I went to see Jonathan Franzen read last at Tulane. He said it had been twenty-six months since he’d written fiction, and it was killing him. I could not imagine what that would be like. Sympathy for the Franzen.
Afterward I went to dinner with three other people who are readers, and also writers in some capacity (a publicist, a curator, a graduate student) for a living, and we talked about what he said for a long time. We all liked his work. For me, The Corrections was an extremely instructional book, and definitely came to me at an important time, when I was drafting The Middlesteins. Jim said he quit smoking because of an essay of Franzen’s. Rien said he could read his non-fiction forever. Miranda loves his novels. I was the only one who had read that Edith Wharton piece, though I suspect they might have shrugged it off when holding it up against his larger works.
He gave us a great dinner conversation, so thanks Mr. Franzen!
Below are some of the notes I took, and also, in one area, my thoughts on it.
On sex writing:
“If you write with any kind of specificity, there’s only a limited number of things you can do to a person. There’s even a limited number of animals you can do things to…it’s easier to write about bad sex than good sex, just like it’s easier to be funny than moving.”
On Revolutionary Road:
“[It's] dishonestly bleak. The world is bleak, but not as falsely bleak as the way that book ends.”
“I am committed to closure. I am committed to endings…I can no longer be mistaken for a post-modern author…I made a decision to alternate between lighter and darker endings in my books, and it was Freedom’s turn for a lighter ending.”
On the writing process:
“Not to be 1970s about it, but the process is more important than the product…It’s about about the happiness of having a story to tell.”
On social media:
“It’s a free country. People can do whatever they want within the law, and even some things not within the law…I personally was on Facebook for two weeks as part of a piece of journalism I was writing — it seemed sort of dumb to me. Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose…it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters…it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’…It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.
People I care about are readers…particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”
This sort of infuriated me. Not that he’s incorrect about how much social networking can suck your time, because it can, but because he doesn’t understand that a lot of writers have to use the medium as a promotional device as well as a way to build networks. He doesn’t have to do anything! He has a publicist who probably has dreams about him every night, whether he has a book coming out or not. He is free to write and just be himself, while the rest of us are struggling to be heard and recognized. He will never understand how hard it is to get ahead as a writer, never again in his life. I’m not suggesting he’s old-fashioned. I’m suggesting he has lost perspective.
On American literature:
“There’s something goofy about American literature since modernism came to an end.”
On how he begins:
“I don’t start with a big idea. The work is almost entirely about creating characters I can love.”
On the Midwest:
“The Midwest means many different things to many different people. I was taught to be nice to people, which is my credo even though I seem to have some small gift for offending people without intending to…but I want to be welcoming, that’s how the Midwest impacts my writing. My parents didn’t like the people they had to be welcoming to, but they were welcoming.”