A lake at sunset

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Reviewed by Frank Izaguirre

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Today’s nature writers have a serious decision to make. If we still want to be thought of as anything other than incestuous literary outcasts who are the only audience for our own writing, then we better think hard about what it means that America’s premier novelist is a birder writing about overpopulation and land conservation. If we hope to end up something other than jaded academics that make a living teaching expensive nature writing classes that students love but aren’t professionally going to benefit from at all, then I say we get Franzen’s back.

Here’s why: Franzen has brought environmental issues into the limelight, and not just in the literary sense. He’s a household name. For someone writing about environmental problems, that’s an accomplishment that can’t be understated. Who else besides Al Gore can claim such name recognition? These days, not only has writing about environmental issues become marginalized and out of vogue, heck, being ecologically literate isn’t even important.

In a fantastic article published in the journal Places, Adelheid Fischer discusses the phenomenon she rightly labels “eco-confabulations” running rampant in contemporary American literature. The principle offender she cites, which happens to be another of America’s biggest novelists, is Michael Cunningham and his A Home at the End of the World. Hawks fly at night, to name one ecological gaffe, and the book also features dead armadillos and Joshua trees in the Sonoran desert. I’ve never been to and don’t know much about the Sonoran desert, but apparently those two species have nothing to do with it.

Let me mention another offense by a bestselling work of nonfiction. After I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, a necessary chore for any writer who wants to know what’s actually selling, I talked to other writers about the book. The criticisms rained down like trash from an erupting landfill. Her navel-gazing. Her absurd privilege. Her numbing prose. Her anti-feminism. All things I passionately agree with, but you know what literally made me pound my fist on the table as soon as I read it? The moment when Gilbert graciously dedicates a few sentences to describing the Bali landscape. She mentions hummingbirds feeding at the flowers in her garden.

That’s the sort of ignorant garbage that makes me seriously hate the New York literary establishment. Takes about five seconds to look at any ornithological textbook and see that hummingbirds are a strictly New World family. That would never happen with a reference to a piece of artwork or historical event. Editors check for that. Gilbert’s embarrassing ecological illiteracy could have been avoided, first, if any one of her editors had known this basic fact about hummingbirds, which are far and away not the most obscure bird family, or, second, if any of them had not been so pathetically lazy and checked.

Now compare to Franzen. One of Freedom‘s principle characters is an unapologetic birder who not only suffers social exclusion because of it, but invests all his professional energies in trying to preserve one endangered species, the cerulean warbler, that’s handsomely featured on the cover of the book. His passion for conservation is what drives him. In a Kenyon College commencement speech, Franzen flame-throwered our culture’s cowardly infatuation with “liking” things and instead advocated that we go for what counts: love. Sounds a lot to me like the timeless environmental imperative, so often espoused by its accompanying literature, to love the land and care for it. A righteous agent has infiltrated the literary world and mainstream American culture.

As an aspiring writer interested in not being an ecological dumb-dumb, Franzen is about the only current practitioner that gives me any hope. He gives me the hope that I might, just might, not have to take refuge in academia and charge debt-laden students exorbitant fees so I can teach dubiously useful craft techniques, and then contradict myself by attaching the caveat that there are no rules for good writing that can’t be broken. Maybe I can one day actually sell my work to readers instead of merely citing a handful of publications as justification for a teaching position. Maybe I can make a living as a writer. That’s the hope he gives me.

But only part of it. Consider this: When was the last time an American author like Franzen managed to get so many readers thinking about environmental issues? Probably Rachel Carson. And before that? Thoreau? It’s been a long time since Thoreau.

Should we speak of Jonathan Franzen in the same breath as these giants of American nature writing? Is he even a nature writer? For starters, has he published in Terrain? I don’t think so. What about Orion, Ecotone, Hawk & Handsaw, Isotope, Precipitate? These are the homes of nature writers, so it seems he hasn’t run the necessary gauntlet. But it doesn’t matter, because who among us can get an essay about birding into The New Yorker, where literally a million people might read it? He has three that I’m aware of.

And in a way, shouldn’t writers who care about the natural world be striving to get published anywhere besides nature journals? Doesn’t that just reinforce the trend of our growing ostracization, irrelevance even?

Even among nature writers and other friends of the natural world, birders get shoved under the bus. David Gessner, a birder and author, does exactly that in Sick of Nature. One of his cute little zingers is that he’s sick of “contemplating the migratory patterns of the semipalmated plover.” He goes on to roast just about every big name nature writer except Edward Abbey, who he seems to have a big crush on. Nature writing has been reduced to infighting, and by the mere act of penning such an accusation, I’ve become yet another combatant. Even Franzen goes along with it a little. In the Kenyon College speech, he said, “it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher.”

At least with his latest novel we’re making progress instead of regressing, which is what the societal stature of both literature and the environmental movement have been doing for awhile. That’s why I love Freedom. It makes me feel like we’re back on the ascent. It doesn’t really matter if all the novel’s technical aspects are perfect. Frankly, I was disappointed that he killed off one character—who wasn’t much more than a combination sex object and showcased philosophy—in order that two other characters could eventually get back together. That could have been improved, but I don’t care. It’s just not that important in light of what he’s accomplishing.

What do I mean when I say we get Franzen’s back? For starters, how about a book review in any of the major journals? How about some critical theory? How about some discussion? The silence on behalf of the nature writing world says to me that if you’re a popular author, you’re not in the club. I pray it isn’t true, but how else can we explain that while the book is making waves in the rest of the literary world, we’re twiddling our thumbs, as if we don’t even know who he is.

I’m not saying nature writers should try and claim Franzen the way politicians tried to claim and benefit from recent protest movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. I’m just saying this could be a landmark moment for nature writing, the moment when it stops being nature writing and becomes just writing, not a quarantined special interest sub-genre. In the literary world, this could be a game-changer. And if any of us still truly believes that literature can change the world à la Silent Spring, we had better get psyched.

Franzen is at the top right now, which means critics are going to relentlessly keep trying to take him down. He’s the most vulnerable, because he’s perched atop the greatest height. He has the farthest to fall.

I, for one, got his back.


Frank Izaguirre is a writer, ecocritic, and birder. He’s been published in Flashquake, Precipitate, and has something forthcoming in ISLE. Follow him on Twitter @FrankMIzaguirre.

Header photo by TomMarc, courtesy Pixabay

  1. Excellent article! Environmental illiteracy in novels always annoys me more than any other issue other than really bad writing.

    What about Barbara Kingsolver? She strikes me as an environmentally literate author?

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Juliet!

    Yes, I definitely think of Kingsolver as ecologically literate, but she’s been corralled as a “nature writer” in a way that Franzen has not. Whether that’s fair to her is another story, but I think of them a little differently for that reason.

  3. Your review makes me think of Granta’s 2008 issue on “The New Nature Writing,” in which Lydia Peelle, author of the story collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, was quoted as saying, “The new nature writing, rather than being pastoral or descriptive or simply a natural history essay, has got to be couched in stories—whether fiction or non-fiction—where we as humans are present. Not only as observers, but as intrinsic elements… We’ve got to reconnect ourselves to our environment and fellow species in every way we can, every chance we have…it is the tradition of the false notion of separation that has caused us so many problems and led to so much environmental degradation…it is our great challenge in the twenty-first century to remake the connection…”

    A thoughtful essay-review of Franzen’s novel, for sure, and much appreciated. Thanks!

  4. Frank, I enjoyed this review, re-reading it after your post today on ASLE listserv Re: Slate article on Franzen. It’s great to see environmental issues brought to the forefront by popular authors. Yes, getting the science right is absolutely critical. P.S. I saw my life Cerulean Warbler (& Acadian Flycatcher) when I arrived early for ASLE 1999 in Michigan,a great start to a great conference! Look me up if you’re ever in northern CA

  5. Excellent points you make, Frank. I still revel in Franzen’s comment on first looking through binocs at the birds in Central Park: “It’s like the trees were hung with ornaments.”

    I wonder, though, about Cunningham’s hawk gaffe or the hummingbird error in Eat, Pray, Love. To me they speak not of laziness but of the depth of ignorance about the habits of flora and fauna. So where in our education was any of us ever given the idea that knowing the ways of hawks or hummingbirds actually MATTERS? The simple acts of observing and making connections among creatures in a region are not part of science classes (or they weren’t in my science curriculum), they are foreign to economics, they rarely appear in a history curriculum, and unless you take a nature-lit course, they are missing as well from language study. In a word, nature-knowledge (in the sense of a naturalist’s knowledge) is completely absent from the curriculum. Our cultural ways of thinking, in other words, are rarely placed within the matrix of nature. So it is not surprising that even good writers and editors can miss the errors.

    To me the job is about resituating our thinking (our education, our social and economic systems) in nature. Only then will a misplaced hummingbird matter in literary life.

  6. So exciting to see new commentary.

    Craig, thanks for mentioning that essay; it sounds excellent. I may subscribe to Granta just so I can take a look at it (and because Granta’s a premier journal, hah).

    Tom, how perfect of you to mention the Cerulean! I’d love to get some lifers while attending an ASLE conference. Thanks for the generous note, and, hey, California’s an area I plan on birding someday so I may take you up on your offer.

    Priscilla, the co-problem you mention is certainly just as relevant, and, I think, one of the primary reasons why ASLE exists. I still would not let editors off the hook and place blame solely on education systems. Editors should be expected to look those things up, even if they don’t know much or anything about them. The information age makes that easy. By being critical of them, my hope has been to make editors accountable for the error and own up to it, even if it’s just in a very small way. Allowing them to pass the blame onto someone else doesn’t seem right to me.

    Really, children should learn about their local environment and adults should be expected to speak with a certain degree of ecoliteracy. That’s a goal I think we can all work for.

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