I’ve always struggled with Jonathan Franzen. I do think he writes with a concision and insight rarely found in modern American writers. He writes the sort of novels you’re supposed to discuss at cocktail parties. They’re exceptionally well-written, incredibly readable and always leave me with a nasty taste in my mouth. Franzen is the next generation of Philip Roths and while I admire these men, from a distance and envy them their aptitude, I have to say that I found both The Corrections and Freedom very mean-spirited books with a scathingly brutal eye for humanity. I’m not by any means demanding that the novel be “nice.” I am, after all, a huge Updike fan, and fairly fond of both Bukowski and Nabokov. However, I do want to feel that under all the critique and ugly honesty, an author is still enamoured with the human being in all its blunt, eccentricity. Sometimes, I don’t feel any warmth, lurking behind the lines of Jonathan Franzen’s work.
All that to say, I was not terribly hopeful when my good friend, the fantastic poet, Emma Must, insisted that Franzen’s collection of essays and lectures, Farther Away, was an incredibly and essential read. I stand repentant. This is the kind of book you eek out in multiple sittings. It’s so good, I simply don’t want it end. It’s full of passion and wise insight and covers a myriad of topics from solitude to other authors, to bird watching and technology. I’ve already had about 15 really good conversations off the back of this book and have bought two other books, mentioned in Farther Away, both by writers I was previously unfamiliar with. I imagine it will prove to be the sort of book, which looking back later, I will realise connected me to other books and avenues of thought I’d never considered before.
In a week when I sat through several lectures and conversations about what writers should do, and found most of the advice offered staid and for the most part inapplicable to my own writing style, I found Franzen’s lecture “On Autobiographical Fiction” (2009) absolutely liberating. As I coerce myself back to the laptop and begin Roundabouts, my second novel, I am continually battling with self-doubt and the fear that the best writing in me has already been written. It both resonated with my fears and gave me a much-needed kick up the backside to be reminded by Jonathan Franzen that, (and here I quote directly from his lecture),
“As a writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have to dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what this means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your life. Which is to say: your autobiography.”
Go pick up a copy of this book, (though I advise skipping past the chapter on trapping small birds in Cyprus if you’re squeamish about eating feathers and bones, as I am). It might not change your opinion about Jonathan Franzen’s fiction but it will, most likely, make you want to read more books or write more books, or perhaps do both, simultaneously, and this could never be a bad thing.
Review of Farther Away (and Emma Must), coming soon at www.mybookishfriends.wordpress.com