Wednesday 14 October 2015

"Be Careful What You Wish For": Jonathan Franzen at UEA Literary Festival by Westley Barnes


Jonathan Franzen-like many fine American novelists before him-is a writer typified by an impassioned derision for our media obsessed society and a cruel, uncompromising love for a single artform-literature. He is a writer constantly at war with the reception, positive or negative, of his own work. Writing about what he perceived to be a misunderstanding of the ambitions intended regarding the writing of his breakthrough third novel The Corrections in a Harper’s essay (“Perchance To Dream”, 1996) In the essay Franzen described how during the period that followed the writing his second novel Strong Motion (1992) how he was “succumbing, as a novelist, to despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social” (Franzen, 1996, 2002, 58.)-a trait Franzen emphasised as considerably lacking in 1990’s US fiction. When interviewers asked in reference to the Harper’s essay if The Corrections was Franzen’s attempt to bridge the write the great crossover social/personal novel that he so lamented the lack of in “Perchance To Dream”, Franzen instead accused his critics of inventing an ideological ambition that he claimed was neither apparent in the essay or his novel. Franzen went so far as to rewrite the original article with a comic tone when he included it in his 2002 collection How To Be Alone, even renaming the piece, as if the overarching sense of critical malaise in the original wasn’t enough- “Why Bother?” The explanation Franzen gave for this re-imagining of his essay wasn’t a desire to silence and mock the critics who took him up on the piece’s suggested literary call to arms, instead he claimed in How To Be Alone’s introduction that on re-reading the essay he simply could scarcely understand what it was he had tried to say in the piece, therefore he had clearly changed his mind on whatever the matter was-so he might as well have some fun with it, after that ordeal.

As prickly as Franzen’s critical reputation purports him to be, how he presents himself to his assembled public is a striking example of his canniness-the seeming misunderstood public Franzen acting like a real life version of many of his misunderstood fictional creations (see Chip Lambert in The Corrections, Purity “Pip” Tyler in Purity- One assumes the alliterative forenames are merely incidental.)  Sitting watching Franzen hold court in Lecture Theatre 1 during his interview with Professor Christopher Bigsby I’m struck by how unlike his authorial persona Franzen appears in public. Ever-smiling a boy-scout smile, sprightly and irreverent as he skirts across the stage to read from his latest novel Purity-Franzen cuts the figure of a much younger writer-one sheltered from all the critical expectations, personal upset and death that his literary output is so equally informed and maligned by. (Franzen witnessed his father’s mental demise before his death in the mid-2000s, a loss that heavily informed the melancholy apparent in his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone. A few years later he scattered the ashes of his famous friend and literary confidant, David Foster Wallace, off an island in the south pacific.) What makes his joviality and seeming approachability such a surprise is that Franzen-ever outspoken yet ever conservative, recently divulged in an interview with The Guardian that he has determined a need to self-censor when speaking of his new novel, “I’m trying to figure out how much I should say and how much I should not say.” (Franzen, The Guardian,2015.) This air of authorial concern over opinions of his own work strike a contrast with the favoured beau of American letters image he constructs onstage at UEA-but again if any author knows all too well about the pitfalls incurred by his own contrarianism it’s Franzen.

The interview opens with a quip from Dr Bigsby about how although Franzen is no stranger to Norwich and UEA he’s much rather be off birdwatching in Clyde. Franzen is a keen birdwatcher-of course, he is an oogler of solitary states, and what a more perfect hobbies for a solitarist other than literature and birdwatching? Franzen graciously accepts that he is fond of Norwich, which he calls a “great city of readers.”

The first topic up for discussion is The Kraus Project-by Franzen’s own rather immediate admission “a strange book” -one written about the time he spent in Berlin during the early 1980’s translating the “often woefully untranslatable” critical work of the Frankfurt school linguistic theorist Karl Kraus, as part of a Fulbright scholarship. Franzen described how he spent most of his time in Berlin smoking, translating, not sleeping-the only English language book he brought in his luggage was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) a novel highly preoccupied for arguing for the saviour of morality in a world cast over with chaos, an anecdote that could describe much of Franzen’s fiction. This thematic concern, and the fact that the novel at 760 pages is long enough to intimidate the casual reader clearly made an impression on Franzen, whose character driven tomes consecutively stretch past the 600 mark. (A devotee to the ironist vignette, one could argue that Franzen’s novels are the longest New Yorker stories ever published) On the strangeness of Kraus and of his own time in Berlin, Franzen suffices to say that the project came to fruition (or didn’t, until much later, depending on how you view the twenty-plus years of rewrites and reconsiderations the book went through before the book’s eventual 2013 publication) during a period of intense solitude and personal confusion. “Berlin didn’t help” is the crux of Franzen’s analysis of this era, the ever-partying city’s more decadent and work-stifling attractions offering little to improve on Franzen’s deification of literary solitude.

Franzen asserted that the most positive aspect of his time in Berlin arose not out of writing The Kraus Project but instead out of writing long letters home to his then fiancée. Literary ambitions, it’s ideals and the argument for its’ validation was the topic that Franzen exhausted in his letters home, and provided Franzen with a set of literary ethics that have held firm with him throughout his fiction and criticism.

Soon after Franzen the entertainer is in full effect, reading from Purity-a novel holds firm on familiar Franzen territory-finding the sincere in complex, often disillusioned characters, and the pains associated with wanting to remain part of a dysfunctional family. Franzen alerts his audience to the dilemma of Purity “Pip” Tyler-

“The problem was, as Pip saw it-the essence of the handicap she lived with; the presumable cause of inability to be effective at anything- was that she loved her mother.” (Franzen, 2015, 5.)

Personal imperfections and the desire to have these recognised and accepted is a theme which haunts Franzen’s fiction. Pip’s mothers’ incapability to live a routine-driven life without her daughter’s interactions and reassurances both drives the emotional wedge between them and keeps them so inseparable The dependencies of familial relationships are Franzen’s reliable bedfellows-often his writing is an expansive rendering of the intensely personal-as if his character’s failure to live outside their personal relationships is what define them as morally sound in a confused world. A world evidently more preoccupied with the expanse of technology which Franzen so vocally despises in his personal essays.

The main contrast with Franzen’s previous fiction is that with Purity, Franzen has gone public with breaking his own rules. After a short reading of a later episode in the novel, set in a highly industrialized Texas cityscape with characters engaged in a conversation which actually implies the existence of the internet-fresh ground for Franzen-the author opens the floor to questions from the audience-an exercise he heartily claims to enjoy. An audience member asks why Franzen chose to commit an entire section of the novel to a character who writes in the first person, the contrast here being that Purity and the rest of Franzen’s fiction is strictly written in the third. The audience member had referred in his question to the advice given by Franzen in his contribution to The Guardian’s “Ten Rules Fror Writers” series-specifically Franzen’s rule number 4-“Write in the third person-unless a really distinctive first person voice offers itself-irresistibly.” (Franzen, 2010.) For his response, Franzen good naturedly concedes that in Purity he has broken his own rule-much to the delight of his audience. This own admission of an act of apparent rebellion against his own literary conservatism seems to allow that Franzen concedes to defeat against his own stringent set of literary guidelines-if only to please his audience members, it is an admirable act of self-deprecation. Franzen asserts that the character of Andreas Wolff, a Julian Assange-like internet freedom of information fighter (who Franzen in his response termed to be “handsome in a particularly German type of way”-with further self-effacing omniscience) seemed to him to be the perfect type of candidate for the first-person narrative mode precisely because he was so untypical of his fictional male characters. “Although”-Franzen added, “the third person narrative is still the truest, I find, particularly for a young writer trying to find their voice.” This practice of detachment from autobiography evident in Franzen’s fondness for third person narratives acts a helpful synopsis  of his fiction’s meandering character trajectories-Franzen finds excitement in the otherness of his character’s diverse , but interlinked, frustrations.

Having decided on a question of my own, I dutifully raised my hand in the ensuing silence which had followed the previous question. Never someone particularly keen on public speaking, I nevertheless routinely try when at readings to ask an author a question specific to a thematic concern I find in the their work-if anything to relieve either my own persistent curiosity or self-doubt. The lecture hall is without audience microphones, so asking if I can be heard I plunge into the depths of my literary unknowing. My question: “When reading your memoir The Discomfort Zone-I got the sense of a nostalgia for the mid-century mid-west where your parents lived their lives and brought you up, despite this being an era of political ambitions that you would later critically re-examine. This inherent nostalgia evident in your memoir seemed to explain for me the sense of contemporary dread that is often the narrative focus of the characters in your novels. Could you comment on this?”

My question referred to a distinctive passage in The Discomfort Zone, which described a sense of politically indifferent homely idealism-having grown up in St Louis, Missouri during the 1960s and 1970s, Franzen experienced life in a confident United States that was soon to lose a sense of social progression. The ending of the United States’ postwar dynamism was simultaneous with that of Franzen’s coming of age, a simultaneity acutely evident to Franzen:

“To liberals, the mid-century was a time of unexamined materialism at home, unabashed imperialism abroad, the denial of opportunity to women and minorities, the rape of the environment and the malign hegemony of themilitary-industrial complex. To conservatives, it was an era of collapsing cultural traditions and of bloated federal government and confiscatory tax rates and solipsistic welfare and retirement schemes. In the middle of the middle though, there was nothing but family and house and church and school and work. I was cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocoons.” (Franzen, 2006, 15.)   

Before responding to my question, Franzen seemed to be a little suspicious regarding what I had asked him-which worried me a little because I had wanted to base my question on what I thought was an obvious thematic concern rather than a controversial means of catching the author out. By this stage, I had yet to read The Guardian interview where Franzen erred himself to caution on the subject of interviews regarding his work, but his initial response makes more sense to me now. He responded that although he understood where my question emerged from, that he didn’t consider his perception of his Midwest upbringing as one of nostalgia, particularly seeing how hard his parents had worked with regards upholding their Midwestern principles of honest work and being “good Americans” hadn’t seemed to stand to them all that much later in life. Franzen concluded that he was more interested in living in the present and anticipating what the future had in store for the US rather than focusing on the innocence of the past. This isn’t an easy conviction to analyse out of my own reading of Franzen’s fiction, but let the author speak.

For all of the evening’s good humoured grace on Franzen’s part, the next audience question sparked signs of the prickliness that Franzen’s own protectiveness regarding the critical reaction of his work that has been resoundingly commented on in the past. A woman in the audience brought up a 2015 Guardian review of Franzen by Curtis Sittenfeld-a review which praised the novel’s composition and ambitiousness but nevertheless criticized Franzen as an authour whose “portrayal of women lacks nuance.” (Sittenfeld, The Guardian, 2015.) While the audience member stated that although she didn’t entirely agree with the Sittenfeld review she would be interested in Franzen’s response to it-Franzen seemed to fly off the handle a little-which, for a writer as eruditely polite as Franzen isn’t so much a hissyfit as a momentary blip. “I can’t help being white, as I’ve stated before” Franzen replied. “But what strikes me so curiously is that I am the author of The Twenty-Seventh City who has a female cop effectively running St Louis and in the author who in Strong Motion has a woman as the figure of power.” A critical feminist reaction to his work is one thing that Franzen openly claims not to understand, and it is a little disappointing to see a writer of such international standing not successfully playing down these issues with a manner of reflective cool. The conservative in Franzen is shown most transparently here-a writer who responds to a misunderstanding of his work with a sense of self-righteous rage.

At the booksigning afterwards, I apologised to Franzen for any obtuseness or lack of clarity regarding my question, but the author warmly suggests that I needn’t apologise, he knew what I was getting at. “To conclude my answer more succinctly” offers Franzen with that boy-scout grin and an extended hand “is be careful what you wish for.”

Works Cited

Brookes, Emma “There is No Way to Make Myself Not Male” : Jonathan Franzen 

Interview in The Guardian 21st September 2015
Franzen, Jonathan  The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History New York: Picador, 2006.
-Purity London: 4th Estate, 2015.
-“ Why Bother?” in How To Be Alone London:HarperPerennial 2007.
Originally published as “Perchance to Dream: In The Age of Images,
a Reason to Write Novels” in Harpers, April 1996.
-“Ten Rules For Writing Fiction” in The Guardian 20/02/2010                                                 
Sittenfeld, Curtis -“Purity by Jonathan Franzen Review: Dazzling, Hilarious and
Problematic” in The Guardian 26th September 2015

Westley Barnes is a first-year PhD student in American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

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