Last Thursday the Denver alternative weekly Westword published a report from an appearance by Jonathan Franzen. The reporter, Kelsey Whipple, gathered up his “ten best quips.” I scanned the article for the most tweetable of those quips and posted it:
Thing is, that wasn’t Franzen’s entire quote. He added: “Direct influence makes most sense only for very young writers.” This omission (the whole quote wouldn’t fit in a tweet) caught the notice of novelist, teacher, and critic Allison Lynn:
But I recalled that Franzen was the writer who, in 1991 (finishing his second novel, arguably no longer a “very young writer”), found a balm for his “despair about the American novel” in Paula Fox‘s Desperate Characters.
Let’s go to the tape:
“That someone besides me had suffered from this ambiguity and had seen light on its far side—that a book like Desperate Characters had been published and preserved; that I could find company and consolation and hope in a novel pulled almost at random from a bookshelf—felt akin to an instance of religious grace…. Yet even while I was feeling saved as a reader by Desperate Characters I was succumbing, as a novelist, to despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social.”
Which is to say that Lynn has a point—Franzen was making a distinction between what gave him a charge as a reader and worrying over what he was going to model his writing after.
Matthew Hunte pointed out that Franzen clarified some of this in a 2001 interview with Bomb:
Franzen is joshing in that quote, but he’s serious when he explains how his early writing was a function of older influences:
“[I]n a funny way that”s what the first book, Twenty-Seventh City,
was: a conversation with the literary figures of my parents’ generation. The great sixties and seventies Postmoderns. I wanted to feel like I belonged with them, much as I”d spent my childhood trying to be friends with my parents and their friends. A darker way of looking at it is that I was trying to impress them. The result, in any case, was that I adopted a lot of that generation of writers’ concerns–the great postwar freak-out, the Strangeloveian inconceivabilities, the sick society in need of radical critique. I was attracted to crazy scenarios.”
While with the The Corrections, he claims to be in a different place:
“Actually the forces are substantially the same, but in the new book they take the form of interior urges and anxieties, rather than outward plot elements.”
In any event, whatever Freedom‘s flaws are, they’re not a function of his trying too hard to imitate other writers. Asked in a Rumpus book club interview last year whether he was influenced by Roberto Bolano, Franzen demurred: “Bolano’s near the top of my nightstand reading pile, but I’m currently still quite innocent of influence.”
Arrogant or not, Franzen’s in good company, as Hunte points out: