Jonathan Franzen was at the Newport Beach Public Library late last October, and so were Michelle Arch and I.
One of the keenest and most celebrated observers of the American condition of the century thus far, Jonathan Franzen is known equally well for his fiction (The Corrections, Freedom) as he is for his essays and reportage (How to Be Alone, Farther Away). Whether he’s translating Karl Kraus or detailing the plight of slaughtered songbirds or developing complex, comedic pitfalls for his fictional characters, one of Franzen’s main themes is disintegration: of society, the environment, literary culture. He’s been (not so lightly) chided by hoi polloi and the intellectual elite alike for his attitude, which is often read as snobbery—and which he’s just as often owned and defended: “Difficulty tends to signal excellence; it suggests that the novel’s author has disdained cheap compromise and stayed true to an artistic vision. [. . .] Pleasure that demands hard work, the slow penetration of mystery, the outlasting of lesser readers, is the pleasure most worth having” (“Mr. Difficult”).
I’d spent the previous couple days at a writer’s conference, learning about SEO and platform-building and audience-generation and how you, too, can be a Published Author! and basically, like, how the timeshare actually pays for itself! after year six—I was actively looking forward to a little literary snobbery. Michelle was submitting her MFA thesis, a 172-page excerpt from the novel she has been writing for the last six years, in four days and should have been home finishing the last chapter and critical statement. But this was Jonathan Franzen—her literary hero and intellectual idol of the same past six years—and he was going to be a twenty-minute drive away.
Neither of us was missing this, and neither was disappointed.
We’ll start where Franzen did, at the title of his lecture: “Storytelling and the Modern World.”
“You know,” he said, “they ask you to submit the titles to these things so long in advance. I thought, Am I not a storyteller? Is this not the modern era?” He shrugged, we laughed. “I can say whatever I want.”
“I was glad it wasn’t an interview,” he went on. “Interviews get annoying after a while. They ask you the same questions, none of which were interesting the first time.” But and therefore, he said, he was going to interview himself. He’d come up with and answered eleven questions no one had ever asked him before, some of which were fairly straightforward (his favorite joke) and others of which were a bit more complex. Like the very first question: “What role have envy and competition played in your life as a writer?”
“No one has ever asked me that before!” he said with glee, and was off. What followed were forty-five minutes of familial quips, societal harangues, collegial (and not-so-) jabs, self-deprecating jokes, and emotional admissions. This is our attempt to capture just a little bit of that.
Ian Prichard: What most impressed me was Franzen’s honesty. Not just about his disdain for writers he used to envy—though his bits about Updike and Roth being worthy of his moral judgment were pretty good—but about his motives for writing. David Foster Wallace, for instance—Franzen said he started The Corrections the day after he finished reading the manuscript of Infinite Jest, and that he began working in earnest on Freedom as soon as he came back from DFW’s funeral, both as a kind of counterpunch. It was no surprise those two guys felt competitive; it was a surprise to hear Franzen say his dear friend “partly killed himself as a career move.”
Michelle Arch: It was, but I think that speaks to their relationship. In Farther Away, Franzen recounts one of the final conversations he had with Wallace: “I said that the last time he’d been through near-death experiences, he’d emerged and written, very quickly, a book that was light-years beyond what he’d been doing before his collapse.” Franzen alluded to this paradoxical connection between Wallace’s “depths of infinite sadness” and writing success.
IP: And he suggested that Wallace knew he would be even more successful posthumously. “That’s not why he killed himself,” Franzen explained at his lecture, “but he was smart enough to know what it would do to sales.” Which is brutal, but which was, in his telling of it that night at the library, also funny.
One of the things we mention in the intro is laughter. There was a lot of it throughout the event. What’d you make of that? Were you expecting him to be so funny?
MA: No. This is a guy who says things like “It’s hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream” (“Why Bother?,” How to Be Alone) and “To laugh well at humanity, both your own humanity and that of others, you have to be as distant and unsparing as if you’re writing tragedy” (“Authentic but Horrible,” Farther Away). So, no, I didn’t expect him to be funny. I expected him to be aloof and abstruse, which would have been perfectly fine with me. The humor was a surprise.
But I appreciated most how uncomfortable and somewhat awkward he seemed. When he was asked to describe himself in five words, he could only think of one: anxious. And he said it several times, remember? “I’m anxious. That’s really the only word I can think of to describe myself.”
Not believing him, there was a pause while we all waited for him to rattle off a varied list of four more self-descriptors, which would undoubtedly contain an adjective or two that resonated enough for each of us to nudge our friend or seat neighbor with a wide-eyed nod. Yeah, that’s me, too; I’m just like Jonathan Franzen. But he simply said “Yep, anxious” again. Another long moment passed as he seemed to be thinking hard of other possibilities, and then he gave up. “That’s really all I can come up with,” he said with a shrug.
I’m incredibly self-conscious myself and have been told that my discomfort in my own skin is actually quite observable, so I related to his answer. There’s a reason professional and aspiring writers are holed up in solitude most of the time. We’re a mess, socially. Franzen says he and Wallace agreed that fiction is a way out of loneliness.
IP: You’re right, he did say “anxious” at least three times. But that anxiety didn’t keep him from performing, from cracking jokes and interacting with the audience, even parading around in imitation of the typical TED Talk stage presence. I agree that self-consciousness is a common attribute of scriveners, and I certainly understand the tendency towards solitude, but Franzen’s hardly a shut-in, and I think his presence on the world stage says a lot about what kind of writer he is.
For someone who so consistently and loudly disdains social media (in “Against Heine,” a translation of a Karl Krauss essay, Franzen confesses a sense of “disappointment when a novelist who ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter”), Franzen is discussed and debated and lionized and demonized all over the place. It’s a delicate balance between touring and appearing and writing and contributing to champion your own work and “fight the good fight” of promoting literature qua literature, and disdaining the overpopularization of writers and their work.
There’s no denying Franzen’s ability—the man can write—but the ability to do so is fairly well distributed across the population, and Franzen’s stuff is hardly breaking new stylistic ground. So why is he such a phenom?
MA: Uh, because Oprah said so?
IP: Well, yes and no. She’s definitely never hurt anyone’s sales.
Part of Franzen’s success, of course, is that he’s a white American male. And an intellectual New Yorker who was born in a small town in the Midwest—dude has coastal and fly-over appeal. On top of which he writes WASP family dramas, and WASPs love reading about themselves, and publishers know they can sell a lot of WASPy books. America may in fact be too diverse for there ever to be a real actual Great American Novel, but the country’s still predominately white, and if Time is going to label anyone the “Great American Novelist,” it’s going to be JFranz.
And yet, Franzen presents as an unknowable, semi-obscure deity dragged kicking into the light. I know referring to someone as a “rock star” is hackneyed, but when your irascibility, elitism, and general middle-finger-to-the-worldness cause a number of people to hate you but many more people to love you, even—especially—if they don’t know your stuff, then perhaps the moniker is fitting. Keith Richards says “fuck you” to everyone, especially the music establishment and excepting a handful of blues players, and everyone loves Keif. He happens to be an incredible guitarist, but how many people who love him really know what that means? How many care? Franzen may not have the sordid drug and womanizing history as Mr. Richards (I’m not trying to say they’re much alike at all), but he did manage to talk down about Oprah’s book choices (“schmaltzy,” wasn’t it?) and be uninvited from her show (what a relief!), but remain on the Book Club list and see sales soar. So yes, the whole Oprah “thing” certainly helped.
So, speaking of “things” in quotation marks, how much of his persona are we supposed to buy, and how much see as performance? Is there a difference?
What do we make of the fact that he criticizes the American mainstream for desiring unliterary texts, yet still makes a killing writing family dramas that he insists are not, well, difficult?
MA: The distinction, of course, is that they’re not difficult to him. And that’s both his point and his dilemma. His literary palette is that of DFW and William Gaddis and Dostoyevsky. In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen recalls “Mrs. M.,” an angry reader who is outraged by his sophisticated vocabulary and overall level of difficulty in his fiction. Presumably, Mrs. M. represents the “average person” who is just looking for a pleasant reading experience, and the ostensibly elitist Franzen has failed her and the reading public in general with his “fancy words” and highbrow phrases.
Confronted with this reader’s hostility and apparent opinion that it is the consumer (alas, often via Oprah) who decides what constitutes good and appropriate writing, Franzen is conflicted. He presents two very different models of the relationship between fiction and its readers and admits that he subscribes to both: the Status model, which suggests that the best novels disregard the issue of accessibility and “invites a discourse of genius and art-historical importance,” and the opposing Contract model, which is based on the author earning and sustaining the reader’s trust and connecting with the audience. In the Status model, a high level of difficulty suggests excellence. In the Contract model, the author fulfills his or her obligation by entertaining readers; the relationship is founded on providing and receiving pleasure.
IP: Yes, I suppose that distinction depends on what you mean by “entertainment” and “pleasure.” For Franzen, and I think for anyone who actually goes back and reads them of their own volition, the novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky are incredibly “entertaining”—The Inimitable in particular wrote them expressly for that purpose. And Franzen says in “Mr. Difficult,” “in my bones, I’m a Contract kind of person.” Tastes change with the times, I suppose, and I guess the question is what, exactly, is wrong with reading for entertainment? And, by extension, writing for those who do?
MA: I think it’s a slippery slope. As Franzen describes it in “Difficult,” “Contract is a recipe for pandering, aesthetic compromise, and a babel of competing literary subcommunities.” From my perspective, this is a polite way of indicating that writers who subscribe to the Contract model may need to “dumb down” their work to appeal to the least common denominator of readers in order to sell books. As both a reader and aspiring writer, I’m offended by the notion that authors may need to supplant complicated, unfamiliar text with two-syllable words and well-known phrases to ensure that the majority of the reading public is able to enjoy a “good read.” After all, intellect can be transformed and often is through reading complex and challenging books. I have a multitude of hard books on my bedside table and shelves that I’m still slogging through, and, for me, it’s the hard that makes them great, at least partly.
IP: I have to disagree; I don’t think that hardness is a gateway one has to pass through into greatness. And I think that Fra—wait, did you just quote A League of Their Own in your defense of Franzen’s literary difficulty?
MA: I was wondering if you’d catch that. You’ve got to admit that’s an excellent line from a pretty great Contract movie. I suppose I could have better underscored my Status advocacy with Emerson. “’Tis the good reader,” and all.
IP: I’ll admit that it may be an apt allusion. A League was a compelling story, and a decent script. I’m sure they could have found much better actresses than Madonna and Rosie and Geena Davis, some real Status actresses that might have better brought those characters to life, added some complexity and dimension, some real gravitas—at the very least, some believable tears. But how many people would have seen the movie without those Contract personalities? How many people—how many guys—would recognize a quote from it twenty-some years later?
MA: Yeah, I’m fairly impressed.
IP: My point is that it begs the question, what’s “great”?
In that article we keep referring to, Franzen also says each reader is “ultimately [. . .] alone with his or her conscience.” And I think this is true of writers, also. We make choices about every single line we commit to paper. What we’re going for with those choices, what we hope the book will accomplish, influences each of those choices.
How will this sound to a reader?
To what kind of reader?
How much do I care?
MA: And, one of my favorites, How much of my characterization of real people is going to offend or hurt those people?
But then I guess it all really comes down to your third question. As Anne Lamott quips in Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” During his lecture and in Farther Away, Franzen addressed the issue of loyalty and how his own family felt about their obvious depictions in The Corrections, particularly his oldest brother: “The question then becomes: Am I willing to risk alienating somebody I love in order to continue becoming the writer I need to be?”
IP: Man. My family hasn’t shown up in my fiction much (yet), so I haven’t had to think about that too much. Thankfully.
Maybe we don’t ask these questions every time we look over each sentence, but they color the attitude we bring to the writing desk. Except for a very few pure-genius types (who no one will probably hear of until they’re dead, and who probably don’t care), we’re all answering that third question, if we’re honest, with something between “a fair amount” and “it’s everything.”
The problem is that second question, and wanting our conception of the perfect target audience to number in the multi-millions. Franzen seems at times to imply that he wants there to be more people like him, readers who don’t want cheap tricks and actively want to work for their pleasure. And he gets accused of impressing that effort on people. But the Mrs. Ms of the world aside, the line-by-line writing in his books is nothing anyone with an eighth-grade reading level can’t comprehend (okay, maybe he’d need a dictionary every thirty or forty pages, but that’s hardly an insurmountable barrier) and Franzen actually does have multi-millions of readers.
If I can borrow the movie’s phrase, a lot of people think Franzen thinks of himself as being in a league of his own. I’m not so sure he thinks that—he’s no blue-collar champion of the workingman, but I don’t think he’s as much of an elitist jerk as some folks make him out to be. I am sure, however, that he thinks of himself as belonging to a cadre of people who get pleasure out of a certain kind of book.
MA: I’m certain that you and I wear that cadre’s insignia.
IP: Absolutely. And I don’t know, I think that even if the reading of “literary fiction” and “serious novels” becomes a “cultish” activity vis-à-vis “mainstream” culture (forgive all those “”s—you can tell how fraught I consider labels), there’ll still be a lot of people in that cult.
MA: And apparently they’ll all be recognizable by something more than a metaphorical badge. I’ll never forget the book signing part of the evening. We waited in that line for, what, twenty or thirty minutes? And when we stood in front of Franzen at last (I all starry-eyed and semi-lovestruck, imagining the dinner parties we would throw), he just stared at us.
“You guys wouldn’t be . . . writers, would you?” he asked finally. It was as if we had spilled writer juice on our shirts or something. I swear I looked at your forehead for a mark or tattoo or scarlet “A”—for anxious.
“Working on it,” I think I stammered self-consciously.
IP: You weren’t the only one stricken—if this were another time and ours another profession, I would have asked for an apprenticeship.
It’s funny what things one remembers—and what counts for encouragement in our rather solitary pursuit. I’m sure it was simple civility, but what made an impression on me was how sincere he sounded when he handed us our books back and said, looking at us over the top of his glasses, “Well, good luck.”