Franzen at ALOUD in LA

September 17, 2010


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.