Column: With flippant adoption comment, Jonathan Franzen births social media outrage

Novelist/essayist Jonathan Franzen at The New Yorker Festival on October 5, 2013 in New York City.

Novelist/essayist Jonathan Franzen at The New Yorker Festival on October 5, 2013 in New York City.

(Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for The New Yorker)

The Guardian slapped a headline on its website Friday morning that read, “Jonathan Franzen considered adopting Iraqi orphan to figure out young people.”

Even though Franzen, the prize-winning and often polarizing author of novels including “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” didn’t exactly say as much, someone at the Guardian knew what he or she was doing. Social media ignited into a predictable fireball of anti-Franzen rage, and the story became the febrile must-read (or at least must-click) that every editor hopes for.

The article was actually a summary of a longer interview in which Franzen, whose new novel will be published soon, discussed a number of topics: the scourges of electronic media, his kinship with other writers, perceptions in some circles that he doesn’t support writing by women. He also talked about how, as a non-parent, he felt alienated from the experiences of young people and briefly thought about adopting an Iraqi war orphan. The idea, he said, was “insane,” and his New Yorker editor suggested he instead “rent” some young people by meeting regularly with a group of recent UC Berkeley graduates.


It was a cheap headline but it hit the social media sweet spot, a set of coordinates generally located at the intersection of Missing the Point and React Rather Than Read. On Twitter, Facebook and the Guardian’s comment threads, readers sputtered with indignation, calling Franzen a “monster” and likening him to a trafficker of children.

Franzen, by his own admission, seems to enjoy messing with public outrage, especially the kind that has been aimed at him over the years — some of it valid, some of it nitpicky almost to the point of self-parody. At least a few remarks in the interview seem engineered to egg on his detractors.

But I have a hard time believing the orphan comment was one of them. Sure, phrases like “renting out some kids” (referring, mind you, to Berkeley grads) may go over best in a private conversation between people who know each other well enough to be confident they share the same idiomatic plane (as opposed to social media’s frequently idiotic plane). But it should be obvious to anyone who read beyond the headline that Franzen hadn’t seriously sought to fill in his knowledge about Western millennials by adopting a Middle Eastern war orphan. He was poking fun at the very nature of artistic desperation — his own especially.

More seriously, though, Franzen touched on an all-too-common assumption (often an unconscious one) about adopting older children — that somehow the stakes are lower than starting with an infant.

I’ve written a lot about the dynamics of the choice not to have kids, and I hear frequently from people who are trying, sometimes agonizingly so, to figure out which way to go. No two people make the decision in quite the same way, but there are some recurring themes: not wanting to radically alter an already satisfying life, not having a stable partnership, simply feeling little or no urge to procreate. But something else I hear with alarming regularity is this: “I don’t really want to have kids, but maybe someday I’ll adopt.”

This is twisted logic, and different from saying “I don’t want kids now but maybe I’ll adopt later if I change my mind.” I’m not unsympathetic. When I was wrestling with the parenthood decision myself , I too thought briefly about adopting an older child out of foster care. After about 10 minutes of reflection, I saw that it was absurd. The truth was that I didn’t want to be parent — not to a baby, not to a teenager, not to anyone. It also dawned on me that the notion of adopting an older child (especially one from a possibly troubled, even profoundly traumatic background) would somehow require less energy and enthusiasm than “having my own,” was not only misguided but deeply irresponsible. Kids in that situation need parents who are extra-energized and enthusiastic. They need super-parents, not ones who figure they can slack off because at least they’re better than the ones the child started out with.


That may seem obvious on an intellectual level. But on an emotional level, it’s amazing how easy it can be to get swept up in sentimental ideas about “saving” kids — or, for that matter, being saved by them. Franzen may not have managed to adequately convey the extent to which his tongue was in his cheek when he revealed his fantasy about how an Iraqi orphan might improve him. But that fantasy exists in myriad forms and is hardly unique to angsty novelists. It’s not monstrous, but it has to be met with serious inquiry and brutal self-honesty.

Which is pretty much the opposite of leaving comments on the Internet.

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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