Jonathan Franzen Competes on Jeopardy, Knows about Birds, but Not Shakespeare

On Monday night, National Book Award-winning novelist Jonathan Franzen competed on Jeopardy as part of the gameshow’s “Power Players Week,” a variation on “Celebrity Jeopardy” in which well-known journalists and politicians play for charities of their choice. Although he led going into Final Jeopardy, Franzen, playing for the American Bird Conservancy, wagered too much, answered wrong, and finished second.

An avid birder who has described bird watching as a religion, Franzen dominated the show’s “Birds” category and also nailed questions about quadriceps, sea levels in the Middle East, and the Detroit Free Press. It was nice, though, to see that even Jonathan Franzen doesn’t know all the answers. Along with the other contestants — Chuck Todd from Meet the Press and political commentator S.E. Cupp, who won — Franzen failed to answer the Final Jeopardy question correctly. Perhaps a little more embarrassingly, Franzen also missed questions about two of Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale.

When Franzen flubbed the Shakespeare questions, he behaved like an English major who’s stumped by a literary question at trivia night. Grimacing, he said, “Oh, God, I should know this,” and ducked behind his podium while Chuck Todd teased, “Glad the novelist missed that!” Similarly, when Franzen answered, “non” to the Final Jeopardy question (“Officials called Tribunes sat at Rome’s senate door and if they didn’t like what was going on, shouted this Latin word”) instead of “veto,” he smacked himself in the head.

Franzen’s wrong answers were probably more valuable for his image than his correct ones. As TIME points out, the author’s public mistakes on Jeopardy — and his goofy reactions to them — painted a “humanizing portrait” that might help dispel his reputation for being a difficult curmudgeon. Although he sounded like the same old Franzen when he talked about the evils of Twitter at the start of the show, he was endearingly nervous in his pre-show interview. “It’s kind of a nightmare come true for me to be here,” Franzen admitted. “I’m not sure I’ve literally had nightmares of failing on Jeopardy, but it’s the kind of thing I would have a nightmare about.”

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