We go long stretches without hearing anything from him at all. Then something happens that kicks up his name again, and we all chatter about him. But as it turns out, he really doesn’t care.
We’re talking about Jonathan Franzen, of course. The most recent dust up came by way of LitHub, bringing us Franzen’s “10 Rules for Novelists” originally published in 2010 by The Guardian along with other, similar lists by the likes of Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and PD James. Those others weren’t trending on Twitter on Thursday though. Franzen’s was.
While some of Franzen’s 10 are unremarkable, and a few might be considered somewhat controversial (like #5: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” Though as bestselling novelist Susan Wiggs (Between You and Me, Map of the Heart) pointed out on Twitter, “Dude. You just described the LIBRARY.”) But of them all, though, it is number eight that kicked up the most heat:
It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
In a New York Times Magazine article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner published back in June, Franzen pretty much explained #8:
Franzen thinks that there’s no way for a writer to do good work — to write something that can be called “consuming and extraordinarily moving” — without putting a fence around yourself so that you can control the input you encounter. So that you could have a thought that isn’t subject to pushback all the time from anyone who has ever met you or heard of you or expressed interest in hearing from you. Without allowing yourself to think for a minute.
Love him or hate him, Brodesser-Akner’s profile of Franzen is worth reading. She manages to capture the slight goofiness along with the documented brilliance of this writer. More importantly, maybe, for his public persona, she documents the stand-apart aspects of his personality that seem to have made all this public poking possible.
And why couldn’t people hear him about the social effects this would have? “The internet is all about destroying the elite, destroying the gatekeepers,” he said. “The people know best. You take that to its conclusion, and you get Donald Trump. What do those Washington insiders know? What does the elite know? What do papers like The New York Times know? Listen, the people know what’s right.” He threw up his hands.
So he decided to withdraw from it all. After publicity for “The Corrections” ended, he decided he would no longer read about himself — not reviews, not think pieces, not stories, and then, as they came, not status updates and not tweets. He didn’t want to hear reaction to his work. He didn’t want to see the myriad ways he was being misunderstood. He didn’t want to know what the hashtags were
So he withdrew. And for some writers, that would have been the end of it. Not however (as just demonstrated by all that trending over an eight-year-old piece of writing) for Franzen.
It might be all right for a novelist to be a recluse. Thomas Pynchon was just awarded a $100,000 prize that no one was sure he would show up to receive (he didn’t) — but something about Franzen’s approach riled. Was it that he was writing nonfiction, too? That he didn’t appear to have ever participated in the parts of life that he bemoaned? Was it the sense that he was criticizing but couldn’t be criticized back? He didn’t want to know. He still doesn’t want to know.
According to the NYT article, Franzen is currently at work on the novel he is suggesting will be his last. Meanwhile, a book of his collected essays, The End of the End of the Earth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was published earlier this week. ◊