Franzen on autobiographical fiction
Posted: 20 July 2012 09:03 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Jonathan Franzen addresses four unpleasant questions that novelists often get asked in a lecture included in his collection of essays entitled Farther Away. He mentions Elmore Leonard when he answers Question No. 4: Is your fiction autobiographical?

...And this is why writing good fiction is almost never easy. The point at which fiction seems to become easy for a writer—and I’ll let everyone supply his or her own examples of this—is usually the point at which it’s no longer necessary to read that writer. There’s a truism, at least in the United States, that every person has one novel in him. In other words, one autobiographical novel. For people who write more than one, the truism can probably be amended to say: every person has one easy-to-write novel in him, one ready-made meaningful narrative. I’m obviously not talking here about writers of entertainments, not P. G. Wodehouse or Elmore Leonard, the pleasure of whose books is not diminished by their similarity to one another; we read them, indeed, for the reliable comforts of their familiar worlds. I’m talking about more complicated work, and it’s a prejudice of mine that literature cannot be a mere performance: that unless the writer is personally at risk—unless the book has been, in some way, for the writer, an adventure into the unknown; unless the writer has set himself or herself a personal problem not easily solved; unless the finished book represents the surmounting of some great resistance—it’s not worth reading. Or, for the writer, in my opinion, worth writing.

This seems to me all the more true in an age where there are so many other fun and inexpensie things a reader can do besides picking up a novel. As a writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have to dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what this means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your life. Which is to say: your autobiography.

Here’s his answer to Question No. 2. The final sentence bears a resemblance to Mr. Leonard’s hands-off approach of getting the writer out of the writing. The second question is: What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?

This must seem, to the people who ask it, like the safest and politest of questions. I suspect that it’s the question people ask a writer when they can’t think of anything else to ask. And yet to me it’s the most disturbingly personal and invasive of questions. It forces me to picture myself sitting down at my computer every morning at eight o’clock: to see objectively the person who, as he sits down at his computer in the morning, wants only to be a pure, invisible subjectivity. When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.


Posted: 19 August 2012 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It’s contradictory - and almost funny - that Franzen says literature has to have some great idea the writer choses and somehow surmounts with his writing, then contradicts himself, talking about a writer getting out of the way of himself. Not sure if I read any of his works (did a few months in county jail for contempt a few years ago and took the time - well, HAD the time - to read a few of the more “literary” works donated by the well-meaning folks want to rehabilitate the criminal mind). The writers I read that seem to chose “big ideas” and also plot out their works are the most transparent to recognize. Updike is the worst at this.

I think the implication here by Franzen is also that serious works have to be about something as well as not be repetitive. I disagree to some extent, specially when it comes to Mr. L’s works.

It is true his novels seem to have the same “types” or “stock” of characters (so did Shakespeare’s plays), and mostly are examinations of the criminal mind (as also are some of Shakespeare’s works, only the criminal mind of Royals). But the fact is that Mr. L really exposes we all have a bit of the criminal mind ourselves, just act on those impulses in different ways, or not act on them for different reasons (either knowing better or lack of guts, effort, or fear), and then justifying our actions regardless. None of his works explore this idea better than, arguably, Pagan Babies.

But there are also themes (Franzen’s supposed big ideas) to be found in Mr. L’s novels. The true depth and limitations of friendship. Trust. Expectations of ourselves and others and how those perceptions are contradicted. I noticed this rereading a few books of his in jail and then last year after downloading e-book versions. I was actually considering explicating a few….

I think true “literature” are works that survive the ages, can be enjoyed by all even if not all the layers are seen, understood by all. Accessibility is also a key greatness as well. Much of literature today is confined to liberal ideas and themes controlled by a liberal literati. If its not about humanism or the failure of individualism, then it’s shunted aside and smothered. Mr. L has at least one side of those covered, if not both, and I suspect that’s why many literati writers admit reading him, besides the fact he uses a sweet set of grammatical tools they recognize and respect.