Jonathan Franzen: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
>> In 2001, I witnessed a distinguished panel
of judges discuss the mastery of an excerpt
from Jonathan Franzen's novel, The Corrections,
and recommend its author for an NEA Fellowship not knowing or taking
into consideration who the author was.
Five years later, I had the pleasure of working with Jonathan
when he served as a judge for the NEA Fellowships.
So I can tell you a little bit about him.
His descriptions of Washington, D.C. notwithstanding, he is smart,
observant, and obviously dedicated to his craft.
I might also say he is nice but having finished his latest novel,
Freedom, I am too afraid to ever use that word again.
So I'm thinking at this point that you folks already know all that.
I'm thinking here is a man who doesn't need much
of an introduction these days.
You probably saw him on the cover of Time Magazine, the first author
to appear there in a decade.
I'm guessing you also read at least one of the rhapsodic reviews
of Freedom which, by now,
could probably fill more pages than the book itself.
Maybe you read that President Obama read Freedom on his vacation
or that Oprah let bygones be bygones and chose Freedom
as her first book group pick in over a year.
Maybe you are a fan of Jonathan from years ago
when The Corrections won the National Book Award
and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize
and the National Book Critics Circle award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Maybe you continued to read his work, his collections of essays.
His collection of essays, How to be Alone
or his memoirs, The Discomfort Zone.
Maybe you've read his pieces in The New Yorker or Harper's
and have opinions on his take on the contemporary literary landscape
or other's take on his take of the literary landscape or other's take
on how the landscape favors men or postmodernism or I don't know,
roaming house cats, not a shy group we novelists.
Maybe you saw Jonathan on The Simpsons and you're hoping like I am
that his career trajectory with all its excesses of fame leads him
to a special Christmas album or doing the cha-cha-cha
and dances with the stars.
[ Laughter ]
>> We can dream.
Or maybe you don't know Jonathan and you're just now learning
about Freedom, this new tour de force that he's written.
Well then, let me warn you.
In the words of one character, Freedom is a pain in the ass.
The book unleashes a bizarre pathological sequence of events
that befalls Americans like you and me and will make you unhappy.
But as the narrator tells us, there is a kind of happiness
in unhappiness if it's the right unhappiness.

We owe a great deal of thanks to Jonathan Franzen
for giving literature back its shining moment
for writing a big ambitious literary novel that has grabbed headlines
and makes us think and feel and opine
and reflect all while we're pondering what it means
to have the freedom to do so.
We owe him thanks for giving us the right kind of unhappiness.
Please join me in welcoming Jonathan Franzen.
[ Applause ]
[ Pause ]
>> Sorry, I almost took the bottle with Jane Smiley's name on it.
[ Laughter ]
>> They actually have the water bottles labeled
with the writer's names.
So it's nice to be here.
I'm told I'm not allowed to read to you from the book.
I'm speaking at a normal tone of voice.
I can't really do it much louder,
perhaps if that throbbing generator sort of noise would stop.
Anyway, I was asked to say something about my process.
And just by good fortune, I have a manuscript in my briefcase suitable
for perhaps 15 minutes of discussion of that, at which point I'll turn it
over to questions and answers.
Thank you all for coming out here.
It's not as hot as it could be.
[ Laughter ]
[ Pause ]
>> I gave the whole text of the speech at Seattle
but it lasted about 40 minutes.
So if I suddenly start speaking of you all here in Seattle,
it's because I haven't had time to revise the manuscript.

Okay, it seems to me something of a miracle that people still come
out to hear a writer speak instead of staying home
with their televisions and computers.
I'd spent a lot of time in the last few years sitting alone
in a darkened room, and so it's great to come here and see
so many people who care about books.
I'm gonna begin this talk by addressing four unwelcomed questions
that novelists are often asked in a course of an evening
like this, morning, sorry.
[ Laughter ]
>> I thought I have reached the last evening but there was one more.

These questions are apparently the price we have to pay
for the pleasure of appearing in public.
They are vexing and maddening not just because we're asked them
so often but also because with one exception they are difficult
to answer and therefore very much worth asking.
The first of these perennial questions is
who are your influences?
Sometimes the person asking this question merely wants some book
recommendations but all too often, the question seems
to be intended seriously.
And part of what's annoying about the question is
that it's always asked
in the present tense, who are my influences.
At this point in my life, I'm mostly influenced by my own past writing.
If I were still walking in the shadow of say E.M. Forster,
I would certainly be at pains to pretend I wasn't.
According to Mr. Harold Bloom whose very clever theory
of literary influence helped him make a career
of being a cannon maker, I wouldn't even be conscious to the degree
to which I was still laboring an E.M. Forster shadow.
Only Harold Bloom would be fully conscious of that.

Direct influence makes sense only with very young writers
who in the course of figuring out how
to write first try copying the styles and attitudes and methods
of their favorite authors.
I personally was very influenced at the age of 21 by C.S. Lewis,
Isaac Asimov, Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy, Herbert Marcuse,
P.G. Wodehouse, the Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer
and Theodor Adorno, and my then fiancee to name a few.
For a while in my early 20s, I put a lot of effort
into copying the sentence rhythms and comic dialogue of Don DeLillo.
I was also very taken with the strenuously vivid
and all-knowing prose of Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon.
And the plots of my first two novels were substantially borrowed
from two movies, The American Friend by Wim Wenders and Cutter's Way
by Ivan Passer, basically stole two plots whole cloth from those movies.
But to me, these various influences seem not much more meaningful
than the fact that when I was 15 my favorite music group was the
Moody Blues.
A writer has to start somewhere but where exactly he
or she starts is almost random.
It would be somewhat more meaningful to say
that I was influenced by Franz Kafka.
By this I mean, it was Kafka as taught
by the best literature professor I ever had who opened my eyes
to the greatness of what literature can do and who maybe want to try
to create some literature myself.
Kafka is wonderfully ambiguous rendering of the protagonist
of The Trial Josef K. who is once a sympathetic
and unjustly persecuted every man and a self-pitying criminal
who is willfully blind to his own guilt,
was my portal to the possibilities of fiction as a vehicle
of self-investigation as a method of engagement with the difficulties
and paradoxes of my own life.
Kafka teaches us how to love ourselves even
as we're being mercilessly hard on ourselves, how to remain humane
in the face of the most awful truths about ourselves.
It's not enough to love your characters and it's not enough
to be hard on your characters.
You always have to be trying to do both at the same time.
A literature in which the good are good and are rewarded
for their goodness is a literature of fantasy.
It's the province of the genre novel.
A literature that treats characters as objects within systems
of language and other formalisms is a literature of diversion.
It's the province of the art novel.
The books that dwell between these two extremes and recognize people
as they really are, the books whose characters are once sympathetic
subject and dubious objects are the ones capable of reaching
across cultures and generations
of forming collectively what I would call literature.
The bigger problem with the question about influences, however,
is that it seems to presuppose that young writers are lumps of soft clay
on which certain great writers
that are living have indelibly left their mark.
>> And what maddens the writer trying
to answer the question honestly is
that almost everything a writer has ever read leaves some kind of mark.
To list every writer I've learned something from would take me hours
and it would still not answer the question of why some books matter
to me so much more than other books.
Why even now, when I'm working I often think about war and peace
and The Great Gatsby and never think about Ulysses and To the Lighthouse.
How did it happen that I did not learn anything from Joyce
or Woolf even though they are both very strong writers?
I think the common understanding of influences whether Harald Bloomian
or more conventional is far too linear and one dimensional.
Art history with its progressive narrative of influences handed
down from generation to generation is a useful pedagogical tool
for organizing information, but it has very little to do
with the actual experience of being a fiction writer.
When I write, I don't feel like a craftsman influenced
by earlier craftsmen who were themselves influenced
by earlier craftsmen.
I feel like a member of a single large virtual community
in which I have dynamic relationships with other members
of the community, most of whom are no longer living.
As in any other community, I have my friends and I have my enemies.
I find my way to those corners of the community where I feel most
at home, most securely but also provocatively among my friends.
Once I've read enough books to have identified who they are and this is
where the young writer's process of active selection comes in,
the process of choosing whom to be influenced by.
I worked to advance our common interests.
By means of what I write and how I write, I fight for my friends
and I fight against my enemies.
I want more readers to appreciate the literally values,
the glory of 19th century Russian fiction.
I couldn't care less whether readers love James Joyce
and my work represents an active campaign
against the values I dislike: sentimentally, weak narrative,
overwrite prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny
and other parochialisms, sterile game playing, overt didacticism,
moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty,
informational fetishes, and so on.

Indeed much of what might be called actual influence is negative.
I don't wanna be like this writer or that writer.
The situation is never static of course.
Reading and writing fiction is a form of active social engagement,
of conversation, and competition.
It's a way of being and becoming.
Somehow at the right moment when I'm feeling particularly lost
and forlorn there's always a new friend to be made,
an old friend to distance myself from, an old enemy to be forgiven,
a new enemy to be identified.
Indeed and I'll say more about this later or perhaps not.
It's impossible for me-- it's im--
I don't know what I'm about to refer to.
It's coming later in the sentence.
Indeed it's impossible for me to write a new novel
without first finding new friends and enemies.
With strong motion, my new friends were Dostoevsky
and Flannery O'Connor.
My new enemies were the academic postmoderns.
To start writing The Corrections, I befriended Kenzaburo Oe, Paula Fox,
Halldor Laxness, and Jane Smiley who I just shook hands with.
With my new novel, I found new allies
in Stendhal, Tolstoy and Alice Munro.
For a while, Philip Roth was my new bitter enemy but lately,
unexpectedly he's become a friend as well.
I still campaign against American pastoral
but the fearless dionysiac ferocity of Sabbath's Theater
when I finally read it this last year became an inspiration.
It's been a long time since I felt as grateful to a writer as I did
when reading the scene in Sabbath's Theater
when Mickey Sabbath's best friend catches him
in the bathtub holding a picture of the friend's adolescent daughter
in a pair of her underpants, where the scene
in which Sabbath finds a paper coffee cup in the pocket
of his army jacket and decides to abase himself
by begging for money in the subway.
Roth may not wanna have me or any other living writer as a friend,
but I was happy at these moments to claim him as one of mine.
I'm happy to hold up the savage hilarity of Sabbath's Theater
as a correction and reproach of the sentimentality
of certain young American writers and critics who seem to believe
in defiance of Kafka that literature is about being nice.

The second perennial 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 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 8 o'clock
to see objectively the person who as he sits down in this 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.

Question number three is, I read an interview with an author who says
that at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters take over
and tell them what to do.
Does this happen to you too?
This question always raises my blood pressure.
Nobody ever answered it better than Nabokov did
in his Paris Review interview where he fingered E.M. Forster
as the source of the myth about a novelist's characters taking over
and claimed that unlike Forster who let his characters sail away
on their passage to India.
He himself worked his characters "like galley slaves."

When a writer makes a claim like Forster's,
the best case scenario is that he's mistaken.
More often unfortunately, I get the sense of a writer who seems
to be trying to aggrandize himself, trying to distance his own work
from the mechanistic plotting of genre novels.
The writer wants us to believe that unlike those hacks who can tell you
in advance how their books are gonna end.
His imagination is so powerful and his character is so real and vivid
that he has no control over them.
The best case here again is that it isn't true
because the notion presupposes a loss of authorial will
and abdication of intent.
The novelist's primary responsibility is to create meaning
and if you could somehow leave this job to your characters,
you would necessarily be avoiding it yourself and,
of course, it can never be avoided.
But let's assume for charity's sake that the writer who claims
to be the servant of his characters isn't simply trying
to flatter himself.
What might he actually mean?
He probably means that once a character has been fleshed
out enough to begin to form a coherent whole,
a kind of inevitability is set in motion.
He means specifically that the story he originally imagine
for a character often turns out not to follow from the liniments
of the character he's been able to create.
I may abstractly imagine a character who might intend to make a murderer
of his girlfriend and his children, but then discover
in the actual writing that the character I'm actually able
to make work on the page has reserves of compassion
or self-awareness that renders such an outcome unlikely or impossible.
The key phrase here is work on the page.
Everything under the sun is imaginable and proposable
in the abstract, but the writer is always limited by what he
or she is actually able to make work, to make plausible,
to make sympathetic, to make entertaining, to make compelling,
and above all, to make distinctive and original.
As Flannery O'Connor famously said,
"A fiction writer does whatever she can get away with
and nobody ever got away with much."
Once you actually start writing the book as opposed to planning
that the universe of conceivable human types and behaviors quickly
and dramatically shrinks to the microcosm of human possibilities
that you contain within yourself.
A character dies on the page if you can't hear his or her voice.
In a very limited sense, I suppose, this amounts to taking over
and telling you what the character will and won't do,
but the reason the character can't do something is that you can't.
The task then becomes to figure out what the character can do to try
to stretch the narrative as far as possible to be sure not
to overlook exciting potentialities
that you wouldn't necessarily have guessed you had inside you while
continuing to bend the narrative in the direction of the potentiality
that best accords with the meaning you're after.
I'll be rewriting that sentence which brings me
to perennial question number four.
Is your fiction autobiographical?
I'm suspicious of any novelist who would honestly answer no
to this question and yet, my strong temptation when I'm asked
that myself is to answer no.
Of the four perennial questions, this is the one
that always feels the most hostile.
Maybe I'm just projecting that hostility,
but I feel as if my powers of imagination are being challenged
as in this is a true work of fiction
or just a thinly disguised account of your own life.
And since there are only so many things that can happen to you
in your life, you're surely gonna use up all
of your autobiographical materials soon if indeed,
you haven't used it up already.
And so you probably won't be writing anymore good books, will you?
In fact, if your books are just thinly disguised autobiography,
maybe they weren't as interesting as we thought they were.
Because after all, what makes your life
so much more interesting than anybody else's.
It's not as interesting as Barack Obama's life, is it?
And also, for that matter, if your work is autobiographical,
why didn't you do the honest thing and write a nonfiction encounter.
Why dress it up in lies?
What kind of bad person are you telling us lies to try
to make your life seem more interesting and dramatic?

>> I hear all of these other questions in the question
and it has the effect of making the very word autobiographical feels
shameful to me.
My own strict understanding of an autobiographical novel is one
in which the main character closely resembles the author
and experiences many of the same scenes
that the author experienced in real life.
My impression is that Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms,
Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Saul Bellow's Augie March,
Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children,
and Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.
All of the masterpieces are substantially autobiographical
in this regard but most novels, interestingly, are not.
My own novels are not.
In 30 years, I don't think I've published more than 20 or 30 pages
of scenes drawn directly from real life scenes that I participated in.
I'd actually tried to write a lot of more pages than that,
but these scenes rarely seem to work in a novel.
They embarrass me or they don't seem interesting enough,
or most frequently, they don't seem quite relevant
to the story I'm trying to tell.
Late in The Corrections, there's a scene in which Denise Lambert,
who resembles me to the extent of being the youngest child in a family
of five, tries to teach her demented father how
to do some simple stretching exercises and then has to deal
with his having wet the bed.
That actually happened to me and I took a number
of the details straight from my life,
some of what Chip Lambert experiences when he's
with his father in the hospital also happened to me.
And I did write an entire short memoir, The Discomfort Zone
which consists almost entirely of scenes
that I experienced first hand, but that was nonfiction.
And so I ought to be able to answer the perennial autobiography question
with the resounding unashamed no or at least to answer
as my friend Elizabeth Robinson does.
"Yes, 17 percent, next question."

The problem is that in another sense,
my fiction is extremely autobiographical and moreover
that I consider my job as a writer to make it ever more so.
My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle,
a direct and total engagement
with the author's story of his or her own life.
This conception again I take from Kafka
who although he was never transformed into an insect
and although he never had a piece of food,
an apple from his family's table lodged in his flesh
and rotting there, devoted his whole life as a writer
to describing his personal struggle with his family, with women,
with moral law, with his unconscious, with his sense
of guilt, and with the modern world.
Kafka's work which grows out of the nighttime dream world
in Kafka's brain is more autobiographical
than any realistic retelling at his daytime experiences at the office
or with his family, or with a prostitute could have been.
What is fiction after all if not a kind of purposeful dreaming?
The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning
so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning.
And work like Kafka's which proceeds directly
from dream is therefore an exceptionally pure form
of autobiography.
There's a very important paradox here that I'd like to stress.
The greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer's work,
the smaller its superficial resemblance
to the writer's actual life.
The deeper the writer digs for meaning,
the more the random particulars
of the writer's life become impediments to deliberate dreaming.
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 their 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 them.
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 them,
one ready made meaningful narrative.
I'm obviously not talking here about writers of entertainments,
not P.G. Wodehouse or John le Carre, or Elmore Leonard,
the pleasure 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 literary 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 when there are
so many other fun and inexpensive 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 gonna 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 he could.
There's no way to move forward without changing yourself.
Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life,
which is to say your autobiography.
Thanks, I'll stop there.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.

[ Applause ]
>> So, I don't know how the Q&A works
but I'm happy to take questions.
Are there microphones or are they just shouted
out over the droning of the generator?
[ Inaudible Discussion ]
>>Oh, there are microphones.
>> Yes.
>> And the gentleman has stepped up to one.
>> I read a review of Freedom in the Atlantic by B.R. Myers, I believe.
And there was-- it was not a friendly review but there was a line
in it that said basically, if you're reading Freedom, you're missing
out on some sort of great literature that you're missing.
And so I wanted to see your opinion on like what is the requirement
of reading established great literature before you can read
something that is of literary value today, that make sense?
I hope that makes sense.
>> Well, my publishers would sincerely hope
that you did not read-- need
to read all the classics before buying a new book.
[ Laughter ]
[ Applause ]
>> So there is-- that's an interesting question.
I think that one of the things I learned in college,
I didn't learn much about literature until I took a German class.
One of the things that I did valuably learn was that sometimes
when Emily Dickinson says A, she means the opposite of A. So that is
to say those poems are not actually--
you can't just read through it and say, "A."
You actually have to read very carefully and figure
out where she is actually saying what she means
and where she is saying the opposite of what she means,
which is to say you learn things like irony and ambiguity.
And those are very frightening things for a reader, a young reader,
because especially when you're young you want to know what the text means
and you want it and you resent the text
if it doesn't tell you exactly what it means.
And you also, at a young age, want moral life to be simple.
You want it to-- you want the good to be good and you want the bad
to be bad, and you want to be able to sit in a good position and say,
"that's bad" and feel if you're reading a book,
that the author is on your side.
And interestingly, interestingly, it's almost the definition
of classic literature that it refuses to allow the reader
to occupy that comfortable moral position.
And it takes you into these realms where the responsibility
for figuring out what's being--
what for taking meaning from text is significantly the readers.
And these are very valuable skills.
They're skills that the lead reviewer
for the New York Times has not yet acquired in 30 years of being--
[ Laughter ]
>> But, and so I think it's a disaster.
It would be a disaster if people stopped learning how
to read really good books from the past when they get
to high school and college.
Because it's almost an introduction to a way of being a grownup rather
than having a kind of adolescent black and white view of the world.
>> And you can't just get so much.
You get connected to the mind of somebody who is writing 200 or 300
or 400 years ago and it's actually very hard
to do that in any other way.
So three cheers for reading old books but you know,
I don't think you have to read the entire Harvard Classics series
in order to read a contemporary book.
Yes, they're all-- everyone is lining up with this microphone.
This is the preferred hot mic.
[ Laughter ]
>> The most common criticism that I've read in the reviews
of Freedom is the comment--
>> I thought the reviews were good.
[ Laughter ]
[ Applause ]
>> But no, I'm not reading them so this is interesting.
>> They were overwhelmingly good and being in the middle
of the book rightfully so.
But this point I found repeated and I think it has some merit and I'd
like you to comment on it.
And that is that Patty's [phonetic] voice is not a unique one,
that it seems quite coincidentally to be very similar to the voice
of the author and that she is not obviously,
you know, Jonathan Franzen.
She is entirely different person.
And this comment was repeated most recently in Ruth Franklin's review
in The New Republic, and if you wanna say anything
if you have read that review.
>> I don't read these.
>> Okay. But then about that comment there, I'd appreciate
if you'd make some comment about that.
Thank you.
[ Laughter ]
>> I was not unaware that Patty wrote awfully well
for an ex-basketball playing B student at a large state university.
[ Laughter ]
>> With no formal training in writing.
[ Laughter ]
>> There is-- there is a certain--
there is a convention with first person.
That's essentially a first person narrative in third person.
That is it's being presented as the document of an actual--
produced by an actual-- by the character herself.
And you know, there is-- what are the chances
that a pedophile named Humbert Humbert would happen to write
as well as Vladimir Nabokov.
[ Laughter ]
>> It's really kind of like, wow, there are two Russian immigrates
who happened to have like the best relationship to the page
of practically anyone who's ever written.
And you know, you could say the same thing about Nick Carraway.
He writes awfully well.
So to that extent, I mean I think the measure is whether you enjoy
reading the thing and if that's what is being seized
on as a common complaint,
I'm actually very gratified 'cause I'm not too upset
about it wherever you went.
I would be happy-- I mean, you know, it's nice to give
for critics something to complain about in a way.
[ Laughter ]
>> Yes. Do we have to go?
I thought it was 11:25.
11:05? The whole thing was half an hour?
>> Yeah.
>> That's not what my schedule says.
[ Laughter ]
>> My schedule is completely misleading.
I thought we had until 11:25.
Really, truly, somebody else wants the stage now?
[ Laughter ]
>> So sorry, I've gotta run.
[ Applause ]
>> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress.
Visit us at