Purity In Fiction (or, Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Attempt At…Something)

The most recent entry in the annals of attempted applied snobbery came recently from Jonathan Franzen, who, while certainly a gifted prose stylist, seems bent on making himself into the grumpiest white literary snob on the planet.

Disclaimer: I have read Mr. Franzen’s essays.  I have tried to read his fiction, but quite honestly found nothing much of particular interest. A cross, perhaps, between Dickens and Roth, with leanings toward Russo and Gardner. I admit to having been seriously put off by his antics back when Oprah Winfrey tried to draft him into her popular reading group series.

I also admit that I’ve never been quite sure what to make of all that. Till now.

He has offered Ten Rules For Novelist’s.  By the tenth you realize you are being lectured by someone who wishes to be regarded one way, suspects he may be regarded another way, but is afraid he is not being regarded at all, at least not as any kind of exemplar or Wise Head With Priceless Advice. His “rules” suffer from the curse of the “lit’rary.”  Distilled, it would seem he’s telling us that “if you don’t write like me, or try to write like me, you’re wasting your time and destroying the culture simultaneously.”

Others have weighed in on the problematic nature of these. It may seem self-serving to tilt at lawn ornaments with pretensions to windmill-ness, but frankly, I already know I’m not paid much attention to and nothing I say here will do anything for a career I do not have.

I am, however, much irked by this kind of thing. It’s disingenuous in it’s effect if not intent (how would I know how much of this he really believes?). By that I mean, it is not a set of rules to help aspiring writers, it is a set of reasons for not being a writer. Latent within these is the unspoken belief that, whoever you are, You Are Not Worthy.

Having said that, there are a couple of these I sort of agree with. Not, mind you, as proscriptions, but as matters of personal taste. Number 4, for instance: Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

I default to third-person because I tend to be a bit put off by first-person. To me, First Person is terribly artificial. No one goes through life narrating what they do. (Granted, all tenses, with regard to How People Actually Live, are artificial. Telling a story is an artifice, a Made Thing. Any “naturalness” to it all is part of the Art. It’s a seduction, convincing a reader to subsume his/her consciousness to the dictates of the narrative so that it feels natural.) Yes, once in a while, a story requires a different voice, even a different tense, because the writer is trying for a different effect. You make these choices for effect. You want the reader to go to a certain place in a specific way.

So while I agree with Rule # 4, I think Franzen phrased it in a way that tries to make it seem less of a matter of technique and more something that emerges from the zeitgeist. In other words, it’s a dodgy, deceptive way to say it.

There are too many little aphorisms and unexamined heuristics connected to writing that, if taken at face value, deter rather than aid the aspiring writer. We do not need more of them. For instance, Rule 1:  The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

Yeah…so? How is this a rule? An observation, yes, but in what way does this constitute necessary advice? And frankly, it’s not always true, nor is it even internally true. A “reader” is a stranger you hope to make a friend, of sorts, but they need convincing. Especially if you intend telling them hard truths, which seems to be what Mr. Franzen’s literary aim is. They will be, however briefly, a kind of adversary. And let’s face it, all art is initially a spectacle—requiring an audience, which is comprised of spectators. Many will stay for one game and never come back. They are not your friends. But they watched. As they read, they may shift often between these three conditions, and the adroit writer may wish them to do exactly that, because each state allows for different effects, which transfer aesthesis in different ways.  (And, really, James Joyce treated his potential audience not only as adversaries but occasionally as an angry mob with pitchforks—and by so doing created manifold aesthetic effects that are essential to the ongoing value of his works.)

Rather than go through them all, let me take the three “rules” I find most egregious. Numbers 2, 5, and 8.

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

I actually know what he’s trying to say here, but he said it in such a way as to betray the aristocratic self-image he wishes to convey and ends up doing disservice not only to a great deal of fictive output but reifies the academic nonsense about the nature of actually Writing For A Living.

What this is, firstly, is a variation on the Write What You Know, one of those aforementioned aphorisms that are less than useless. It seems to mean write only what you yourself have gone out into the world and experienced first-hand and even then be careful because you probably don’t know it as well as you think you do and in that case do another story about a writer suffering the self-doubt of the underappreciated. (Rules 5 and 8 underscore this, by the way.)

Secondly, it’s essentially claiming that writing, true writing, the pure quill, as it were, can only be done by the Elect. It’s a priesthood and defined by suffering and, often, by accidental success. I find it remarkable how many times we have been treated to lectures about the sordidness of writing for money from writers who have a Lot Of It. In other words, they are successful enough that they are offered platforms from which to tell the rest of us that we should just give it up.

Writing is, perhaps, a calling of sorts, but in its commission it is a craft and if one intends to do it as a vocation—which, in this instance, means having the opportunity to do as one’s primary activity—then you do it for pay. Otherwise, two things—you starve or no one ever hears of you because you choose not to starve and take a job that prevents you from writing all the time. (I can hear the rejoinder—“well, if no one wants to buy your work in sufficient quantity, then it must be inferior”—which both ignores the realities of the market and exhibits hypocrisy at the same time.)

Most of us never get the opportunity to make this our living.  We get paid poorly, distributed badly, and rarely get recognized outside our own little patch. To have someone whose books regularly debut on best seller lists tell us that writing for money is somehow disreputable and sullies our work is the height of snobbery.

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

What does that actually mean? When I do a great deal of research to make my work sing with verisimilitude and I find that my readers know enough to appreciate what I have done, it increases the value of that work.  Again, this is snobbery, based on the assumption that the True Novelist has the time and resources to do something the rest of us can’t do.

The only thing that a novelist can do that the hoi polloi can’t is tell a story that moves people. They can know or have access to everything the writer knows and has learned and yet the one thing they will still not be able to do is tell that writer’s story.

But that rule offers a glimpse into the requirements of the priesthood. When you can go to the library and look up the secret handshake of the order, the value of joining that order—or, more pertinently, living in awe of that order—diminishes.

But people still might go to the temple for the pleasure of the spectacle. So make it good spectacle.

Rule # 5 is a bizarre kind of anti-intellectual classist elitism.  And a rule for what?  Hiding information from people so you can look more impressive?

Rule # 8:  It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

This is a kind of corollary to #5 and suffers the same flawed reasoning.

This is of a species with the whole “the novel is dead” nonsense someone brings up every so often. The last time it came up, it was obvious that the Novel being obited was the Great American Novel Written By A White Male.  It ignored women, nonwhite writers, and genre.

(Oh, genre! My ghod, what a smear upon the face of Great Literary Art!)

I said above that I have read Mr. Franzen’s essays.  I have dipped into his fiction. He is quite a good writer. I concede he can write a scene and turn out a fine sentence. In his fiction, he writes about things in a way that I can find no traction. He might be saying some things I would be moved by, but his approach leaves me cold. For this reader, he commits the one unforgivable sin—he is uninteresting.

He also seems to lead with an expectation that he will be disappointed. In us, in the universe, in himself. His essays exhibit a glumness that becomes, after a while, a drag on my psyche.

These rules suggest an answer.  He seems really to believe he should be regarded in ways that he fears he is not—and probably isn’t. The nonsense with Oprah led me to see him as pretentious and these rules have convinced me. The regard of the general public moved on in the latter half of the 20th Century as the balkanization of fiction categories multiplied and the position of Great Writer as Conscience of the Culture sort of dissipated.

But that doesn’t mean regard for novels diminished, nor does it mean the value of those novels has lessened, it only means that no one group can dictate the Standard Model of Significant Fiction anymore. The podium has, in fact, expanded, and the work that constitutes what is most worthy now includes things the Pure Writer seems to feel is beneath them.

 

 

On Time and Attention

My word. It’s November and this is the first post I’ve made since…May. Shame on me.

It’s not that I haven’t read anything worthy of comment. On the contrary, I see several titles on my read list I had ever intention of reviewing here, but…

It has been an unpleasant year. The deaths have mounted. Friends.

In June, Harlan Ellison passed away. I’m told he died in his sleep, a remarkably peaceful exit for such an iconoclastic, enormous personality. I’ve met few others for whom it can be said that he made every second count. That he considered me a friend still humbles me.

Before Harlan, Vic Milan died. He was one of the first professional SF writers I ever met. We were roughly the same age.

Then in the last month or so two friends outside the field died. Both were younger than me.

I have no larger point here other than to say that attention to other things has been difficult to maintain. This blog, these reviews, originally began as a personal amusement and a significant amount of time this year has been swallowed up in not being amused.

We were invited to attend Harlan’s memorial in September. It was an expensive trip, not only because we had a bit over a week’s notice, but there was no way to not go. We had been to Los Angeles only once before, to our first world SF convention in 1984. This time we were going to be in the heart of Beverly Hills.

We spent four days in L.A., met with Susan and close friends that Friday evening at Mel’s Diner, and attended the memorial at the Writers Guild West Theater Saturday evening.

I’ve already written about Harlan and the unexpected friendship. I won’t add to it here except to mention the warmth of those attending.

It takes it out of you after a while. There’s a childhood conviction that heroes should not die. That the very stuff of being a hero includes immortality. The adult knows better but the 8-year-old bristles with injustice.

I’ve managed to begin writing short fiction again. That was more difficult—and remains hard—than I expected. It requires time and attention, both of which seem less available.

And then there are the books that need reading.

I read Jo Walton’s new An Informal History of the Hugo Awards and came away delighted, amazed, and a bit intimidated. At several points, she mentions how often she rereads. Some books she rereads annually.

I can name the novels I’ve reread easily because they number so few. I read slowly. In high school I became a speed reader. At one point I estimated I was reading close to 3000 words a minutes, which would be somewhere around seven or eight pages. I tore my way through the Classics that way at the public library and read scores of SF novels.

Most of which I have forgotten.  After a dozen years my retention crumbled. I intentionally slowed down. I read pretty much at a snail’s pace now, which meansd it might take a week or more to get through a decent-sized novel.

But even when I could read at a heady clip, I rarely reread. There were too many new books to get through.

I’ve missed the boat on that. The last few years I’ve been hosting a reading group and I’ve had to reread some of the novels and it has been an unexpected revelation. I still don’t know when I’ll ever have time to seriously tackle a thorough reread, but I hope to.

On the plus-side, I have on my desk James Mustich’s magesterial 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die.  It’s an impressive catalogue. I did a quick tally and it turns out I’ve read roughly a quarter of them already. If I add in books by the same authors as those mentioned, it edges up toward 300. To be fair to myself, there are at least 300 books listed that I have never heard of.

There’s no time. And often we lack the requisite attention. We must cherish those times when the two coincide. I have been fortunate in my associations and my encounters. People, books, music. It is a trap to bemoan what you can’t get to when there are things you can and have. I look around at my office at rows of books I have read bits of or never opened. There’s a sense of wealth, in a way, to owning books. There is a greater wealth in knowing people.

Some of them have left the scene. It doesn’t seem that long ago that they were such vibrant, striking impacts on the intellect. In the case of writers, they linger. You can know them again, even if they’re gone.  We can’t know everyone. We should perhaps be careful choosing friends, but I think too often we have no choice. Friendship happens, it’s not a conscious decision. Had we set out to meet and befriend those who became most important to us, likely we would have failed.

Or not. Some people are simply that open.

I’ve reached a point, though, where I have to make such choices, because I am, through the loss of friends, aware in ways I never was before how little time there is.

I’ll try to be a bit more attentive to this blog, though, because I think it is important to note the impacts of friends and words.

Read deeply. A good book always offers more than what is on the page.