Book Expo America last week, well-respected book critic and Salon co-founder Laura Miller attempted to open for us the “hot, hungry microcosm” of Jonathan Franzen’s brain.At
At the top of the hour-long conversation, Miller dove right in, asking Franzen how he had come to write his latest novel. Franzen backpedaled, thanked the audience for coming, and seemed to almost beg for a little foreplay. He described his recent bird-watching trip to Nairobi—a “reward” to himself for finishing the book—and described the difficulty of changing channels to answer such questions. The book, as described by publisher FSG, is about a young woman named Purity “squatting with anarchists in Oakland,” and “is a dark-hued comedy of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder.”
Franzen said he was “casting my mind back—to how the thing came out the way it did,” and then added, “I have no idea where the story came from.” Being more helpful in terms of process, he said, “The situation for the writer is that it gets harder to write novels, not easier, as time goes by. That has to do with using up the easy stuff, the stuff that’s fairly close to the surface and then going back […] suddenly all you’re left with is the very deep stuff, and there’s a good reason you haven’t written about it before—you don’t know how to or you really don’t want to talk about it.”
“Another thing that gets harder, I think, for the writer going forward as a novelist is that I think after a while most of your friends are writers or artists, and you live in a world of writers and readers.” He noted that he didn’t want to write a book about a writer before admitting that he found “stealth” ways to do just that, and that “in some ways, all the characters in Purity are writers.”
Franzen said that any novelist, “even Stephen King or James Patterson—they’re not writing for all Americans, they’re writing for the segment of Americans that reads books.” He said that “there’s a smaller audience that reads trade paperback fiction, as opposed to mass-market paperback fiction—which is no longer a distinction, I realize,” and then, as an aside, “you know what I mean.” Miller said, “This crowd,” referring to the audience, and Franzen responded, “If this crowd doesn’t know what I mean, then I have to stop using that phrase.” It was poignant considering the online controversy between Franzen (and perhaps, more so, his fans and friends or supporters like Jeffrey Eugenides) and “commercial” novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner.
While “this crowd” may yet see a distinction, it obscured the point he was trying to get to: “Readers are to some extent ipso facto estranged from American culture because reading is slow, and requires a long attention span, and requires you to sort of check all the electronic distractions while you’re engaged with it.”
Speaking of his early work, Franzen said, “I’m at pains not to repudiate my first two novels. There are things to enjoy in them, having written them particularly at the age that I wrote them. But I was doing—I was not fully in control of what I was doing.” This got a big laugh. Speaking more directly of Purity, Franzen said, “Frankly, also I took money from people for the book,” another reminder that Franzen exists in a truly rarified world, even amongst other successful novelists. (It’s common knowledge that while most non-fiction books are sold based on proposals, most works of fiction must be completed before sold.)
“You make a plan,” he said, “as soon as you try to write, you realize, this is a bad plan.” He continued, “I had created a proposal and sold it. And just like any sales document, it had certain persuasions. Like, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like an interesting book.’ Even I believed that,” which again got a laugh.
When asked about his journalism, Franzen said that fiction and journalism are nice compliments. “Nice to shut up and let someone else talk. Also it gets you out into the world. The problem with fiction writing is it shuts you in.” He added, “I’m aware that I’m privileged because I get paid … I think it is a significant crisis for journalists that it’s gotten so hard to get paid,” and described the linking and relinking process by which the internet obscures the original gatherer of facts.
In perhaps the most interesting moment of the conversation, Franzen veered back to his Africa trip and described meeting someone who reminded him of one of his own characters. “It’s nice to be reminded that charisma really exists. There are people who just naturally command attention like that, and who your heart opens up even though you don’t know the person.”=
The most-quoted bit, reported by both the Guardian and Vulture, came from the question posed by a university student writing a paper on The Corrections and the “depressed male in post-9/11 literature,” which brought the house down to the extent that she had to restate her question: “How do you think the depressed male character’s identification and experience of his white masculinity relates to American society and culture in our day and age?”
Franzen: “I was at dinner with some booksellers last night, party to a conversation about the—ongoing under-representation of, particularly, minority editors in New York publishing. It’s a real problem. And in the same way we see—stuff we thought we were past a generation ago, we should’ve been past a generation ago. It’s popping up in Fergusen and Atlanta and Oakland and Baltimore and Cleveland. And things are not going away. So, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s good news, but I think the white male is unfortunately alive and well, and it takes a particularly anxious and damaged white male to really fully embrace the—how problematic that makes it for the white male. And maybe that’s already way more about that question than I would have liked to say.” He trailed off to more laughter, nervous or otherwise.
It’s interesting, considering all the internet rage against Franzen and his sexual politics, that he chose to respond to the “white” part of the question while sidestepping “masculinity,” and limited his focus to editors, not other writers.
Bradley Spinelli (@13_Spinelli) is the author of “Killing Williamsburg” and the producer of “#AnnieHall.”