Jonathan Franzen: the man, the myth, the guy whom I thought I saw emerge from a men’s room at the L.A. Times Book Festival, but since I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I couldn’t really be sure; my only clues were silver hair and glasses and something he’d said to someone else about “the kids,” and Franzen, as I learned from a frantic cell-phone consultation of Wikipedia, doesn’t have kids, but like, maybe he was dating someone who did? Later that night, looking at Twitter, I saw a photo of the bathroom user captioned Jonathan Lethem; I was simultaneously grateful that I hadn’t gone up to him and been like, “Jonathan, I loved The Corrections,” and bummed that I hadn’t been like, “Jonathan, I loved Motherless Brooklyn,” because I really did, but oh, well, you live, you learn.
Anyway, people have all kinds of feelings about Jonathan Franzen. I gave my dad The Corrections for Christmas last year, and he toted it along to the Boxing Day dinner because he knew that my aunt, his sister, hated The Corrections, and he wanted to start shit. This is something a character in The Corrections would do. Giving your dad a copy of The Corrections is also something a character in The Corrections would do. I, for one, am on Team The Corrections, as was Oprah, much to Jonathan Franzen’s chagrin, which he expressed loudly and publicly, causing the first great controversy of his career, but not the last.
But then, what about when he refused to sign the Harper’s letter? That has to count for something: George Packer asked him to serve as signatory to a letter calling for the protection of “free exchange of information and ideas” and he said “not me bitch.” To wit:
I felt it could be construed somehow as an attack on Black Lives Matter at a moment when that was just not the thing to do. There’s a chilling of nuanced discourse… but I also think, until people start being sent off to Lubyanka for having said the wrong thing to the wrong person, the risk is probably overblown.
Chill. This brings me to the subject of my 3:46 AM investigation: Has Jonathan Franzen ever said anything about trans people? The Harper’s Letter does not count. Yes, J.K. Rowling and Jesse Singal signed it, but neither “trans” nor “gender” actually appear in its text, and lots of chill, normal people signed it, too. Like, I’m looking at it now, and Cornel West appears on the list of signatories right next to Bari Weiss. Rushdie is below Rowling. For every grifter on this list like Kat Rosenfield is some giant of the human spirit like Reginald Dwayne Betts. I digress. Franzen’s refusal to sign this letter does not constitute a statement about trans people.
But has he ever made such a statement? It is now, 510 words and 22 minutes into my investigation, that I turn at last to Google.
“jonathan franzen,” i type. “trans.”
First result: r/books. “What if Jonathan Franzen was trans?” someone asks. “Jonathan Tranzen,” someone replies.
That’s actually a link to an interview where Jeanne Thornton poses the question as a thought experiment. What if Jonathan Franzen were trans? What would it mean for trans literature? What would it mean about what we call a “trans voice?” Interesting, but not, however, Franzen talking about trans people.
Moving on. Changing my search term to “transgender” because I’m getting stuff about translation in my results.
“I’m Asking Men to Pay Me $5,000 to Read Jonathan Franzen,” a post on the late Establishment – lol, rest in whatever the opposite of peace is – snuck in here, I think, due to its repeated use of “cis straight white men.” An interview with Torrey Peters, trans author, who says Crossroads is good; a review by Lauren Oyler comparing Detransition, Baby to Franzen.
Still no word from the Fran himself. Too many of these search results are just articles about him with unrelated sidebar links to, like, If This Transgender “Girl” is Permitted to Front Crawl in the Same Pool as My Lily-White Porcelain-Skinned Cisgender Daughter Then it’s Over for Feminism-type articles. Scraping the bottom of the barrel with “jonathan franzen transsexual” and “jonathan franzen [slur]” also yielded no results. His memorialization of David Foster Wallace makes mention of Infinite Jest, but not of the trans characters in it.
Trying “jonathan franzen cisgender” yields only articles calling him cis. If he’d even once humorously been like, “as a cis straight white man,” I would count that on a technicality. To the best of my knowledge, though, it hasn’t happened. Many have called Jonathan Franzen cis, but he has never thus identified.
Okay. I’m going to search “jonathan franzen lgbt.” He wrote that great lesbian character in The Corrections, right? Maybe, at some point, talking about her, he said “LGBT.” Or “LGBTQ.” Maybe, though I doubt it, he even went so far as “LGBTQIA.” If he has ever uttered any version of the acronym with a T in it, I will count that as Jonathan Franzen talking about trans people. Nothing.
Next – maybe last – I’m going to type in “jonathan franzen gender” and see what happens. Google helpfully throws up a little banner that says “male.” Thank you, Google.
Well, there you have it. Has Jonathan Franzen ever said anything about trans people? No. The answer is no. No, nope, absolutely nothing. Not boo or peep in his 62 years of life. Jonathan… I don’t know what to say. Thank you, I guess. If only every renowned author had your reticence on this issue. We don’t talk enough about the value of knowing when to just shut the fuck up.
With that, I am closing this investigation. It has been an hour. If you have any hot tips on this matter, please feel free to comment below. Thank you.