A Minor Caveat on Serious Writing and Jonathan Franzen

WritingRecently, I made a statement about editing, and someone asked if it contradicted a complaint I had earlier lodged against Jonathan Franzen. Specifically, I said that concern for nitpicky, sentence-by-sentence details is a cornerstone of “serious writing.”

The reader felt that I savaged John Franzen for a similar sentiment. (You have to skip down to the second half of that review to see it.) Here’s the Franzen quote:

Count clichés. If you find one, the buzzer goes off: it’s not a serious novel. A serious novelist notices clichés and eliminates them.

I’ll be the first to admit that Franzen’s criterion fits neatly inside the set I defined for serious writing. Where I differ is in fetishizing that one item, avoidance of cliché, as necessary or sufficient to define the whole effort of serious writing. Avoiding clichés where they distract from the writing is important, but cautious deployment of cliché can also be a part of serious writing. The point is being aware of what you’re doing. And why.

Unfortunately, in the same review I offered this short-sighted counterpoint to Franzen:

A truly serious novelist is serious about novel-length storytelling, not phrase-length novelty.

Let me back-pedal (cliché!) from that a bit. Serious writing is serious about the whole and the parts. But, it’s not about an obsessive addiction to novelty that demonizes the cliché regardless of how the cliché is used.

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