes, but it is also the material he has to hand. It struck me that no appeals to loyalties beyond his art could stop him exploiting it, and the question of betrayal of confidences barely troubles him.

His ability to turn the confessional style into something profound explains his success. Franzen doesn't like to over-analyse why The Corrections took off. "I'm tempted to recall Mick Jagger being asked to account for the Rolling Stones' success and answering something to the effect of 'we're fucking good'. That's not, of course, something anyone except Mick Jagger could get away with saying."

When I asked a random selection of his readers, however, I got very specific explanations for his appeal. An American friend, who sounded as if she knew exactly what she was talking about, said his description of an embarrassing exchange of sex and drugs between a student and her professor in The Corrections couldn't be bettered. A man with a father in his eighties told me he had read and reread the essay on Franzen's father's Alzheimer's in How to Be Alone. I won't forget this explanation of adolescent angst from The Discomfort Zone:

Adolescence is best enjoyed without self-consciousness, but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its leading symptom. Even when something important happens to you, even when your heart's getting crushed or exalted, even when you're absorbed in building the foundations of a personality, there come these moments when you're aware that what's happening is not the real story. Unless you actually die, the real story is still ahead of you. This alone, this cruel mixture of consciousness and irrelevance, is enough to account for how pissed off you are.

Apart from that final "pissed off" - why swear when you don't have to, as his mother would have asked - this is as good an encapsulation of teenage frustration as you can find. It may not be the whole truth; it may not even be an original explanation of a part of the truth; but it matches Alexander Pope's definition of true wit as "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed". Franzen can be long-winded, but at his best he produces writing you remember when you need it - that stands by you when you're in trouble - and it has made him a very wealthy man.

"Do you have a problem being rich?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, with no pause for once. "I appreciate your using the word 'rich' and not pussyfooting around. It's something hard to even admit to in public. I jumped several strata in the States in a couple of months."

His memoir shows why it unsettles him. Whatever else he may think of his parents, he is nostalgic for the relatively egalitarian era they lived through - "the golden age of the American middle class" - before the winner-takes-all economy engulfed his country, and ours. "This is a great time to be an American CEO, a tough time to be the CEO's lowest-paid worker," he writes at the start of The Discomfort Zone. "Better than ever to be bestselling, harder than ever to be mid-list."

"Money spares you from thinking, 'I have no choice: I have to get this damn book done by 1 November or I'm in trouble,'" he sighs. "I didn't feel lucky when I was living under those constraints, but now I see how lucky I was. I realise now I can do anything for a couple of years and the rent will still get paid. It's proved to be a knottier problem than I first guessed. The novel is this bourgeois form. It's typically written by people who don't come from money but who have some middle stance that enables them to write about both high and low."

As I passed the fine prints and deferential staff on my way out of his hotel, I hoped Franzen could overcome his fear that his unexpected upward mobility will destroy his ability to see American society as a whole. Other serious writers have managed it, after all. He may try to prove he hasn't sold out by producing wilfully obscurantist work. But if he sticks to dissecting what is compelling in ordinary life, his knotty problem will solve itself.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article appears in the 16 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The war on youth