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Jonathan Franzen on the cover of TIME

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Jonathan Franzen is on the cover of the August 23 issue of TIME Magazine, with an article marking the publication of his latest novel, Freedom. Since he’s the first living author to be so featured in over a decade (the last being Stephen King), it’s caused quite a stir in the lit world.

In particular, the caption below Franzen’s photo is catching some snark. The L.A. Times notes:

Franzen appears on the cover of the upcoming issue of Time magazine — an honor not extended to a living author since Stephen King in 2000 — with the words “Great American Novelist” in large type.

The headline is not for the geekily bookish minority of people who might recognize Franzen at a glance. It’s for the majority, who are likely to look at the cover and think, “Who’s that guy?” Now they know. He’s the Great American Novelist.

And the New Yorker adds:

The long search for the “Great American Novelist” is over—at least according to Time magazine, which features a rather leonine Jonathan Franzen on the cover of its upcoming issue, out Friday, above those very words. The white whale has been vanquished. Ahab, bless his addled soul, can rest easy. (Though Melville’s ghost may be a bit jealous.)

It’s not clear to me whether TIME intends to label Franzen as The Great American Novelist or simply A Great American Novelist, but the application of “great” has raised questions. What does it mean, if anything, to have a “great” writer—a novelist—highlighted in a space usually reserved for politicians, war photographs, and the Person of the Year?

The New Yorker—another publication not exactly shy of annointing the “great”—offers this possible explanation:

The search for a “voice,” then, as now, is a search for someone writing serious, realistic, narrative-driven fiction—what Tom Wolfe argued is the novel’s supreme expression, in the 1989 Harper’s essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” This is an aesthetic choice, a serious philosophical choice even, but one that the magazine makes rather brazenly, without discussion. Franzen is fifty, perhaps not of “this” generation (whatever that means), but Time seems to have found the source of “the yearning and the rage of the contemporary” for which it was looking.

Read an excerpt of the cover article on TIME‘s website, and tell us: is putting a fiction writer on the cover of TIME that significant? What about putting Franzen on the cover, in particular?

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