May 19, 2016
Franzen on Jeopardy! is for the birds
by Chad Felix
When Jonathan Franzen woke up this past Monday he’d already been living with his nightmare-come-true for weeks.
Back in April, he’d taped an episode of Jeopardy! in Washington, DC, featuring in the beloved game show’s “Power Players Week,” a series of episodes that pit famous people like Louis CK and Anderson Cooper against each. In the series, each “Power Player” plays for a charity of their choosing, with winners earning $50,000 and losers earning $10,000. (Franzen played for the birds, because that guy loves birds.)
This past Monday, however, was unlike the days before it: on that day, the world, too, would know exactly how The Franzen had fared facing the rigors of trivia that fateful April eve. So, did the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections emerge with his dignity intact, as was his expressed desire?
Yeah, I think so!
Hell, our boy did okay! Franzen—or “Jon,” as he was known for the night—came in second place. Not bad, Jon! And while he didn’t do so hot in the Shakespeare section (he missed two questions), the confirmed ornithophile more than made up for it in the “Birds of America” section. I mean, of course he did. He missed the Final Jeopardy question about politics, but so did both of his competitors, political commentators Chuck Todd and SE Cupp. Totally decent performance aside, critics aplenty have weighed in, and the reviews are mixed.
Writing in Time, which featured the author on their cover in 2010 next to the words “Great American Novelist,” Daniel D’Addario called the episode “perfect TV,” noting that by coming in second the “intellectual loner” may have actually made himself appear more human: “Franzen … was clearly a bit more nervous than his assured competitors, who work in TV. But that added to the sense that the novelist, who’s become a figure representing far more than himself, is just another person who knows some but not all of the answers on the board.”
At The Guardian, Angela Chen was less charmed: “The curmudgeonly writer may be known for his elitism,” she wrote, “but his performance on the episode of celebrity Jeopardy that aired on Monday included two flubs on Shakespeare questions and a too-confident wager on a final question about political terms that left him in second place.” Of these Shakespearean belly-flops, Chen went on to write, “Given that Franzen’s Freedom opens with an epigram from The Winter’s Tale, and he has spoken about his admiration for the Bard, the author might have been justified for looking crestfallen and ducking down in shame for those particular mistakes.”
Most memorable of all is satirist—and honest-to-God Jeopardy! hall-of-famer—Neal Pollack’s account of the episode for the Observer, in which he juxtaposes Franzen’s performance against his own experiences on regular-person Jeopardy!, “playing to win money for a charity called ‘get my family out of this shitty rental house with a shower drain that’s just a hole in the floor.’” He writes:
These Power Players all get to play Jeopardy without returning to the sausage grinder of permanent obscurity. Cupp and Todd are on TV every day, and Franzen could be, if he wasn’t so high and mighty about media other than 700-page novels. The rest of us, though, work hard for our Jeopardy! money. Before I appeared on Jeopardy! I did two hours of yoga a day and lost 20 pounds. Because I had nothing else to do, I spent several hours a day studying previous games so I could get used to question patterns. I stopped smoking weed for almost six weeks, a huge sacrifice. And it was still barely enough . . . .
I knew the Final Jeopardy that Jonathan Franzen missed. I won on Jeopardy, three times, and Franzen didn’t. Are you impressed? I need a new book agent. Hit me up on Snapchat.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.