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Farther Away, By Jonathan Franzen

Grumpy, passionate, committed: the US mega-seller still keeps faith with literature.
  • @timwalker

Jonathan Franzen's garlanded fourth novel, Freedom, sold almost three million copies in 2010, stark evidence that the old printed book survives. Its author has proved himself a bitter enemy of the new-fangled. He called Twitter "unspeakably irritating"; suggested ebooks are "not compatible with... justice and responsible self-government" and, in his commencement address to Kenyon College's Class of 2011, reprinted in Farther Away as "Pain Won't Kill You", decried Facebook as a "private hall of flattering mirrors."

Franzen lives up to his Grumpy Old Man rep elsewhere in this non-fiction miscellany, but his tirades against gadgetry and golf are somewhat more nuanced than those of, say, a Top Gear presenter. His principal complaint about the mobile phone, for example, is that it has debased the words, "I love you", by making them ubiquitous: "When I'm buying socks at the Gap and the mom in line behind me shouts 'I love you!' into her little phone, I'm powerless not to feel that something is being performed; overperformed; publicly performed; defiantly inflicted."

Though he resents "late-model" technology, he fetishises it, too – in particular, his BlackBerry, "which lets me deal with lengthy, unwelcome emails in a few breathless telegraphic lines for which the recipient is nevertheless obliged to feel grateful, because I did it with my thumbs."

Franzen's 2003 essay collection How to be Alone provided welcome context to his novel The Corrections. Farther Away contains essays, reportage and reviews, and is a fine standalone tome, but also a behind-the-scenes glimpse, a guide to the author's state of mind around and soon after the writing of Freedom. One of the novel's protagonists was an environmental campaigner and bird-lover, and here "The Ugly Mediterranean" takes Franzen to Cyprus, Malta and Italy to report on the annual songbird massacre.

Birds are the impetus for much of his journalism. In China on the trail of a puffin-shaped golf accessory, he finds habitats decimated by industrial development, but also a band of committed local twitchers and environmentalists. The most ambitious piece here is "Farther Away", for which he travels to a remote, uninhabited South Pacific island to see the rare Masafuera rayadito songbird; to re-read Robinson Crusoe; and to scatter some of the ashes of his friend, David Foster Wallace. The resulting piece mixes intrepid travel journalism with an early history of the novel, and a meditation on loneliness and boredom.

Franzen's 2008 eulogy for Wallace is included here. In his reviews, he champions lesser-known or lesser-selling writers such as Douglas Antrim, Alice Munro and Paula Fox; and better-known ones, such as Dostoevsky, one of his beloved Russians. He's awfully pessimistic about the passing of great literature. "Haven't we all secretly sort of come to an agreement," he asks, "that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?"

He takes writing way more seriously than some would consider sensible, and dishes out rules accordingly: "All serious writers struggle" – he insists in "On Autobiographical Fiction" – "with the conflicting demands of good art and good personhood." His admonishment of modern novelists for their over-use of "Comma, then" will have aspirant "serious writers" furiously Ctrl+Fing their manuscripts for the offending grammatical hash. But the world of literature, besieged as he believes it is, needs authors who care. And Franzen really cares. His attitude might be aggressively highbrow, but his underlying concerns are simple and humane: family, age, grief, love.