Jonathan Franzen: On Page-Turners and Big Ideas
Wyatt Mason in Conversation with the Author of Purity
This past Saturday, Literary Hub attended a conversation between literary critic Wyatt Mason and the writer Jonathan Franzen, hosted by Greenlight Bookstore. To begin, Franzen read three passages from Purity while balanced on one foot. He opted to ignore his publicist’s suggestion (an “East German chapter that I’m very proud of, and that the publicist at FSG—Jeff Seroy, who’s here tonight—has urged me to read from, but I will not”). Instead, Franzen read one of his “little love poems on things and places and people I like—I love,” a passage about birding. In his words, “with Herculean forbearance, I do not talk about birds until page 535,” and with the same forbearance, he did not read this passage until time was almost up.
A transcribed, and slightly edited, version of the evening’s discussion follows.
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Wyatt Mason: Thank you for that wonderful reading. I always find that when you hear a writer read, it changes the way you read it yourself. There’s a sound when you’re reading in these sentences that actually doesn’t sound like your prose, quite, but sounds in a way that teaches you—or it teaches me—how to read it. One of the things often overlooked in your prose is the humor of it. There’s a lightness and a surprise that the sentences are loaded with, which detonates often and which is a very great delight. In other words, what I’m saying is: your books are often really funny.
Jonathan Franzen: Thank you.
Mason: The Discomfort Zone being one of those books that people don’t particularly acknowledge as being as painfully humorous as I think it is.
Franzen: There was a major New York City critic who didn’t seem to get that it was a funny book.
Mason: I’ve heard, yeah. I’m going to read you two sentences from The Corrections, and they are from right in the middle. No context supplied. “There was another world below—this was the problem. Another world below that had volume but no form.” You’re describing the ocean in that moment, and you’re describing what one of the characters experiences in the immensity of that surface. And yet how, also, there is a world below that was far vaster, that had volume but no form.
Franzen: He’s contrasting it to land, which is basically too much form.
Mason: Which he prefers, in part, because dry land he can actually hit.
Mason: You don’t sink into it and disappear. Although this is a metaphor about an ocean, or this is a description of an ocean that one can take as a metaphor, I think that this idea of there being another world below which had volume but no form is a way of talking about what you do so well with people.
Franzen: Thank you?
Mason: You’re welcome. There are lots of examples of this but I’m going to limit us to those that you gave this audience in your reading. I’m fascinated by how in the space of a paragraph, you can give us the depths of a person. Your way of thinking into people and paragraphs I find fascinating, and different from other experiences I’ve had with novelists who take on a similar ambition to reveal the depths of a person. We heard you read today a paragraph—the section, at the beginning, from Pip’s point-of-view, in which there’s this wonderful sentence: “The problem, as Pip saw it—the essence of the handicap she lived with; the presumable cause of her inability to be effective at anything—was that she loved her mother.” There’s such self-awareness that you grant to so many of your characters in the third person who we spy seeming to know their depths in a way which is… beyond me, as an individual in my days, to know my depths.
Franzen: I always write about readers. Sometimes I have to kind of have to go to contortionate lengths to make it plausible that a character reads books. And I do think that people who read a lot of books, maybe particularly a lot of fiction, tend to be somewhat better at being aware of what’s going on with them. It’s as if the act of reading gives you permission to think of yourself in those terms because you’ve perhaps read other characters who’ve been described in those terms.
So, yeah, it’s maybe implausible that at 23, 24—I think that back then when I was 23 or 24… no, that’s not true. Because I had brothers, and my parents were married to each other, so I didn’t actually have to deal with them all the time. I could run away and didn’t have to confront how chained I was to that person, but this is the main thread to Pip’s life. There is this single mother. She is it. Her mother has changed her identity; there is no other family. Her mother has no friends. Pip is it. And I think if you’re in that situation, you must have asked yourself by the time you’re 23, “How do I get out of this?” but also, “Why am I in this?” and I think it doesn’t take that terribly much thought to realize that, well, the problem is that I can’t go away from this person I seem to love.
But, yes, you are helping characters—and that’s the beauty of redirecting this thought to the third person, is, I’m narrating there. And I’m perhaps imputing a little more self-awareness and certainly greater articulateness to a character than they realistically possess.
Mason: You’ve been a big advocate through the years of the necessity of the novel to be in third person.
Franzen: Not the necessity.
Mason: Rule Four in “Rules for Writers” published in The Guardian, you say, always “write in the third person, unless–”
Franzen: Unless you’ve got a voice like Humbert Humbert or Nick Carraway’s.
Mason: Or a character who appears in this novel.
Franzen: Right, I finally broke my rule. But it’s 1/7 of one book, so it’s like 1/35 of my novelistic output.
Mason: And that makes it deeply significant.
Franzen: I’m not even going to force you to spell out what the question there is, I’ll just take it. I’ve been looking forward to talking to Wyatt, he’s a really, really smart guy.
Mason: Answer the question.
Franzen: Yes. The little duck feet are paddling madly beneath the surface while I serenely float along.
Mason: First person—you’ve avoided it, you found it. There’s a plot-related reason why you don’t need to talk.
Franzen: It is a document. Once I realized it was a document, I thought, “How can I make this work for the plot?” I had tried to write it simply as another section in third person, and it just, ah… word processors are able to do global replaces, and it’s a long section about a very intense, idealistic love relationship that eventually goes pretty heinously sour. If you’ve not been in a situation like that, if you’ve not had that kind of crazy, intense experience, it’s hard to take. And I thought it was absolutely impossible to take in third person.
Franzen: Because—it’s narrated by this guy Tom Aberant, and he is lacerating himself, he is lacerating the relationship, and eventually he even lacerates Anabel, who is the female character. The kind of laceration that needs to be happening, when you put it in the third person it just sounds like the author is a monster. And it had to be owned. The only way to do that kind of laceration was to have it owned by a first-person narrator. But I don’t think the voice is particularly distinctive, so I really did break my own rule. I think what’s distinctive about it is the brutality of the lacerations.
Mason: It makes me think of how you approached, in Freedom, Patty’s telling of her own story, which is first person delivered in the third person.
Mason: Was that always your plan—was there a sense that was the way to do it, or was that discovered as well?
Franzen: That seemed like it was the exact converse, because I actually tried re-writing some of the Patty stuff in first person, and it wasn’t ironic enough. She is a very angry person. Very, very angry at her parents for the way she was brought up, angry at her siblings. Just pretty angry. And actually with some justification, her parents kind of blew it. And so it’s written in this bitterly ironic style, and that seemed to require the third person. And also she’s a jock, and jocks are kind of accustomed to talking about themselves in the third person. “Bo Jackson is great at all three sports.” Bo Jackson was particularly famous for speaking of himself in third person.
Mason: This book, Purity, is, one would say, different from prior novels. It seems different in that its preoccupation—that driving the conversation that might unfold the ideas of the novel—seems much more pointed and acute. Your novels are always novels of ideas. The idea that the novel of ideas is somehow no longer a part of our lives, you refute, novel by novel. But in the first three novels, The Twenty-Seventh City might be a city no one would know, Strong Motion might be a concept someone has not heard of, The Corrections alludes to some correction that we might not have a sense of. But everybody’s heard what Freedom means and what Purity could stand for. And it seems like your desire to explore ideas is taking a slightly different set of forms in the way that your characters are coming forward. Walter and Andreas Wolf, in the last two books, a radical environmentalist activist and a radical, what you call, “leaker,” although that sounds not quite–
Franzen: Not quite. That doesn’t quite do Andreas justice.
Mason: I guess what I’m trying to ask you is, the way that you’re trying to use the novel form to engage with culture and to talk about ideas that actually continue to matter to us—plotting a big book is a complex thing, and plotting a conversation, or set of conversations, about ideas in a big book, seems like another set of complications that you’ve taken on. Tell me that I’m not describing what you’re trying to do differently, what you’re trying to achieve differently in this book?
Franzen: Well, those are several different questions. I was a good student in K-12, and I went to an elite college, so I’m not stupid, I liked ideas, especially when I found literary theory as a senior in college, but subsequently too. Maybe the first novel was a novel of ideas. But ever since then, I have not particularly gone out of my way to write… (that preface was not to praise my intelligence, but just to acknowledge that I’m not stupid).
Mason: I believe we can pass the motion that you’re not stupid.
Franzen: I have to say that, if you could sit on my shoulder while I was writing these books, you might be a little bit appalled by what a touchy-feely operator I am in putting these books together. It’s done very much by instinct. By story instinct and by character instinct. And, one of the reasons that I put that abstract word on the cover of these last two books is to kind of force myself to organize the choice of story, the choice of character, and the choice of situation around a concept.
Mason: So why then that, around a concept instead of an “idea,” if that word isn’t appealing to you?
Franzen: Because it’s not like I have some set of ideas going into the book. I had an idea, it occurred to me that radical idealists of any stripe tend to be obsessed with some kind of purity. That had come out of writing The Kraus Project, that had been my way of understanding Karl Kraus who was this satirist that I revered as a young person and kind of disliked when I went back to write a book about him. And he had these fanatical followers, and their obsession was with the purity of the German language, which was very different than the purity of the Nazi language, where you couldn’t call oranges oranges, you had to use the German roots and call them “apples from China,” apfelsine. Now people are back to orange which, Goethe used the word orange, but that was too French for the Nazis. Anyway, and there were other notions, of racial purity.
I actually did come in wanting to do a book that circled around that, but basically, you know, how did the book take the form it did? It took the form it did because I came up with a crazy idea for it. I had the notion that—well, I can’t really tell you what the notion was without giving too much away—but there’s Pip whose mother has changed her identity and won’t tell her who her father was. And the way that resolves is so preposterous that an enormous scaffolding of plot had to be put in place around it.
Mason: So the idea of this resolution is what helped you architect the means to it?
Franzen: Yes, and furthermore, there had to be additional structural elements to support the weight of that first-person narrative because the book is arguably a package for it. I still worry about that because I get such mixed responses to it. You know, I’ve been doing readings and have had people come up to me in signing lines and sort of thanked me for that. There was a young—not-that-young—guy who came up to me in Kansas City, and he was crying, and saying, “I’m so glad I’m not the only one,” something like that. So that’s sort of who I was writing for, but I had the feeling that people for whom everything has been sunshine and daisies in their romantic life might have a hard time with it, so I couldn’t just put it at the beginning, even though it is chronologically prior to almost everything else.
Mason: So did it occupy a different position in the novel originally?
Franzen: No, it was always like, let’s push this sucker to as far back in the book as we possibly can.
Mason: The idea being that people are invested by then and are not going to bail?
Mason: You mentioned earlier that you try to divide the male and female sections of the novel scrupulously, since there seems to be a reason to do that that’s inherent to human beings, but you didn’t read a part of the novel about Anabel.
Franzen: I was just going to read the scene of Tom in the woods with his wife Anabel.
Mason: Anabel is a fascinating character who we won’t explore tonight. We don’t always hear from everyone who is important to a story of yours. Not everybody’s point of view is always given. And I don’t know how to ask this question without essentially just asking it, but–
Franzen: Why don’t we hear from Anabel?
Mason: That would be the question that I’d be hesitating to ask.
Franzen: Well it’s a fair question because–
Mason: We hear a lot about her, particularly in Tom’s very strong tear-inducing narrative of this very difficult relationship that they shared.
Franzen: One could say you can’t hear from everybody. I got asked about Freedom, why didn’t we hear from Walter’s and Patty’s daughter? Well, because Patty took up too much space and there wasn’t room. And also the daughter seemed relatively well adjusted and therefore not so interesting to the novelist.
It never even occurred to me to have something form Anabel’s point of view because she’s such an extreme character. And she’s such an extreme idealist; she never loses that. I can’t connect with that. I can connect with the youthful idealism part, I can’t connect with the not-letting-go part.
Mason: So is it essentially imaginatively beyond you?
Franzen: Sort of yes. Maybe not imaginatively, but for me to be able to connect in the way that I want to connect–
Mason: What does that mean, to connect?
Franzen: Wanting to feel a certain kind of love and closeness with the character who’s going to be a point of view character. It doesn’t happen very often. It’s what most of the work on a novel consists of: trying to achieve that sense of love and closeness with a few characters. And maybe I didn’t trust myself not to write tendentiously about her. Some characters actually just work better as objects in other peoples’ lives. It’s true.
I know you want me to say more, but I’m not.
Mason: I’m going to go into something more prosaic, or I guess statistical, as we move into the Q&A.
Franzen: I know, our time is tragically brief. Although it’s seeming less tragic at this particular moment.
Mason: So here’s a mundane question. You said there wasn’t room.
Franzen: Wasn’t room, that’s right, there wasn’t room.
Mason: You have–
Frazen: All my books are the same length.
Mason: I have the numbers—I mean, it’s astonishing. Your last three books: 568 pages, 562, 563.
Franzen: I have a length.
Mason: How does that happen? You have a length: what does that mean as a storyteller who is five books in? Do you already know that your next book is going to be 566 pages?
Franzen: No, I don’t know the exact, and I was really fighting to get this one down to the same length as the others. I have a terror inflicting a too-thick book on people. It just seems impolite to demand that much of a reader’s time. So, 2666 is like—I wouldn’t do that. I’ve read and enjoyed War and Peace–
Mason: Multiple times, I’m sure.
Franzen: Multiple times, in fact, yes, as it happens. So it’s not like I’m against it in principle, it just doesn’t feel comfortable to me. But at the same time, several things have to happen in a book for me to be happy with it, and one of them is that the story really needs to be told from all sides, or as many sides as possible. And there has to be some length to allow for the feeling that time has passed. Even if it only took a week to read it, it still seems like a little while ago that you were reading those early chapters, and that’s something I wouldn’t be able to do with a short novel.
Mason: Which you often praise as a reader. Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter is your book club selection for the Wall Street Journal, and there are many short novels you love, but as their creator–
Mason: There will not be a short novel for you.
Franzen: Well, I kind of compile them all together into a longer unit, a kind of large economy size. And, so, apparently the critical point at which everything that I want the novel to do can be done without asking any more of the reader in terms of the time commitment that is humanly possible, that appears to be about 562 pages.
Mason: Ok, so I think that we can now turn to your questions, and Jonathan will select from all of your eager hands.
Franzen: Speak loudly, and be aware that other people have questions—you’re not going to do this, but someone might ask a five-minute question. Please don’t do that.
Audience member: I was just wondering, what do you hope at the end of a day a reader takes from one of your books? What kind of experience are you hoping that reader has?
Franzen: A good time. I had this crazy run-in with a questioner in Houston, last week, who was dismissing pretty much all of 19th-century literature, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as mere entertainment. And so when I say “good time,” I feel like I’m making myself out to be really low, or something. But, in fact, there are many kinds of a good time. One reason writing takes me so long is I try to design books that can be experienced by someone who purely wants a page turner and to know what happens, and maybe to get a little glimmer of what the issues were. But I also want to put things in that might make someone want to reread it, and develop motifs and extended metaphors and set up compare-and-contrasts between characters and situations, so people who have more literary tastes and have studied literature might also have a good time, have fun with some of the things I’ve put in there. But that is it.
Fiction is an experience—that’s what it should be, I think. Maybe that’s a better way to put it: I want the reader to have an experience. But there’s no takeaway. I’m not going to try and micromanage—I go to the Grand Canyon, you go to the Grand Canyon, I’m not going to tell you what the Grand Canyon meant to you. I’m just trying to create my little Grand Canyons. That sounded grandiose. That’s not how I meant it. Custer National Monument.
Mason: In the paper tomorrow, it will say “I, Jonathan Franzen, Create Grand Canyons.”
Audience member: Just a simple question, having read your books for many, many years: How do you process life on a daily basis? How are you inspired—are you someone who walks around with a Moleskine, and someone says something interesting and you scribble it down, or do you, kind of at the end of the day, take some time for reflection? Essentially, what is your ritual? How do you live, as a day-to-day artist?
Franzen: I started beating myself up as a 20-year-old when I went to Europe for not being the kind of aspiring writer who wrote things down in a notebook. And I’ve beaten myself up over that ever since. It contributes to this surrogate, growing sense I have of being an editor-writer. I’m obviously not; you all paid for a book to be here. It’s appalling, basically.
When I’m working well, which is not very often, but it happens for about a year when I have a book about ready to write—it’s all about packaging five or six hours in the morning when I can write, and I grab myself whatever else I need. In this case, because it was kind of a grueling book to write, included one more drink than I should have had almost every evening. And a whole lot of television, and gym, and tennis, and seeing friends—but not too late in the evening—because the only thing that matters is those five to six hours. But, because I didn’t keep a Moleskine, I don’t have a pile of Moleskines, which is also a plus. It’s sort of a sad image, me leafing through a Moleskine from 1970 looking for a good line of dialogue. Nooo. I don’t want to be that Peyton Manning. I’m the Peyton Manning with Direct TV or whatever. At the same time, I feel so alive in those five to six hours. They just go by like that, the workday goes by, and then, because I’m not burdened with Moleskines, anything that happens to me—like, I’ll be listening to the radio on the way home and that will just fold right in, I don’t have to write it down because I just heard it yesterday.
Audience member: I’m curious how much you think about future readers. Say, 50 years out.
Franzen: It’s hard for me to worry about readers more than 35 years in the future, because I don’t expect to be alive more than 35 more years, sorry to say. What I actually think about more is how it’s translated—there are Chinese editions of these books, oh my god, what are they going to do with the Volvo thing? But, I do think if a work sticks around for long enough, then there are eventually footnotes. If you go back and look at the Elizabethan writers, they were being totally topical. And yeah, we know we’re just not getting a lot of the topical humor. It’s of no concern to me, because I won’t be here, but if someone is still reading the book at a time when Volvo is a meaningless term, then maybe someone will do a footnote. Things start losing relevance almost before they’re published. When they cross over into Slovenian or Chinese, they’ve already taken a huge hit. And they take another hit as the years go by. So, I feel like I know someone wants to read these books now. And this is going to be fun, to throw in a reference to Bright Eyes or whatever, because I know right now people will have fun with that and they’ll know exactly what I mean about the people who go to Bright Eyes concerts. If people don’t get that 50 years from now, I don’t care.
[same] Audience member: I was curious about that point—is there anything you cut because you know it won’t wear well?
Franzen: I don’t want to write a book that’s a roman á clef, where a lot of the energy is deriving from those things. I want the energy to derive from meatier stuff, like complex characters and a genuinely dramatic situation. So, cutting? Seldom. It just doesn’t show up on the page in the first place.
Audience member: You talked about earlier that you wanted readers to walk away with a good time. There’s also a lot that deals with explicitly political situations. I’m thinking of, in The Corrections, the professor who dealt with literary theory. So, how do you balance really political ideas with the… orientation towards the world that you’re trying to take with your novels?
Franzen: My first two books, I was still so full of the lefty politics that I breathed in as a young person. I really actually thought I was doing something politically operative in those first two books, especially the first book. But I gave up on that because I started wondering, when I entered the dark wood of my mid-30s, I started wondering what made me so sure I was right in my politics. And I began to think that that’s one of the many questions that the novel should make one ask. Politics, generally nowadays, appear in the book in order to provoke a skeptical response. Once I put in a position like Walter’s—overpopulation, or something—I feel obliged to push back against it and to make out the best possible case against whatever position he’s taking, because I think the novel is superior. It’s epistemologically superior to any politics. The novel is bigger than politics, actually. Politics has a place, politics is a part of our lives, it’s going to be in the book; people are going to have a political opinion. And I don’t want to stand in their way if they want to, but that’s not what’s driving the book. In fact, almost to a fault, I feel obliged to complicate a political position. Perhaps, hugely to a fault, in my opinion. Even I will say that I’m able to do that.
Audience member: I don’t know if this is too book-specific. I was thinking about the relationship between Walter and his girlfriend, which seemed to me to be in a place where it could not go on and was regressing. And I was always wondering why did you kill his girlfriend in the car accident, or how the relationship would have evolved if the accident didn’t actually happen? That seemed to be a way out; there didn’t seem to be other options.
Franzen: We can now talk about this book; it’s five years old. If you haven’t read the book—sorry. I will answer your question, because there’s an interesting story behind in, interesting to me. I actually think they would have gone through a period of rough strife and come out the other side, because there was obviously something working there. That death was actually what the whole book was built to encase.
I can speak very freely of it now, because my Uncle Walter finally died a couple of years ago at the age of 97. He was my favorite uncle, uncle by marriage. He was married to my father’s sister, and they had one daughter who was killed in a car accident in West Virginia when she was 22. And it totally devastated them. And my aunt kind of went crazy and never stopped being crazy until she died, at which point I became very close to Walter. He told me all these things—including about his infidelities over the years, because my aunt was nuts, and he just couldn’t stand it. And he also told me the backstory of what was going on in their marriage at the time when my cousin made this crazy decision to drive all night in the rain through West Virginia on bad roads. No one ever really listened to him, and he was telling me this stuff that he could tell me because so many people were dead, including my mother, by that point. And I said, Walt, I will tell your story; one way or another, I will tell your story. Which he wanted to hear. He was a writer himself, sort of, he self-published books. He wanted the story of his life told, and he lived long enough to read the book and he got it. He got that this was a weird way of telling a story—I’m not giving away any of the details, really, but there were a lot of things in the book that came out of, that were completely transmuted but nonetheless my Uncle Walt’s story. So, it’s weird, because I get the criticism that the death scene is arbitrary and convenient, and yet, it was what I was writing toward, weirdly. Maybe that’s the sort of kill your darling kind of thing; I shouldn’t have done that, for that very reason, because it was something I was so committed to do.
Audience member: I have a question about sauerkraut. In one of your previous books, there’s a character who is a chef who is obsessed with sauerkraut. And I was just curious, what motivated this emphasis on sauerkraut?
Franzen: I do love sauerkraut. It was part of the traditional—my mother’s family is Eastern European, and still to this very day, I make country ribs and sauerkraut on Christmas Eve. It was part of the annual Christmas ritual, to have that dish, which my mother liked because it could be made in advance instead of cooked the last minute during the craziness of holidays. It was a Christmas food, and it’s kind of a Christmas book. Maybe, as far the significance goes, and also because I thought that sauerkraut should be a growth industry. And this was way back in 1999. I mean, now I’m sure you can get all those great, esoteric kinds of sauerkraut at any number of amazing Brooklyn restaurants. But at the time, it was sort of new, and I was trying to say, well what will be the next wave? What would get the New York Times to send a food reviewer down to Philadelphia? It might be those cool kinds of sauerkraut.
Audience member: Why the decade between The Corrections and Freedom?
Mason: It was nine years.
Franzen: Technically, it was only nine years. It felt like about 20, in terms of the impatience I felt to get that book written. I was doing other things. I probably spent a year bird watching, cumulatively, in those nine years. Because I was happy, and because I felt I didn’t have to work so hard. I was a really, really miserably hardworking person, all my life until The Corrections broke through. It was an event to take a day off. It wasn’t always writing, but—in Harlem, I built my studio there, and that was like six months of work, a couple days a week, because it was a raw space and I wanted a nice office to write The Corrections in. So, I was always working. And in a way, just to vacation—I took a lot of vacations because I had been killing myself until the age of 40. That’s actually the biggest reason, but also I had discovered how fun it was to do journalism, and I had also, surprisingly, found that there was a memoir to write. But mostly, it takes like five years to write a novel. So you take these side projects, and the year of bird watching, and it was five years. Four years of suffering with the book not going anywhere and then suddenly getting it. Honestly, I would rather keep on taking questions, but I worry sometimes that the pleasure is one sided. So, thank you all, and especially thank Wyatt, for coming out tonight, and I’ll see a lot of you when you come up to me.