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.

 

 

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

  1. I’ve been losing sleep over Rule 3, “Never use the word ‘then’ as a conjunction.” I read that admonishment and I thought, “Yikes, I employ a non-adverbial ‘then’ all the time in in my fiction.”

    I see what Franzen is getting at, and I respect his finely tuned ear, but I still feel the dreaded “comma-then” construction can be defended on a case-by-case basis.

    This morning I began revisiting “The Day of the Locust” and found this on the second page: “Tod watched until they had disappeared behind half a Mississippi steamboat, then put away his pencils and drawing board, and left the office.” Not to be snarky, but Nathanael West’s publisher was Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the same house that does Franzen.

    I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

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