May 2016

Arts & Letters

Canon fodder

By Richard Cooke
An interview with Jonathan Franzen

There’s something a little old-fashioned about Jonathan Franzen. I don’t mean old-fashioned in the bird-watching, fist-shaking at the internet and wearing thick black-rimmed writerly glasses way. I mean old-fashioned in the “novelist on the cover of TIME magazine” way. The sense that people still think you’re a writer worth arguing over, sometimes viciously, and the ensuing argument still takes place in the public square, instead of just circulating on a few literary blogs. The sense that other writers might take issue not just with Franzen but with the idea of him. In the same month the novelist appears at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, he will appear in a pre-recorded episode of the TV game show Jeopardy! in the US. No other attendees will – and few could – be making this double.

The unwanted and sometimes ironic mantle of the Great American Novelist is as dangerous to a creative career as calling someone the Next Big Thing. It has also made Franzen a target, a role he occupies with a kind of resignation, even if it is underscored with something that looks suspiciously like relish. Because, like it or not, for some people Franzen Inc. presents a betrayal. The betrayal of a cultural moment in which literature was supposed to pivot, and instead stalled. It was some time in the 1990s when the culture wars over the literary canon looked to be ending. Toni Morrison was installed, shakily but permanently, in the firmament, and a new wave was set to arrive. Less pale, less male, less stale. The King was dead, long live … Franzen? It seemed to many that the premium-grade accolades were being reserved for a man once called “the Great King of the Honkies”. The last of the dinosaurs.

And Franzen, being a good liberal, agrees, to a point. He doesn’t like it either. Before speaking with him, I chanced on a Kickstarter campaign run by a writer called Amy Collier, who dislikes Franzen so much she was asking for money, from men, to read him. She wanted $5000 to read his 2010 novel Freedom, $10,000 to read 2001’s The Corrections, and $25,000 to read Purity, released last year. An inversion of the “I wouldn’t read it if you paid me” principle, and a pointed criticism of the ongoing phalloccupation of the upper echelons of literature. To thank any backer who pledged $100, she promised to read and review three pages of Purity. I emailed Collier and asked if she had anything to ask Franzen. Her first reply was a “Nope!” But then she clarified. She would ask Franzen a question – if she was paid US$100,000.

By the time the Kickstarter campaign was suspended, Collier had already been promised $1200. “Not enough, not enough,” says Franzen. “She needed another $3800.” He chuckles, something I’m not expecting from someone described as a “noted curmudgeon”. “Well, I mean, I’m sympathetic. I came up steeped in ’70s feminism, and I have always, myself, been acutely uncomfortable with the male domination of the literary canon, so I understand completely why someone might think, Oh, we don’t need another male writer. We already have too many white, male writers. Why is this person getting all the attention? I get that impulse.”

It’s Franzonian, this commiseration with his critics.

“It irks me only because I have felt the very same thing about all this stuff, and have spent my whole life as a writer trying to champion work by women and get them the kind of attention the male writers are getting. So it is a little irksome personally, but I understand the impulse, and, because I understand it, it’s hard to really find fault with it.”

This is true: Franzen has spent much of his career championing female writers. There’s something unpleasant in the chain of causation – like George Clooney deciding that if all these cameras are going to follow him around, he might as well lead them to Darfur – but as Franzen is keen to point out, this isn’t his fault.

The criticism also comes, he says, because he’s a safe target. “I got a lot of attention in the first decade of this century,” he says. “And the first way I got a lot of attention was offending a black woman, and so I was a very visible target, and I also am white, straight and male, and that’s kind of a … and I don’t say this unhappily, I say this just calmly: I myself think it’s safest to beat up on a straight, white man because no one’s going to call you a sexist, no one’s going to call you a racist, no one’s going to call you a homophobe … And also, I never thought it was a novelist’s brief to support conformism. I never thought it was a novelist’s job to consolidate anybody’s ideology. I always thought it was the novelist’s job to interrogate those things, and the further I’ve gone, the more interested I am in going to real hard places – places that people don’t like to talk about, people don’t like to think about. I think that’s the novelist’s job.”

That black woman Franzen offended was Oprah Winfrey. In 2001 he publicly expressed his misgivings when she selected The Corrections for her book club, and there was a kerfuffle that led to him being dropped from the marque. This event has become part what’s called “the Franzen folklore”. So, too, has a more recent event at a London writers’ festival, where someone described as a “prankster” grabbed the glasses from Franzen’s nose and jumped into the waters of The Serpentine. So has Franzen’s comment that Twitter is the “ultimate irresponsible medium”. So has a thought bubble about wanting to adopt an Iraqi orphan to facilitate his creative process (an idea he now calls “insane”).

Together, these incidents combine to indicate a personality, a caricature that the critic Sam Anderson calls “Franzen the crank”. He’s the “mighty detester of Twitter, ATVs, and housing developments,” Anderson writes, “who occasionally steps in to overpower Franzen the artist. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s the author or his characters ranting about consumerism, the bloodlust of America’s domestic cats (they kill something like one billion songbirds a year), and the younger generation’s disturbing habit of wearing flip-flops.”

So that Serpentine event entered the Franzen folklore in cartoonish colours, a nose tweak to the Crank, pictured still stewing in his brogues as the spectacles thief was fished out. And speaking to Franzen the Novelist, I suspect he’s quite fond of Franzen the Crank, but that it’s a bit of a role. He is not enamoured of public discourse in his time, though. That’s real.

“Celebrity has become a real, big, different thing since the rise of the internet and particularly social media,” he says, “so that the so-called information that people are getting has been repeated four times from somebody who originally read an out-of-context quotation or somebody who didn’t read all of, or fully misread, the original text.

“There’s so much rage out there, and it is so sort of free-floating that you ought not to take it personally. But I got into the business of writing novels because I care about communication. I care about complex arguments, complex representation, not simplified argument or representation. I care about connecting as a human being with other people who I’m reading, or who are reading me.

“And so there’s an added kick to it for me. Because it’s not like I’ve eaten more eggs in one sitting than anyone else in the world, and now people are criticising me because, though the world is starving, I’ve eaten so many eggs. I’m not famous like that. To the extent that I’m famous, it’s because I’m putting out these large, complex books which I think need to be read in their entirety. That’s the credit I would [give to others], whether it’s somebody else’s book, somebody else’s essay, somebody else’s blog. I’m going to read the whole thing. To see everything atomised and just, like, rumour on philatelic quotation, all of that is upsetting.

“It’s really important that I not read this stuff, because the little bit that trickles through is just so stupid that it’ll make me angry if I read it. I really am very careful to avoid it, and every once in a while somebody who’s become a friend that doesn’t know me that well will forward me … not a link, because I know not to click on links, but will forward me a sentence or something they’ve read about me, and it’s like, ‘No, don’t tell me that,’ because it means I waste a week being upset about it.”

The prospect of a Franzen famous for eating the most eggs is tantalising, but even big complex book man Franzen isn’t really ignoring all of these arguments. He is returning fire in these same big books – sometimes from behind a mask, sometimes through a character who may or may not be a sock puppet, sometimes adroitly, sometimes clumsily. Purity is full of criticisms of this kind of internet-discourse culture, of campus feminism, of The Way We Do Things Now. And sometimes those criticisms are exasperating. Is it Franzen who thinks the internet is like Stasi-infested former East Germany, or is it his character Andreas Wolf, the Assange-like former dissident?

The distinction becomes less clear when so many of these characters think and talk like Franzen, and when the simile is waterboarded over the course of so many pages. The jailed writer Barrett Brown, in a review called ‘Stop Sending Me Jonathan Franzen Novels’, had this to say: “Let me put it this way. I was interested enough in WikiLeaks, state transparency, and emergent opposition networks to do five years in prison over such things, but I wasn’t interested enough that I would have voluntarily plowed through 500 pages of badly plotted failed-marriage razzmatazz by an author who’s long past his expiration date …”

Franzen says it wasn’t this relationship between the Stasi and the internet that got him interested in the material. It was instead a function of being a “thrifty writer”.

“I’d spent a lot of time in Germany and I’d never really published any fiction about it, so there was a part of my life that I had not used. It was just like, ‘OK, bring to me Germany in the new book, I know how!’

“I’ve also always – really since I was in Berlin in 1981 and ’82 – been interested, fascinated, by the existence of East Germany. I didn’t go there – I only went there once as a tourist – but I knew people who were over there, and I knew something about the surveillance state they were living in, and it always seemed that it was a society in which trust was really problematised, where you didn’t know who was spying on you.

“That was kind of catnip for the novelist … I started to get to know people who’d grown up [there] and they started to tell me sort of a different story and I began to think, There’s room for an American to tell a story about East Germany that hasn’t been told before, and there’s a perspective available that I haven’t seen anywhere else. It turned out Andreas Wolf was how it fits in … he went from the Stasi to the centre of the internet, hating the Stasi but also depending on it, and that’s the situation he ends up with regarding the internet. Hates it but depends on it.”

And so from the Franzen folklore we come to what one researcher calls the “Franzen agonism”, the critical swirl around the writer, and particularly his relationship with technology. I wasn’t a fan of Purity either, but after a return to Franzen’s earlier work, I’ve become more sympathetic to his posture of techno-Luddism. While reading the book, I conducted a little experiment. How long, on average, could I read before feeling an itch to check my notifications or mentally switch tabs between this activity and something else? And that time period, my attention span, is now somewhere between 11 and 14 minutes. Everyone, writer and reader alike, has a permanently installed person from Porlock at hand.

The conditions under which Franzen changed from writer into Novelist involved a rediscovery or renewed faith in the purpose of the novel form. By his late 30s, he had published two books, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, to critical acclaim but a sterile public reaction. He was in the latter stages of a failing marriage, and not only didn’t feel like writing but also increasingly didn’t feel like reading, either. The literary novel at large, in thrall to high postmodernism, was turning into a concern for academia.

“[David Foster] Wallace and I were engaged in fighting theory’s reign of terror on college campuses,” says Franzen, “and engaged in trying to figure out what was wrong with postmodernism and how we might go forward in its wake. So there was a real, real strong sense of solidarity and respect and understanding between him and me, and there are some others.”

Franzen re-armed himself by writing two essays. One, now known as the “Harper’s Essay”, published in that magazine in 1996, was a reconstitution of faith in the novel as a piece of technology. It could no longer perform some of its historical functions, say, social realism or moral instruction. These had been taken over by things like television or just abandoned as unworkable. But as an irreducible carrier of communication, the novel was indispensible. The Harper’s Essay explored, through research, exactly why people read, and what kind of people read, and the peculiar aloneness that makes people writers. The essay and a New Yorker piece in 2002 repudiating the influence of the arch-academe novelist William Gaddis (“Mr Difficult”) acted together as a kind of manifesto, even a blueprint. One astute critic called the Harper’s Essay “market research”, a characterisation Franzen now sees some truth in. The result was The Corrections, early candidate for novel of the new century.

But what felt like a conscious, indeed planned, effort from the outside didn’t feel that way to Franzen. Instead, it was a kind of giving up. “I didn’t think The Corrections was going to be the bestseller it was,” he says. “I had in fact written it thinking, OK, well, I’m just going to write for a little core audience now.”

But there was a drive to reconnect with a lay readership. Writing the big postmodern doorstoppers was a dead end. “You were not going to get the audience, you were going to get the critical esteem, you might become canonical, you might be taught at the graduate level in universities – and I think what happened, and it sort of happened, I think, rather quickly, sometime in the early to mid ’90s, a lot of younger writers thought, Hey, wait a minute, this is a dead end. First of all, for canon, it’s already pretty crowded and we’ve really lost touch with an actual audience of laypeople. So ever since then, I think, fiction has been reclaiming some position, not in popular culture, but in the lay culture, and I don’t think that’s going to go back. I think there [was] a moment when this explosion of critical interest in the modern novel happened, and that kind of carried over for some decades, but I think that’s gone and I don’t think it’ll come back.”

You can see how in this environment the internet rears as a threat to Franzen’s idea of a novel. Take this sentence from David Shields’ Reality Hunger, perhaps the closest thing to an anti–Harper’s Essay manifesto there is. “The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a ‘good’ novel or it might be a ‘bad’ novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.” It’s exactly this earnest embrace Franzen is fighting to preserve. He fought for it once, successfully, against the postmodern novel, by retaining multiple points of view and ironic narratorial distance, simplifying the “systems” invoked, and restoring the place of character and plot. (More than one critic has noted that the narrative of The Corrections isn’t so different from a sitcom – one even compared it to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.) But now the novel is in contact, and conflict, with the ultimate system, a “postmodern” force of great power: the internet.

When Franzen tells an audience that “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”, he’s not just being a snob. He is talking about something at odds with the kind of meaning he’s interested in communicating. With Twitter, the confines are too small; with the internet at large, the confines are too massive.

“I’m a daily enthusiastic user of many aspects of the internet,” he says. “But it feels antithetical to my novelistic project in a similar way, because I try to give my books ethics. And I’m not saying I have ‘the meaning’, but I’m not saying that therefore we should throw out meaning. The novel is this experience that you can have for 10, 15, 20 hours in which you are in a world where things have meaning, and that’s one reason why I’m optimistic about the novels – I think people have a hunger for meaning. It’s wearying to go online and feel like I could just be surfing forever and I would never really get anything like a fixed meaning.”

I wonder if that feels wearying too, as something to oppose. I mean, given the choice, which era would you time travel to, if you were an American novelist? You could be a 19th-century adventurist, or a Left Bank emigré or a Jazz Age roué, or part of the Harlem Renaissance, or a Beat or a countercultural burnout … or what exactly is it now? Even your immediate predecessors played out their spats on The Dick Cavett Show, sleeves rolled. Instead you get a pillow fight with Oprah and a few thousand narky tweets. Does Jonathan Franzen sometimes feel a bit dudded by his cultural surrounds?

“No, no, no,” he says. “There were many weeks where that single title of mine [The Corrections] was selling more than Herman Melville had sold of any of his books in a lifetime. Even his break-out books, Typee and Omoo and those things, they didn’t sell that well compared to what a novelist now does. And poor Melville, he basically gave it up. Because there was no creative writing program to teach, and there was no Guggenheim Foundation to kick some support his way. So I think you can bitch and moan, but I actually think this is still a good time for fiction writers.”

Jonathan Franzen will be appearing in Sydney (Sydney Writers’ Festival), Brisbane (Powerhouse Museum), Melbourne (The Wheeler Centre) and Perth (Perth Writers Festival) in late May.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


Jonathan Franzen at the International Book Festival Budapest, 2015. © Arpad Kurucz / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images


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