Jonathan Franzen On Privacy

Jonathan Franzen on his book, Imperial Bedroom.
  • Transcript


Question: Why did you write "Imperial Bedroom"?

Jonathan Franzen: I was not worried about a loss of privacy, I was worried about a loss of a public space where people’s private lives weren’t always being shoved in your face. And technology has made that a lot worse as far as I can tell.

I’m assaulted by other people’s private lives in a whole new set of ways. I cannot shop for groceries without getting their private conversations, but that’s not what people mean when they talk about a loss of privacy. So I had a very clear notion of, here’s a public space. Wouldn’t it be nice to only get a composed, polite or even rude but some sort of acknowledgment that we’re in a public place? That we’re not just having our own private lives and there’s some other people having their private lives floating around?

But there’s some collective notion of, put yourself together a little bit, show that tiny bit of respect for the other human beings around you, and not broadcast your private life.

So it was really in that respect, if you look at privacy which, I felt was the problem. I felt this obsession with privacy. I thought, we live in the growth of the private sector and the shrinkage of the public sector, even to make a little pun like that; this is a privatized world. All of that has gotten a little worse and at a certain point I realized I wrote that thing [Imperial Bedroom] during the Clinton/Lewinski misery, and felt like all of the commentators had it dead wrong, it was not about Ken Starr’s exposing Bill and Monica’s private life. I thought, well for god sake he’s the President. What expectation of privacy?

What I was offended by was I don’t want to hear about these guys.  I don’t want to hear about semen on a dress. For god sake, excuse me please. There are plenty of places I’d love to hear about semen on dresses but not really coming out of the White House.

So that inversion, where the privacy laws had to do with something being made public, rather than being inflicted on me, rather than my private stuff being.  I really don’t care if people poke around in my stuff, if I never know about it.

I’m a writer, I have an exhibitionist’s streak. I betray my own privacy all the time. I publish all sorts of private facts about myself, and not just myself, but my friends and my family. So I’m not worried about that.

But at a certain point, that sense of assault by other people’s stained underwear when you’re just trying to walk down a sidewalk or sit in a theater or something. I realized the best way to manage that was to take out my own cell phone and start talking so, if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em.

Recorded On: April 1, 2008