So … You guys know I’m not a Franzen fanatic, but I feel compelled to share my thoughts on his recent interview at Scratch.
The consensus seems to be that it was a great back-and-forth, and I agree. Straightforward questions, frank answers. What an interview should be.
Here are my thoughts on the the highlights, starting with the stuff with which I agree and saving my only disagreement with Franzen for last.
Asked about the wisdom of huge book advances:
…when you’re spending half a million dollars on a hot first novel, well, that’s twenty-four $20,000 advances you’re not giving to twenty-four other people.
This is similar to what I said in 2010, not only in regard to publishers being less miserly with talent, but talent being less stingy with their agents. Lavishing heaps of money on selected authors might seem to make competitive sense if you’re afraid of losing her to a competitor, but the externalities of that decision undermine the work of dozens of other writers.
Asked about courage in the face of being disliked:
I don’t hold back what I really think about Twitter, what I really think about Amazon, what I really think about John Updike. Earlier in my life I might have been afraid to say some of these things, because I didn’t want to be disliked. But it’s like, boy, is that horse already out of that barn for me.
This is a good thing. We need more honesty in public life. But, why wait until it’s safe? Anyone can weather a storm who’s already bought a storm shelter.
Also… “horse out of the barn” is a cliché. Just noting this for later. My storm shelter analogy, by the way, was invented spontaneously. Moving on…
Asked about the furor over his perceived misogyny:
I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history.
The purpose of shaming is to silence the Other and make them invisible, to make them disappear. Enough with the prejudiced, foregone conclusion that men are always the villains when women don’t get what they expect from life.
Asked about writer self-promotion:
I have a particular animus to that social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that. Hard to see Kafka tweeting, hard to see Charlotte Bronte self-promoting. If we don’t maintain other avenues for establishing a literary reputation and finding some kind of readership—things like traditional publishers and reviewing, where the writer could just be a writer and not have to wear the flak hat, the salesman hat, the editor hat, the publisher hat—if we don’t maintain those, then we hand over the literary world to the personality types who are, I would say, less suited for the kind of work I care about.
Yes, Yes, and a third time Yes! I’m tempted to make this quote into a website banner.
Self-promotion is not only not the best way to promote, it’s demonstrably the worst way to get good writers to the fore, and (as Franzen points out) it’s not a character trait that some of our best writers
enjoy suffer from.
As Patton Oswalt put it: marketing and self-promotion are not “talents,” they are “compulsions.”
Asked about the internet’s effect on journalism:
The Silicon Valley visionaries say, “Oh, well, we’ll crowdsource it.” Yeah, give me a fucking break. As if you therefore don’t need people whose job it is to have a beat, to work contacts for years, to understand a subject thoroughly, to put things in context, to be able to distinguish meaningful information from nonsense… it’s just not doable.
Amen to that. This “wisdom of crowds” delusion has caused enough trouble.
HERE’S THE RUB
I saved the exception for last, not only because I wanted to make sure readers understood that I’m not simply a Franzen basher, but also because this quote is central to Franzen’s hipsterish idea of literary quality and therefore deserves special attention.
Asked to define a “serious” novel:
Read the first five pages. Count clichés. If you find one, the buzzer goes off: it’s not a serious novel. A serious novelist notices clichés and eliminates them.
This is, itself, a cliché. Not all clichés are figures of speech. Some are conceptual. For example, Dr. Beverly Hofstadter’s observation that “an adult Jewish male living with his mother is so common it borders on sociological cliché.”
Or, for a better example: the silly hipster prejudice that anything being mainstreamed implies something detrimental about its inherent value. This is cliché to the core in both its existence and expression.
There’s something self-veiling about this anti-cliché pretense. Franzen’s clichéd standard of excellence is one that has convinced itself that it’s the opposite of cliché. That’s a cognitively ridiculous place to be.
Moreover, it’s part of a popular, yet inhuman and unscientific way of thinking about fiction. Animosity to cliché is a sort of fetish: at best a side-show trick like Gadbsy, at worst a caste-system shibboleth for the NYC literati in-group. The latter purpose is, unfortunately, what Franzen seems to be advocating.
Mostover, the obsessive avoidance of cliché phrases is demonstrably not a measure of good writing, or even “serious” writing except insofar as the writer is seriously obsessed with avoiding cliché phrases. Shakespeare used clichés, yet for years we suffered a pervasive delusion about his genius being evident in his linguistic originality, a fallacy which has recently been debunked with the help of electronic database surveys of period documents.
It really shouldn’t have taken a computer to shatter this pious fraud, however: any decent encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s phraseology is chock full of Elizabethan cliché and slang, recognized as such.
Sure, you could dodge the obvious conclusion about the Bard’s phrases by pleading dialogue, but we didn’t lie to ourselves for years about the originality of Shakespeare’s vocabulary for nothing. There’s a fantasy out there, more unoriginal than any Snorrified elf-and-dragon adventure, that fancy words mean fancy literature. It’s a silly, ignorant myth perpetuated by silly, ignorant people whose elitist self-image is buttressed by peering down their noses at others as being sillier and more ignorant than themselves.
So, here’s my counterpoint: A truly serious novelist is serious about novel-length storytelling, not phrase-length novelty. If you’re serious about originality of phrase, write epigrams.
In the search for quality writing, cliché avoidance is a “work harder not smarter” false idol. Writing that’s smothered in cliché is bad, sure, but writing smothered in anything is bad. Including writing that’s smothered in hipster pretense.
ONE LAST THING
“Buzzer goes off” is also a cliché. A seriously anti-cliché novelist should have noticed and eliminated that.
I have long been of the opinion that the way someone speaks spontaneously during interviews is more indicative of their authentic, innate thought process than how they write. This is why the only reason I edit (beyond correcting factual, spelling, grammatical, and typographical errors) is to aid communication: to bridge two thought processes, not to disguise my own thought process behind a mask of “literariness,” “seriousness,” and artificial originality.
If the old saw fully communicates what I mean to say, I don’t reinvent the wheel (cliché!) just to convince myself or others that I’m clever enough to deserve a seat at the Cool Kids’ table.
To quote someone I genuinely respect: “Yeah, give me a fucking break.”