January’s EcoSalon Man We Love: Jonathan Franzen

We may have mentioned that we’re a fan of the men. Give us a guy who can quote Gloria Steinem or Michael Pollan (or Gloria Steinem quoting Michael Pollan) and we will show you a guy we’re dancing around like vegan Bacchante. For December, we brought you the greatness that is Ryan Gosling. Now for the new year? We’re agreeing with Time and Oprah on this one: author Jonathan Franzen is our January Man We love.

Why is he of the well-written word so cool? As our editor-in-chief Sara notes, “I love how he notices textures, his sense of humor, and that great big brain. It’ll be fun to see if he lets out his mean streak in future books. And, he’s adorable, tall, and watches birds. What’s not to like?”

Further, his list of accomplishments as a writer is the stuff of dreams for this one. There’s his National Book Award in 2001 for The Corrections, a New York Times best seller. He’s a Pulitzer Prize nominee. He’s been called “The Great American Novelist” by Time Magazine and he’s tangoed with Oprah Winfrey, only to come out on top as her final book club selection ever with his latest tome, Freedom.

So yes, there’s a wee bit of fawning of the Franzen. But a recent interview got us thinking about what this man is doing for the environmental movement with Freedom. Freedom tells the story of Walter Berglund, a “greener than Greenpeace” environmentalist who takes on the task of negotiating strip mining for a bird sanctuary.

Walter wants to save a warbler species that Grist, in an interview with Franzen, points out leads his to make “a Faustian deal with a mountaintop-mining coal company.” Franzen works with the American Bird Conservancy, which is dedicated to helping wild birds of North America. But when asked if Freedom is an activist book, Franzen makes the point that modern day environmentalism includes many shades of gray. As he mentions,

There is a place for radical stances – Greenpeace with the whales, some of the anti-mountaintop-removal stuff going on in Appalachia. And you can actually sometimes succeed by taking the really hard-line position. But much more often, if you talk to the people doing the work and getting things done, it’s a gut-wrenching compromise every day. You have to cultivate extremely wealthy people. You have to cut very imperfect deals with industry. People have said to me, about Freedom, “Oh, you must be satirizing this poor Walter Berglund who gets corrupted when he sets out to do good.” In fact, what I was after was a purely realistic portrayal of contemporary conservation work in Appalachia.

Franzen further points out that his way of turning people’s attention to certain interests is to hook them on the human story first. He concludes that “engaging people on the environment is really, really hard” and cautions that people should not lose sight of that.

Franzen’s subtle exposure of the modern-day environmentalist in his latest work is fantastic. But he also knows how to motivate his acolytes. He recently told The Guardian, “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Point taken, Mr. Franzen. (She writes, as she sits on her hands to avoid clicking on the latest headlines.)

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck for The Guardian

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.