Franzen on love, sex, population, birds, and making the world less toxic
If you’ve read the bestseller Freedom, you won’t be surprised to hear that novelist Jonathan Franzen describes himself as “a long-time green.” One of the book’s main characters, Walter Berglund, is “greener than Greenpeace,” Franzen tells us on the first page. Walter throws himself into campaigns to fight population growth and save birds, ultimately leading him to make a Faustian bargain involving mountaintop-removal coal mining and natural-gas drilling West Virginia.
Franzen’s own environmentalism is less obsessive, but, as he told Grist fans at a recent event in New York City, he’s still passionate about the issues. Watch highlights from Franzen’s conversation with Kathryn Schulz, author and former Grist managing editor, and read an edited transcript below.
In this first video, Franzen answers a question about why he focused on environmental issues in Freedom. He starts off by confessing to some heavy-handedness at the end of the book when Walter lectures another character, Linda Hoffbauer, about the importance of keeping cats indoors so they don’t kill birds.
In this second video, Franzen talks about why he chose to focus on the often-ignored issue of population growth.
Q. Freedom is packed with environmental issues — it’s about overpopulation, it’s about habitat destruction, it’s about endangered or soon-to-be-endangered species, it’s about mountaintop mining. That said, you are not a pamphleteer, you’re not a dogmatic or a didactic writer. The novel is not serving these issues; these issues are serving the novel. For you as a writer, what’s this allowing you to do on the page that you might otherwise not be able to do?
A. The cat stuff is the one genuinely sloganeering part of the book. There’s no accident it’s at the very end. You don’t want to scare people away. I thought, well, if I’ve got the reader this far, I can do a little sloganeering.
Why do I use the environmental issues? A lot of it is because I know them. I’m involved in bird conservation in particular and I’m a long-time green, basically. I had to give it up for a while because it was making me so angry, and one of the things that’s music to my ears about Grist is this idea of laughing and finding ways to make it positive. But mostly I’m lazy. It would take me months of work to become as familiar with some other issue as I am with the energy situation in West Virginia and how that is impacting the cerulean warbler. I know that stuff.
I can’t sloganeer as a novelist because I don’t know what the right answer is. That’s kind of what the fiction writer’s job is, not to know what the right answer is, to attempt to see things from the other side. I try to give the strongest possible arguments to the people who are not interested in the environment, or who have values that are trumping environmental values, on the theory that anything that gets that conservation into a more public conversation is good.
Q. Walter Berglund, one of the central characters in your book, is obsessed with overpopulation, which I found really striking, partly because it’s an environmental issue that’s not really on the radar screen right now. It’s probably the least palatable and perhaps least pragmatic environmental issue you could take on. But also, in the pages of this book, it cohabits with a vast amount of sex — urgent, implacable sex. The characters’ sex drives are unchecked by things like family and fidelity and hurting people they love, let alone abstractions like, oh, there are going to be 13 billion people on earth. Obviously sex acts don’t have to result in procreation, but it seemed like you were choosing the environmental issue that was most at odds with self-interest and simple hedonism. Was that deliberate, and if so, why?
A. It’s hard to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the exurbs of this country and not feel, you know, maybe it would be better to have less people. It is clear that many of our environmental problems, certainly climate change foremost among them, would be scaled down dramatically and perhaps scaled down into solvable range if there were half as many people contributing to the problem. Of course, things get very complicated very quickly, because we’re really talking about per capita resource consumption, not gross global population, and that’s one of the many reasons why this is an unpalatable conversation and why everyone pretty much across the board, except for a few cranks like Walter, has tacitly agreed, we’re not going talk about that. Left or right, green or brown, nobody really likes to talk about the issue because it’s a tar baby, it makes everybody look bad — which is catnip to the novelist. Though overpopulation is in the conversation this week because we’re [reaching] 7 billion.
Everyone is making their own rational choice about how to have a meaningful life, and for many people that involves having lots of sex and having some kids. What makes sense at the personal level and what makes really nonsense, or harmful sense, at a global level — those are attractive things, again, to the novelist.
Q. A few years ago you wrote this lovely essay in The New Yorker about your “bird problem.” The problem, as I understand it, is that once you fall in love with something, whether it’s a warbler or a woman, you are suddenly obligated to care about the world, insofar as it affects that thing you’ve fallen in love with, and you can no longer irresponsibly live free and separate from society. Love requires you to give up your freedom in order to protect things like birds that you care about and people that you care about. This is also central to politics, it’s the problem of the social contract, it’s central to environmentalism, it’s central to regulation. Do you feel like you’ve changed in how you value total freedom on one end of the spectrum or total love on the other?
A. Not really. Love was always important to me.
When you do start caring, you are obliged — you no longer can do anything you want. And to the eternal adolescent American consumer, that presents as this outrageous restriction of one’s personal freedom.
Q. But, to play devil’s advocate, love can be a force that’s working against us, a certain kind of love and focus on the people you love most is a conservatizing force. We see the character of Linda Hoffbauer, whose primal love for her children is going to trump everything else. [Linda refuses to keep her children’s cat indoors, so the cat roams free and kills birds.] How do you resolve that?
A. I’m struggling not to say what I really think, which is, I’m a fiction writer and it’s not my problem. The dirty secret of literature is, we kind of welcome troubled times — bring it on.
I’m not under the impression that things are ever going to get perfect for the world or for human beings, and so I don’t have that kind of crusader thing anymore. I see the work that needs to be done as more incremental. You take the victories where you can, you struggle slowly to change the paradigm. Recycling, when it first came along, was a crazy idea, and now kids recycle. The notion of buying food that was grown close to you, which was the case 50 years ago, [is coming back]. Cultural change does happen. Steady cultural pressure exerted by people will have an incremental effect. It will not change the world. The world is likely only to change for the worse, I’m sorry to say, so one is taking mitigating and incremental strategies to try to nudge it in slightly less toxic directions. And that’s a lot, to nudge the course of history in a slightly less toxic direction — that’s not failure, that’s huge. That’s what we should be trying to do.
I’m not trying to be discouraging. I’m saying the fight is worth fighting, even though the stakes may seem small compared to the world as one would like it. I have my own vision: people living in cities, surrounded by intense agricultural belts, surrounded by lots of open space. Not gonna happen.
Q. That makes me want to ask you about discouragement. Walter gets more environmentally passionate as his life falls further into chaos and misery. And it seems to be essentially a portrait of depressive realism, that he’s unable to nourish these cheerful fictions about himself and the world around him that sort of keep the rest of us from being consigned to despair. Do you think it’s impossible to be an effective, happy environmentalist?
A. I’m fairly deeply involved with the American Bird Conservancy, and what I see there is a building full of happy environmentalists. Because when you actually get something done, leverage the Fish and Wildlife Service into setting aside 3,200 acres of oak woodland in Missouri and manage it for warblers, those people can go out and have a beer on a Friday night and really be happy. So I actually feel that working environmentalists are in the main happier than armchair environmentalists.
Q. How do you become informed about environmental issues? Are you reading news, environmental works? Are you reading contemporary novels that have also taken on these issues, like Don DeLillo?
A. I do read all of DeLillo, but I don’t troll the waters of dystopian fiction very often. One dystopia resembles another. I read the Science Times [section of The New York Times] on Tuesdays. I really like National Geographic; I think it has not so quietly become the most effective environmentalist medium in the world. Every month they hit hard, they roundhouse punch on some critical environmental issue, often very politically touchy stuff. And I read a lot of bird literature. The thing about birds is, they’re everywhere, so if you care about them as a group, that pretty much ties into the oceans, the atmosphere, climate change, energy, all of that stuff. So I’m not apologizing for reading bird literature.
I find it consistently enlivening to keep in touch with what’s going on in the world right now, and it seems unlikely that environmental issues are going to become less salient in the next five years, so I’ll continue to look for engagement in that direction, I’m sure.