I should say at the outset that I like Jonathan Franzen as a writer. I would not go so far as to say that I am his fan; however I have enjoyed reading his last two novels. I have reviewed Freedom, Franzen’s most recent novel, on this blog. I liked it; it was a well written, witty, and wise read that, while not exactly a page turner, still kept me very interested till the end. Freedom, without doubt, was one of the better novels I read last year. A few years ago I read Corrections, which, I believe, won a prestigious literary award in the USA. I remember enjoying Corrections, although (probably) not as much as I enjoyed Freedom. It was hilarious in parts; also thought-provoking; but there were also sections where the novel dragged a bit. That’s how I remember it.
Corrections and Freedom are the only two novels of Franzen that I have read and, on that basis, I’d say that he is a very good writer whose next novel I’d have no hesitation in buying, no matter what the critics say. (Doesn’t always work. Last year I bought Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil despite the roasting it had received, because I had loved his 2002 Booker winner Life of Pi. Beatrice and Virgil was a disaster from the beginning to end. The book was about as interesting as—to paraphrase Clive James—a conversation between two not very bright drunks.)
I have also heard Franzen talk (and, as seems the norm these days, take questions from the audience) on two occasions. The second time was when he was promoting Freedom. I can’t remember the first occasion, but I think he was, at that time, promoting a non-fiction (possibly a memoir) he had written between Corrections and Freedom. In both the programmes Franzen came across (to me) as an intense, brooding anal retentive, who took his vocation oh so seriously, and believed that because he wrote books it put him on a higher plane than hoi polli. (He is probably not the only writer who thinks about himself and his vocation in this manner. Although I have never heard him speak, I have read interviews of V.S. Naipaul, my most favourite writer, which suggest (to me) that Sir Vidia holds himself in very high regard and also holds the view that by dint of producing however many novels and works of non-fiction he has written, he is the possessor of the noblest profession in the world. Was it Nietzsche who said that we all need our illusions to sustain us, without which we would simply collapse (as indeed he did and spent the last twenty years of his life in a catatonic state in a mental asylum)?)
In the literary programme where he was promoting Freedom, Franzen first read out an excerpt from the novel in a monotonous voice, his body language suggesting that he was not at ease doing it. He then took questions from the audience. He gave a good impression of being thoroughly irritated by almost every question that was asked. He nevertheless answered each question in detail. In great detail; in more detail than was necessary; in too much f**king detail, if you ask me; in a tone that suggested he was dictating an important letter; and there was the ever-so-slight air—so I felt—of condescension. (Again, I have no problem about it. I should wager that on the whole there are more mediocre than intelligent people in the world, and, from my (admittedly limited) contacts with intelligent people I have come to the conclusion that intelligent people—because they are removed from the Gaussian mean—find it difficult to adjust to the level of stupid people.) There was one particular question—I can’t now remember what it was—which Franzen answered so sarcastically that the interviewer (a pallid looking man with a slight paunch and an air of an underperforming salesman) felt obliged to intervene and stop Franzen just as he (Franzen) was warming up to whatever it was that he was animadverting.
I thought of all this after I came across an article by Franzen in the Guardian. It is a long article, the first half of which Franzen devotes to questions that irk him the most when he goes on a literary tours (presumably promoting his novels) or is a speaker at literary festivals.
It would appear that most questions—questions that are most commonly posed, at any rate (based on my limited experience), in such programmes—raise Franzen’s hackles.
One of the questions, according to this article, which annoys Franzen is: who are Franzen’s influences? Franzen says he is annoyed by this question because it is apparently frequently asked in the present tense. He has obviously reached, having written two critically acclaimed novels, the level where he feels insulted by the notion that people might think he is still influenced by dead (or living) authors. They might have influenced him once, when his mother was still wiping his nose, but now? When he has written Corrections and Freedom, and has been on the cover of Time? The thought of it! He then reiterates the point (as if it was not already impressed) by saying that if he were still influenced by, say, E.M. Forster, he would certainly pretend that he wasn’t. Why, you might wonder. I think that is because Franzen now considers himself in the league of, for want of a better phrase, ‘established authors’, and considers any admittance of ongoing influences on his writing as injurious to his reputation. (As an aside, why on earth would anyone want to be influenced by E.M. Forster, an overrated British novelist, who wrote boring novels in the first decades of the twentieth century and would have sunk into well earned obscurity had the Merchant-Ivory film company not made two of his unreadable novels into semi-tolerable films? I have read A Room with A View and Howard’s End, both tiresome in the extreme. Reading a railway timetable would be more pleasurable than ploughing through the crap Forster writes.) I have to say that I am with Franzen on this one. I have never really understood the point of this question, unless, as Franzen points out, it is—depending on the ‘seniority’ of the writer—in the past tense. What difference does it make to you if the writer was influenced by X or Y? Are you going to start reading X (or Y) just because Franzen (or any other suitably famous writer) was influenced by him (or her)?
Onward to the second question that annoys Franzen. What time of the day he works, and what does he write on? He correctly guesses that people ask this question when they probably can’t think of anything else to ask. Yet this knowledge does not stop him from considering the question ‘disturbingly personal and invasive’. The question—Franzen would have you believe—triggers horrendous images of –what?—him sitting down at his computer and writing at eight o’clock in the morning. I can see why Franzen considers such questions pointless (because they are; what difference does it make to you whether writer wrote his novel in his kitchen or in the garden shade or in the loo?) But for the life of me I do not understand what is there in this harmless question to get so disturbed about? Maybe there is something in the adage that artists have different temperaments from those of you and I (provided you are not a talented artist like Franzen). If you are tempted to call Franzen neurotic I’d urge you not to do that and consider, instead, the phrase ‘delicate sensibilities’.
Question number three: Do Franzen’s characters ‘take over’, ‘speak to him’ etcetera when he writes his fiction? This question sends Franzen’s blood pressure soaring through the outer stratosphere. If you want to increase the chances of Franzen getting an instant coronary ask him this question, and it will induce in him in a state just this side of apoplexy. Why? Franzen explains. Firstly he traces what he calls the myth of characters taking over to E.M. Forster. (Is there no limit to this man’s crimes? Firstly he wrote novels reading which is akin to adding Mogadon to a pint of lager –he was also a ‘nasty homosexual who knew nothing about India’, according to an interview I remember reading, of—you have guessed it!—V.S. Naipaul—he also started a myth which, hundred years after he (Forster) wrote his crap novels, runs the grave risk of sending a talented American writer to an early grave by raising his (the talented writer’s) blood pressure to dangerous levels.) There then follows—in the Franzen article in the Guardian—a long speculation as to what might writers mean when they claim that once they start writing their novels, they become slaves to their characters. Franzen’s guesses are: the writers are mistaken; they are flattering themselves; or the eventual novel turns out to be different from what the writers had planned when they (the writers) began writing them (novels). Franzen would like to declare categorically, so that there is no ambiguity left on this very important matter and posterity does not make a mistake about his writing process and he does not even inadvertently contribute to the wholly unfounded myth started by a ‘nasty homosexual’, that his (Franzen’s) characters do not take over or start ‘talking’ when he writes his novels. He is in complete control. OK?
We now come to the final question that poses risks to Franzen’s circulatory system. How much of his fiction is autobiographical? Franzen answers this question in a curious fashion. He says that he would be immediately suspicious of any novelist who would honestly answer no to this question. (This raises, in my mind, a philosophical question: how does one judge someone’s honesty? And if you conclude—by whatever means available to you—that the person is answering the question honestly, why would you be suspicious? You would be suspicious if you are not wholly convinced of the honesty.) Yet his own answer to this question is no. Franzen does not clarify—at least not directly— whether this is an honest answer or a dishonest answer. (However, going by what he himself says, he ought to be suspicious of himself, as his answer is no. But then, if you study his first sentence, he would become suspicious only if the no is an honest answer. If it is a dishonest answer, presumably Franzen would not become suspicious (although, as we have seen, that would not be the response of most people who—I would put it to you—would become suspicious if they suspect dishonesty.) There then follows (again) a long explanation of what Franzen means when he says his fiction is not autobiographical, which, to quote from a Harry Belafonte song, makes the matters clear as mud.
It seems to me that Franzen is being disingenuous. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to promote his career by going on promotion tours; he wants to promote his novels by accepting invitations of literary programmes (and, in all probabilities, charging fees for his appearances); but he does not want people in the audience—who have parted with their cash which line Franzen’s pockets, well part of it anyway—to ask him questions which he thinks are stupid. It is like a criminal lawyer (by that I mean a lawyer who practises criminal law) saying he does not want to mingle with sleezeballs (and the clients).
Here is what Franzen could do. He ccould do what V.S. Naipaul (I think) does. Naipaul does not go on book promotion tours at all (although that could at least partly be because Sir Vidia is going deaf—so I have read somewhere—which would make it impossible for the interviewer to make himself (or herself) heard unless he (or she) sat in Sir Vidia’s lap and used a megaphone).
Franzen could follow Naipaul’s example (or of the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon, Franzen’s compatriot, who does not go on any promotion tours or attends literary programmes). Franzen could do that; but then he would be deprived of the opportunity to write a whining article in the Guardian.