Franzen at ALOUD in LA

Like myself and half the writers in LA, 600 people paid their hard earned money to see Jonathan Franzen at the Japan/America Theater last night, where he was hosted by the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD series.

I came away so inspired, I am still thinking about it.

Now, I have not yet read Freedom and I have to say, I encountered The Corrections at a bad time in my life, as my twenty-year marriage was breaking up. Not the time for a funny but vicious family novel.

And as an Oprah author, I’d cringed to watch his clumsy handling of that unexpected turn of events–the sudden embrace of an outsized media figure and her vast audience, something I’m sure he’d never even imagined and was ill-equipped to field, having been used to operating within insular literary circles, where he’d long been defending serious literature against the depredations of mass culture. To even imagine that someone like Franzen could have gracefully made the transition from insider-cult-figure to national-media prominence is to misunderstand the elacticity of the human personality.

Seeing him last night made that doubly clear.

Asked to read for ten minutes, he read for 20, saying that the novel (not just his novel, but ‘the novel’) is really not made for cutting up into such small bits. That the art form is a living whole that cannot be so easily sampled–part of his entire project, which is to create novels that a) cannot be so easily sliced and diced and summed up and ‘performed’; and b) that the slowing down demanded by the consumption of a novel is inherently one of its great merits, the way we have to stop flitting about and concentrate in order to partake of this art form, how it changes US to have this particular conversation.

The selection he read was funny and mean… his tools for understanding where we are in America in our time are the satirist’s… and whether this is my favorite kind of writing (it isn’t) or not, the suppleness of the prose and the precision won my admiration.

Then afterwards, he settled down to an interesting, awkward conversation with Meghan Daum, author (Life would be Perfect if I Lived in That House) and columnist with the LA Times.

I would not have wanted to change places with her. He is a difficult interviewee–though I don’t think he means to be, he just very clearly struggles to speak with precision, authenticity and honesty, and is embarrassed and uncomfortable with anything that would tempt another writer to cozy up to an audience or be a “good boy” for the interviewer–the very trait that caused his Oprah troubles to begin with.

We are not used to seeing difficult, authentic, often awkwardly honest writers on the national stage. We expect prominent writers to be performing seals to a certain degree, dealing with interviews and audiences with the confidence and aplomb of pitchmen selling miracle floorwaxes at the County Fair. So to see someone struggling to be honest and authentic, rather than charming and appealing, is a lot like catching an appearance of Hailey’s Comet.

That’s the first thing that impressed me, and helped me better understand the difficulties someone like this can get into on the public stage.

The second thing that impressed me was his refusal to comment on any of the controversy surrounding the publication of Freedom. Whew. Would have eaten up all the time and been boring as shit.

Instead of getting caught up discussing how women are reviewed in America (not well), he spoke about Alice Munro, a favorite writer, an extraordinary woman who has very little recognition outside of literary circles. Guess he’s learned a bit of judo in the last nine years–takes it where HE wants to go, instead of letting the wave pound him.

Also loved his refusal in general to let the natter of the internet rule his life, as it does so many of us–really giving me a lot of thought today… A friend told me that after David Foster Wallace, a very close Franzen friend, died, Franzen poured super glue into his internet port and went back and rewrote Freedom in a concerted burst of energy.

So how do you do your research, if you can’t just go online? Meghan asked. He just writes down all his questions as he’s writing, and when he goes home (clearly has alternative writing space), he looks it up all at once.

About Freedom vis a vis The Corrections, he said that the Corrections was a more autobiographical book, and that he’d been unable to get to the hard ‘unwritable things’– had to be more cartoony, a broader and simpler approach. That’s what happens when you make it too autobiographical. With Freedom, he felt he was better equipped to get to those unwritable things, because he could make up the characters to hold them.

Meghan commented on his incredible vocabulary and asked him if he uses a thesaurus. I loved that he said yes he was, but it wasn’t that his vocabulary was so exotic–“I’ve never used the word nacreous“–it was just that he loves precision. And you could hear it in his speech as well as in his writing–such balm after ‘kind ofs’ and ‘sort ofs’ and ‘that so-and-so thing’ and ‘well like you know’ we hear all the time.

I LOVE that he’s a thesaurus guy. (Any of you who have worked with me, and have had to go out and get a Roget’s International Thesaurus with the finger tabs, knows how happy that made me. My thesaurus has been so well-used it’s bound in duct-tape.) Evidently Nicholson Baker (Vox, Double Fold) was devastated when he learned that John Updike used a thesaurus. but as Franzen pointed out, all of us have the experience of knowing there’s a perfect word for what you want to express and not being able to think of it. So instead of throwing in any word, better to use a book to find the perfect word. Also, we writers are simply lovers of words. How wonderful, he said, to open a book and have all the breeds of dogs in there. YES.

How did he write Freedom? He wrote for five years, piling up the pages–and then saw which characters he kept coming back to, and fashioned a narrative from those, throwing the rest out.

Talking about the satiric nature of Freedom, he said, “Satire is making fun of things you feel superior to.” Maybe this is some of the trouble I had with the Corrections, and probably will have with Freedom–that sense that the author feels superior to the people and phenomena he writes about–very different from the work of say, TC Boyle… who makes you laugh and yet you don’t feel that superiority bleeding through. It’s a different existential standpoint. This is where I get skeptical when I hear Franzen compared to Tolstoy. In his ambition maybe, and his cultural critique… but in his essential attitude towards his creations? We’ll see.

I was fascinated by his reply to Meghan’s asking him to characterize ‘his generation’ (Franzen was born in 1959). At first he said it was very hard, as he could easily characterize other people’s generations, but “we’re just us.” But on second thought, he said, “I was born just in the last minutes of the Baby Boom. I felt like I was seeing the doors shutting right behind me. Things closing down. The openness, the freedoms of the boomers. The year after me in high school, in college–people started thinking about going to business school.” I’ve had that sense myself, of just squeaking in somehow, just as things are ending, or even that it was just ending as we got there. Wonder if that’s a common feeling, or if we are in that ‘tail-end’ generation.

But I especially liked him talking about the novel as a form: “I want to write a book that argues for the form itself.” Had to just sit with that one. And I continue to sit with it. What a mandate, what a challenge. he continued: “My ambition is to write an unfilmable novel.” The LA Times book blogger Carolyn Kellogg asked him to elaborate on ‘the novel making the case for the novel’ in the Q and A period (told you half the writers in LA were there): ‘What makes a novel say ‘fuck you, Hollywood?’ He replied that in the novel “you get to turn the story around constantly. In an omniscient third-person scene, you can get the entire perspective from any number of people. There are more surprises when you live through the time of the artwork. [i.e. the days it takes to live through the reading of a novel], the novel’s capacity to delay the introduction of a new point of view is unlike that of any other art.”

True to his diffidence to accommodate the audience, he refused to discuss the themes of the book: “I pretty radically decline to to talk about the themes of the novel or to interpret it.” (Takes balls to say that in front of an audience of 600–and to see how difficult it was for him to say it really made me admire his choices, his refusing to play footsie, when it would have been the ingratiating thing to do. How he squirmed in the Q and A section… as he tried to not to bullshit but really respond in an honest and authentic and not always loveable way. I really appreciated that, where I once might not have.

And of course, I loved him advocating for the Novel as the superlative art form, the grand project of the Novel, talking about kind of attention novel-reading demands, as opposed to the “busy-ness of the buzzing and tweeting. It’s a way you can keep yourself from sitting still. Novel reading keeps you present to yourself–I don’t mean like yoga, but being present to yourself with ego intact. You’re allowed to be a person reacting to the work of another person.” That one to one sustained encounter.

Funny–the program I use to detach myself from the internet is called… Freedom.

Wishing you all good reading.

27 Responses to “Franzen at ALOUD in LA”

  1. Amelia Ponomarova Says:

    Janet, have you read Owen Barfield’s The History of English Words? As a Thesaurus-lover, I think you’d like it.

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

  2. Tina DeMarco Says:

    Since there is so much controversy over this novel, I don’t think he could do anything but not answer. To do so would have brought the entire evening down to a gossip session. He’s too professional for that kind of thing.

    Quick question for JF….If he’s so entranced with novels, why does he praise Alice Munro, his favorite author, the queen of short fiction? I’d like to hear his answer since he is so articulate and passionate on the subject.

    …just askin’ is all…

    • Interesting re Alice Munro…. I think as a writer, he has his own project, but he appreciates the work of Munro and thinks she has not received the recognition she deserves because she is a woman.

    • miranda flood Says:

      i know why he champions alice monroe — for the same reason he championed Paula fox, they are aging women who pose no threat to his vision of what literature is. Franzen is an adequately talented sexist asshole who didn’t even bother to give his heroine her own voice — check out the “autobiography” of his main character in Freedom, who sounds exactly like . . . the omniscient boy-wonder. Franzen is not the author of the great american novel, not for anyone but the circle-jerk critics.

  3. Janet—I loved this posting. It IS strange. We expect writers to perform like seals, yet writing is such a private, sometimes lonely job. Often writers get into their own heads, creating a world that only they can conjure, and their writing insulates them from the rest of the world…if they want it to.

    I know this is a upper-elementary/middle school book, but since you are lover of words, you might enjoy the book Frindle by Andrew Clements (in case you have not already read it). It is a quick read, and has a clever plot. It focuses on a young boy who challenges his teacher about how a word becomes a word, trying to show her up, and it mushrooms into something much larger than he ever imagined.

  4. Alisa Wood Says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, thoughtful insights about Franzen. I just bought the book Freedom today, can’t wait to dig in, Wow.

  5. Chelo Diaz-Ludden Says:

    I wish I would have been there. It’s time for authentic voices that cannot be contained in a soundbite/twitter to be heard, voices that encourage us to do the deeper thinking and feeling that comes when we read their novels.

  6. Mark Fitch Says:

    I wish I had been there, sounds enchanting. A novel defending the form, Brilliant1 I am going to have to read him.
    Thank you again for your keen obsevation must have been quite interesting.

  7. Janet—I agree when it comes to Alice Munro. Just because we immerse ourselves in a certain genre/format doesn’t mean we cannot revel in and appreciate others.

  8. Janelle Brown Says:

    I’m kicking myself for missing this. Thanks for the thoughtful recap.

  9. Oh Janet, thank you for this meditative and incisive take on the evening. Wonderful to see you. Going to reread your post, and repost on FB. So articulate and balanced. As for Munro, for me, almost every one of her stories strangely packs in as much as a novel. In distilled form. I find her remarkable and was so happy to hear Franzen celebrate her. Just to have someone who is clearly the real deal on the national stage is quite exciting. Fantastic having your insights as a fellow Oprah Book Club winner. Thank you again!

  10. A thoughtful and revealing post, not just in regards to Jonathan Franzen, but your own changing impression of him. (Even Oprah is giving him another chance.) He clearly isn’t comfortable with celebrity and all the publicity expected of writers now. But it sounds like he’s using his time in the spotlight to talk about more than his novel, to have meaningful discussion about THE novel and its significance in today’s culture.

    I loved that he poured super glue in his internet port. And until I read your reference to the program Freedom, I had no idea there is actually a program that locks you away from the internet! Does it really work? For a certain time period? If so, I HAVE to get it. I went on retreat for a month with no internet connection and I got so much writing done.

    • miranda flood Says:

      yeah, he clearly took you in. there has never been a more calculating author. how about his Time cover, when he took Lev Grossman bird watching and said he considered adopting a child to cure writer’s block and that he was galvanized by his best friend’s — david foster wallace — suicide because the writer who kills himself one-ups his competition so he knew h had to write something really good. Franzen is without integrity. there is no way he poured superglue in his port — he is a master manipulater of media and he has taken you all in. hey, women, wake the fuck up.

  11. Janet- so wanted to attend. Stuck on film festival panel spouting redundant wanna-be-filmmaker dreck. Your post made me feel like I was there. And I thank you for that. Will now follow your blog now that I know it is in the blogosphere. BTW. Am close friend of Rachel Resnick – was one of the editors on Love Junkie. And I thought you wrote a nice (and so true) jacket blurb for her. What are you working on these days? Think you’re a brilliant writer and am looking forward to your forth-coming opus.


  12. Mary Curran-Hackett Says:

    Glad I read your insights. I admit I was quick to judge him during the Oprah debacle. And then when I read the article in TIME a couple of weeks ago, I remained unmoved. I was all bitter and piss, “Well, easy for him to go off to his writing sanctuary and super glue his port. Must be nice.”

    As a writer who writes in the real world–with kids coming in and out, dinner on the stove, the phone ringing, and demands of other jobs/bosses/coworkers, I couldn’t help but feel like he’s still a bit out of touch with this world–the world he seems so adept at writing about. While his writing is brilliant, turns of phrase unlike any other, and insights into the judgmental, scathing suburban mind spot on, I still can’t help but feel he doesn’t have a clue what it’s really, really like. He can pretend to, at least, in the omniscent, moveable point of view, but there is still something inauthentic about his voice. And while satiric, biting and dark, which I admit, I love, I can’t help but contrast him to Tom Rachman–author of The Imperfectionists. For all Rachman’s wit and satire, I still had the feeling the entire time I was reading: “This guy really gets it. He really knows what’s going on inside these characters.”

    I’ve been reading FREEDOM, and so far, I hear Franzen in the background–awkward, unsure, struggling to let the words come out, albeit with cutting precision. I am waiting for him to disappear and the characters come screaming out from behind him. I am waiting. And I am going to try to stay open to the possibilty that I will be moved this time around.

    I also find his ‘riffs,’ what I like to call a narrator’s perogative to just keep describing when a cutting sentence will do, make a lot more sense now–knowing what he feels about the novel. I admit I find him a bit self-indulgent sometimes–forgetting the reader, and writing for writing’s (or his own) sake. But, now, I will forgive him for that and enjoy it a bit more, instead of trying to edit while I read.

    Thanks for giving me such a different picture of him, Janet. Maybe it will change the way I continue to read him.


    • miranda flood Says:

      a bit self-indulgent sometimes??? come on, wake up. forget fitch, she’s asleep at the wheel, she’s putty in Franzen’s hands — WAKE UP JANET — franzen is the Pet rock of literature, and i know not many of you are old enough to know what a pet rock is.

  13. Janet–Great post, thanks for writing this up. I’ve shared on Facebook. Most interesting was Franzen’s need to isolate himself from the internet for writing. I attended a talk at the Hammer with two non-fiction writers on the subject of what the internet was doing to our brains and attention spans. One author, an older woman, who published a book on the subject said that she was currently writing her next book in a room filled with non-connected computers at the New York Public Library, while her internet connected computer was safe at home. Would love to know more about your Freedom program. Best–Nancy

  14. This almost feels like a translation. I really love it.

  15. Thanks so much for posting this, Janet. Sounds like a fascinating interview, and now you’ve given me a lot to think about, too.

    I struggle most with the promotional aspects of publishing, now more expected than ever. This is especially true in the teen market where I have the privilege of feeling like I can make a difference by speaking passionately about reading and writing at a time when many of them are turning away from both in favor of Facebook and Youtube.

    And yet… And yet I’m reclusive and introverted and anti-social and sometimes just pissed off at the expectations that never seemed part of the deal. What moves me is the process of crafting a story. The other stuff can be distracting and disheartening and on my worst days, soul-sucking.

    I haven’t gotten up the courage yet to say, “Expectations be damned. Leave me alone to write.”

    But this interview makes me feel like it might be possible to get there.


  16. Erika Schickel Says:

    Thank you for such an insightful and vivid account of an evening I wish I could have attended. Hats off to Meghan Daum for being so deft with what what sounds like a difficult interview. Thank you also, Janet, for always being so generous toward your fellow authors and writers in general. Your open heart infuses your writing with warmth and credibility.

    I wish I could be as generous as you with Franzen. I heard he spotted 35 typos in the UK edition of his book, and has ordered all unsold stock pulped and all bookstores to turn in their copies. I enjoyed “The Corrections” and I have “Freedom” on my nightstand, but overall I think Franzen’s diva act hurts publishing – which hurts us all.

    • Yeah, that was a real stinkeroo. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely… Reminds me of a scene in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror where the mother (a proofreader) wakes up and and races to her job at a publishing house in 1930’s Russia, terrified she’s missed a typo in Stalin’s name.

      Yet A____ thought it made perfect sense. “Thirty-five typos!” He pointed out that copyediting and proofreading’s getting unconscionably sloppy, and unless publishers are afraid something like this might happen, why bother?

      I don’t know if it hurts publishing or not–a book scandal? A BOOK scandal? You mean people are talking about BOOKS and AUTHORS and not Lindsay Lohan or Lady Gaga? Hey, bring it on.

      • Erika Schickel Says:

        I agree that any book talk is welcome and needed. But Franzen’s monkeyshines hurts publishing because his is a HUGE book and all those small, independent bookstores had to give back their copies and forfeit the payday. I think the print run was somewhere at 80,000 copies, so a big loss, even for a big publisher.

        Thirty-five typos is too much, yes, but also not that much for a 562 page book. All he had to do was tell them to fix it in the next print run, which no doubt was right around the corner. My honey’s book had an entire paragraph garbled and chunks missing in a pivotal scene and he didn’t pitch a fit. Just gave Knopf a head’s up and asked them to fix it in the next printing. Graciousness pays big returns.

  17. Enjoyable post. I read Freedom a couple weeks ago, and you should buy it if you haven’t already. Great book.

  18. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I love both Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen. Your post was a very enlightening read.

  19. Janet,

    I tried to read Corrections when it first came out and could not stand it. I was going to give Freedom a try ( I did struggle through the first chapter on Kindle), but was again unable to tolerate his writing. When TIME magazine heralded him as the next Twain or Faulkner, I fell ill again. They declared this to be the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL before it was even published. Really? But thank you for sharing the evening’s highlights. I always love your work!

  20. […] but I hadn’t known that Janet Fitch was a professor until I looked her up. After reading a blog post by her, the fact that she teaches fiction comes as no surprise, although when she says that […]

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