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:
Franzen: “At this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced by my own past writing.” http://bit.ly/pWFeJN
There are a couple of this that struck me about that quote (besides the fact that it would fit in a tweet). It’s a provocative statement, for one—few writers publicly declare themselves the biggest influence on their own work. And though Franzen gets a lot of abuse he doesn’t deserve, I was no fan of Freedom; his comment struck me as in keeping with that novel’s self-involved tone.
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:
Hoo boy. There’s a Franzen quote being taken out of context (and mocked) on Twitter. In context, what he’s saying actually makes sense.
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.
@allisondlynn @matthunte …especially from somebody who made a big noise about discovering Paula Fox after he was no longer a young writer.
“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:
@allisondlynn @mathitak And I don’t think Franzen considered himself a mature writer when he discovered Paula Fox : http://t.co/zzwirsQK
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.”
I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.
Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”
“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)
Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)
Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.
Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)
Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.
Gary Shteyngart: “Nobody wants to read a book but everybody wants to write one. Reading requires an act of empathy, really. What you’re doing when you’re reading a book is saying, I’m going to turn off who I am for a little bit, and I’m going to enter the personality of another human being. Reading is a very generous act, but it’s a very helpful act if you really want to understand what another person is like.”
On making a film version of Winesburg, Ohio with a contemporary setting and all-black cast.
D.G. Myers deems Kurt Vonnegutunfit for the Library of America, largely because of his “sentimental moralism.” I read and enjoyed most of Vonnegut’s books in high school but haven’t revisited them—maybe sentimental moralism means more when you’re a kid. Same probably goes for J.D. Salinger. But it’s still hard to for me to dismiss Vonnegut as easily as Myers does, because Vonnegut had such a strong influence on other writers—Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer most prominently. Neither makes my short list of great living American writers, but that’s just me—the point is that Vonnegut still insinuates himself into fiction in ways that, say, Salinger, never does now. Which is at least one justification for including Vonnegut among the country’s “most significant writing.”
Speaking of: In 2006 Vonnegut went on Second Life to do an interview, which was recently unearthed at Mobylives.
Kyle Minor‘s suggested reading list for a spring fiction workshop would fill a couple of bookshelves and crush the soul of a young MFA student. But it’s an interesting (mostly) anti-canonical longlist of (mostly) contemporary literature. (On a related note, HTMLGiant’s Blake Butler recently answered a few questions of mine about the site for the National Book Critics Circle “Conversations With Literary Websites” series.)
Aimee Bender: “I think a lot of writers do think mathematically, actually, because fiction, a made-up world, requires a lot of working through of logic. So it’s a kind of math, on the page, using words. A word problem, of sorts.”
The legal squabbling over Katherine Anne Porter‘s estate drags on.
Olga Grushin on The Line: This is not just any community; it’s a community that forms in the face of repression. On some basic level, this story, of hoping, of waiting, could have been set anywhere—say, waiting in line to audition for “The American Idol”—but the Soviet setting allowed me to explore additional aspects of oppression, danger and trust, and how the darkest times can bring out the worst and the best in ordinary people.
“What is Southern lit? I don’t know. You get knocked down. Black holes burnt into a map. There is moss and gonorrhea. You scramble back up but don’t know your mind. What you were was it worth reaching fer? You can’t tell your Bad Faith actions from your authentic mind. It’s all a low fog, over soybean fields and the jawbone of a deer.” (This riff reminded me of George Singleton‘s comic short story “Which Rocks We Choose” [PDF excerpt], which sends up some of Southern culture’s best-loved cliches.)
In a Daily Rumpus email, Stephen Elliott talks about Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes with Tobias Wolff: “‘It was a writer’s book,’ Tobias said. We decided that it was better than a book that makes a big splash. Better to write a book that people are still reading 40 years later. He said Exley’s other books weren’t quite as good. Some of them were very good, but not quite to the level of A Fan’s Notes. It’s a hard well to return to. How does one write another book like that?”
Jonathan Franzen on putting current events in Freedom: “I had to cut the noise down by 99 percent, and just let that one percent trickle in.” A necessary literary strategy if you’re writing for posterity, or just evasive?
Yesterday I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program to discuss the National Book Awards and the upset win of Jaimy Gordon‘s racetrack novel, Lord of Misrule. (More on that book soon.) Asked to suggest a couple of books the NBA judges might have considered short-listing, I put in for Yiyun Li‘s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and James Hynes‘ Next. National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum gently noted that Li wouldn’t have qualified because she’s an American resident but not a citizen. He also noted that the foundation is giving some thought to breaking up the awards’ nonfiction category into smaller ones such as memoir, history, etc. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens, though I can’t imagine they’ll go as hog-wild with multiple categories as they did in the early 80s.
Adam Langer: “You could probably view the history of invention in storytelling as having begun all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Eve said ‘Apple? What do you mean, apple? I didn’t eat any apple.’ But, in that case, if Eve was the first fake memoirist, then it might be useful to point out that the first literary critic was a snake.”
“The majority of [Mary] Gaitskill’s lecture focused on something that creative writing courses tend to shy away from, considering that it cannot really be taught: the question of unseeable content, the form under the plot, ‘the deeper quality, the unconscious soul,’ the ‘inner weaving of a story that you can’t read—you have to feel,’ as Gaitskill put it.”
On David Foster Wallace‘s ill-fated attempt to balance a serious pursuit of philosophy and writing The Broom of the System.
Curtis Sittenfeld: “I think in general, novels by men tend to be taken more seriously than novels by women. But I also think that novels being taken seriously is kind of a nebulous concept. I mean, what does that mean? Getting multiple reviews in the New York Times? Personally, I have never wished I were a male novelist.”
Paul Auster: “All my stories are about America, they’re impregnated with American history, American literature. But… people care little about books, there’s no book culture here.”
Ed Parkreviews the Chicago Manual of Style as if it were a postmodern novel.
Guess that settles it: “It is questionable whether Franny and Zooey is even a classic at all considering Wikipedia does not list it as a notable Salinger work.”
Pushcart Prize founder Bill Hendersonremains optimistic about small presses and literary magazine.
Paul Auster: “I believe that the whole idea of the consumer society is tottering. We’ve kept ourselves going by producing more and more goods, most of which people don’t need. I’m anti-consumerism; I own four pairs of black Levis and that’s it.”
However outdated its notions about psychotherapy might be, Millen Brand‘s 1937 novel, The Outward Room, is worth revisiting.
“I don’t think [Jonathan Franzen] was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans’ own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”
This nonsense about how “[dead writer] would never use Twitter and Facebook” needs to stop.
An excellent interview with Boston Globe literary critic Katherine A. Powers (J.F. Powers‘ daughter), covering Charles Portis, rereading, short stories, fiction in translation, and her admirably simple metric for a book’s success: “When I think of the novels I really like, I can think of only one thing that unites them: their authors proved trustworthy, that is, my suspension of disbelief was not betrayed.”
“The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.”
Lastly, it’s off this blog’s chosen beat, but I had run catching up with Salman Rushdie‘s work while working on my review of his new children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life, for the New York Times Book Review. Being a new father may have more kindly attuned me to it, but I suspect I’d recommend it regardless.
Last week the website Creative Writing Now invited me to answer a few questions about books and book reviewing. The first question was about my take on the past decade in American fiction—a subject way too broad for me to address without appearing presumptuous and/or arrogant, but it was a chance for me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:
Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now “the good old days.”
It’d require a lot more research, but there seems to be a category of novel that couldn’t exist after 9/11, is informed by 9/11, but isn’t explicitly about 9/11—where the concerns about war and repression and individual security are very much there but thrust into some other, non-9/11 setting. Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin might qualify; so might Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, though post-9/11 anxieties are very much present in that novel even if it doesn’t dwell on the event itself. When I interviewedKristiaan Versluys last year about his study of 9/11 novels, Out of the Blue, he mentioned a few more candidates, and suggested that we’re probably due for more novels that address that event only abstractedly:
I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention [Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country], there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment.
I don’t think American literature would be diminished if it failed to produce a quintessential 9/11 novel that was very much about 9/11. (Maybe Keith Gessen is right and we’ve still got a long wait.) But its relative absence is still curious and, in its own way, revealing—after all, it says something that fiction writers are more comfortable addressing 9/11 by, as Versluys put it, spectralizing it, making it a ghost. Maybe that’s more an intention than a side effect.
I haven’t the slightest idea what New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman means by this comment, made in a New York Times feature about Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent second novel, How to Read the Air: “He obviously has a deep interest in studying the details of immigrant life and aspirations, but I would say he is 98 percent an American writer, who is getting more comfortable with his own voice.” Perhaps if he didn’t write about immigrant life and aspirations, he’d be 100 percent an American writer, wholly comfortable in his own voice?
Richard Forddiscusses his forthcoming novel, Canada, with Canada’s National Post.
Elizabeth McCracken on what it means to be a National Book Award finalist: “It didn’t change the way that I felt about my work, but I do know that it changed the way other people felt about my work. And that was a great gift.” (The only book among this year’s finalists I’ve read is Lionel Shriver‘s So Much for That, which I have a few problems with; I’m currently reading Karen Tei Yamashita‘s I Hotel, though it’s too early for me to comment on its sprawl.)
Brock Clarke on discovering Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes: “Exley was also a great writer: sometimes he sounded like a guy who didn’t know he wasn’t on stage (‘I saw myself a kind of Owl-Eyes come to Gatsby’s wake…sequestered from the one or two mourners, a curiosity weeping great, excited tears in the blue shade of funereal elms’), and sometimes he sounded like a guy who’d learned to talk in a bowling alley (‘Wake up, yuh good-for nothin’ bum!’), but no matter how he spoke, and no matter what he was speaking about, now matter whether he was self-pitying or self-deprecating, lyrical or profane, Exley was brilliant, and the proof of his brilliance was this book.”
Jennifer Egan attempted to put a little epic poetry into her new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad.
I’m planning to get to Andrew Wingfield‘s Right of Way, a collection of stories set in the gentrifying Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia. He explains the neighborhood’s appeal to a fiction writer: “Gentrification is an abstract term. Like many abstractions, it describes a real phenomenon and has some value because of that. But fiction deals in details. My stories dial down into specific families, specific relationships and lives and places, and in writing them I’ve come to see how messy and complicated and never-finished a neighborhood’s transformations can be.”
Jonathan Franzen delivers to Oprah without comment a list of his favorite works of fiction (Andrew Seal has helpfully typed up all the titles in one post, sparing you about 30 clicks), topped by Russell Banks‘ 1985 novel, Continental Drift. I would’ve figured that what Franzen admired in that book is the way it applies an epic scope to a domestic story, addressing the American way of politics, race, and class, in some ways more successfully than Freedom does. But writing about Banks’ Rule of the Bone for the Times in 1995, what Franzen seemed to most admire was its guy-ness: “In novels like Affliction and Continental Drift Mr. Banks has deepened Hemingway’s investigation of American maleness, lending a voice to working-class fathers who want to be ‘good’ men but are reduced, by economic brutalities and some essential rage riding on the Y chromosome, to bad ones.”
B.R. Myers‘ dismissal of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom in the Atlantic is strange—not least Myers’ complaint that the novel’s coarse language does some kind of disservice not just to the book to but to literature. (If the casual use of the word “fucking” in a novel offends Myers so, by reading contemporary living fiction he’s doomed to be constantly offended.*) But his oddest complaint is that Franzen litters his prose with brand names to please the market:
Franzen uses facile tricks to tart up the story as a total account of American life: the main news events of the past quarter century each get a nod in the appropriate chapter. Brands are identified whenever possible; we go from Parliament butts in the first chapter to Glad-wrapped cookies in the last. Countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked, in the most minimal sense of the term. When Joey and a girl fly to Argentina, Pirates of the Caribbean is playing on the seat backs in front of them. Facile, yes, but Franzen knows his market. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.)
Franzen’s use of brand names is a literary strategy, sure—a way to give the novel an extra touch of precision and verisimilitude, and if Myers thinks he goes a little overboard with the cultural references, I won’t disagree. (Franzen rarely passes on an opportunity to smirkingly mock the authority of the New York Times, or the self-satisfaction of NPR listeners.) But that’s not a craven marketing strategy to gain readers. How could it be? A reader who’s pleased by references to Parliaments and Pirates of the Caribbean won’t find their bliss until they’re deep into the novel anyway, and if that’s the bliss they’re looking for there are shorter, more comforting novels to read. (If Myers is right, perhaps publishers have been putting the wrong stickers on their covers for years. Instead of “Winner of the National Book Award” or “Oprah’s Book Club,” there should be stickers saying, “Mentions Lady Gaga” or “Droll reference to Car Talk on page 428!”) Franzen likes those “trivial particulars” because he wants to say (not wholly successfully) that they’re not so trivial, and if those references fail to create a portrait of modern life that has “real relevance” (whatever that is), it’s not because the author cynically chasing sales.
Department of Ridiculous News Story Premises: “After a summer of glowing reviews for Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel “Freedom,” in which the book was deemed a masterpiece and its author compared to great American novelists, publishing insiders say the literary lovefest may be about to end. According to those sources, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, will pan “Freedom” in an issue out later this month. Judging by literary critics’ penchant for piling on, she probably won’t be the last reviewer looking to draw blood.”
According to a Bowker survey (PDF), there are many reasons why a person might purchase a book, but a book review isn’t one of them (see page 29). So, little has changed.
Jack Shafer despairs for the future of the book—though the book’s eroding cultural primacy, as he describes it, seems to apply mostly to nonfiction books, which have increasingly become lodes for data miners. As for novels, you still have to read those from start to finish.
Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”
Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.
And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?”
On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”
How To Kill a Mockingbirdinspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.
George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.
Scott Timbergpoints to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.
Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.