Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jonathan Franzen

I guess having a personal rivalry is a common experience. At least, it shows up often enough in sitcom plots to make me think I'm not alone. In this case, I mean the kind of rivalry where party of the first part is in deep competition with party of the second part, and party of the second part is unaware of party of the first part, or even of the existence of parties. So it is with Jonathan Franzen, who has never heard of me.

I learned of Franzen from my adviser in college, who claimed to have been Franzen's adviser (though I have never fact-checked the claim). Franzen had been a favorite student, a kid with interesting things to say, and he was on the verge of finishing a novel. Well, this Franzen fellow was filling a role I had scripted for myself, and I was nonplussed to find his literary VW parked in my space. The Twenty-Seventh City appeared a bit later, and I did not read it. Nor did I become a novelist, nor a man of letters in any respect save what is evidenced in the archives of this blog.

I must have had other rivals in my lifetime, but I have forgotten about them. This Franzen fellow, though, will simply not go away. He won the National Book Award. He got in a spat with Oprah. Now he's on the cover of Time. I'll freely admit that a Time cover is not what it once was, but still. It's getting to the point where I feel I should read something he wrote.

On another note, the adviser introduced me to Rilke, so he retains a fond-ish place in my memory despite the Franzen mess, but I try not to think about college much, precisely because I felt so adult at the time, but when I examine my memories, it turns out I was more childish then than at any other point in my life, except perhaps, occasionally, online.


Dawn Coyote said...

Reading his Wikipedia entry, I was prepared to dislike him. But then I read his advice to aspiring writers:

1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

2. Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.

3. Never use the word "then" as a ­conjunction – we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page.

4. Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

6. The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical story than "The Meta­morphosis".

7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.

8. It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction (the TIME magazine cover story detailed how Franzen physically disables the Net portal on his writing laptop).

9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

I like this a lot. I do however note that his spat with Oprah was over the fact that he disdained inclusion in her book club because, "I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it."

This annoys me for many reasons of which I'll spare you the particulars. I also note with some glee that he follows Stephen King as an author on the cover of TIME.

I don't know about you, but I embrace my online childishness.

august said...

Since writing this, I've now read a couple of Franzen essays. I don't know what I think of him as a writer, but people in the know tell me his fiction is very good. I think, to be fair, he seems appropriately chagrined about the Oprah thing (and recognizes the stupidity of the comment you mention). I, of course, loved it at the time it was blowing up.

Another thing I just realized -- he's older than my adviser had lead me to think. I thought he was had only just departed college when I arrived, but it turns out he'd been gone a while, and our mutual professor was compressing time. It makes my "rivalry" seem even more idiotic.

august said...

Oh, online childishness. I don't embrace it. I feel like I am the rational, bemused, distant one enjoying the varied cants of the crazies until something happens to make me one of the crazies.

I do like that we're having this conversation here. It's as if, years ago we built a fort in a big field and came back years later to find its remnants. Reminds me also of Ender saying that wikifray is a toy you can play with, break and fix, fling to the side and come back to.