[Published on Meanjin.com.au, August 27 2011]
When it was announced that Edinburgh got Jennifer Egan while we got Jonathan Franzen, I have to admit I was a little miffed. Of course, they’re both hot property on the writers festival circuit – A Visit from the Goon Squad and Freedom were the international literary juggernauts of the past year, both authors hailed as the voice of the present moment. But I must also admit that my annoyance largely stemmed from my own shame surrounding the fact that I haven’t actually read Franzen’s work. I’ve picked up Freedom so many times, stared at its 500-and-something page count, and guiltily returned it to the shelf for a less weighty tome. After hearing his keynote on Thursday night, however, Freedom has been fast-tracked to the top of my towering ‘to read’ pile.
Given the topic of autobiographical fiction, one that he later described as “the most hostile”, Franzen structured his speech around the perennial (and thus hated) questions asked at writers’ festivals: Who are your influences? What time of day do you write? Do your characters ever take on a life of their own? And, of course, is your fiction autobiographical? It was a clever tactic, at once answering those questions that, let’s face it, continue to fascinate us as both readers and writers, while simultaneously giving Franzen recourse to tear them to bits.
The question of influences is one that he finds particularly redundant, only making sense when speaking of young writers who are still learning their craft. By this point in his career, Franzen says he is most influenced by his own past writing. Moreover, he says that there is something ineffable about the ways that writing will influence you – that he cannot articulate why he will fight for the 19th-century Russians yet has always remained indifferent to James Joyce. Everything a writer has ever read will leave a mark, he says, but this is perhaps as much about identifying the things you don’t like as those you do – for Franzen, sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, over didacticism, moral simplicity, and so forth. “A writer has to begin somewhere,” he says, “but where exactly he or she begins is almost random”.
Considering the defensive nature of Franzen’s preface, his answer to the question of whether his fiction is autobiographical was even more disarming – one of the most honest and generous that I have ever been privy to at such an event. He began by addressing his reticence surrounding this question – that he is always suspicious of people that answer in the negative, but that his natural instinct is to do so himself, mostly because it comes across as a thinly veiled criticism of one’s authenticity and powers of imagination. But while he claims to have written no more than 20 or 30 pages that were drawn from directly from life experience, Franzen says all great writing is autobiographical.
He described Kafka as the most autobiographical writer he has ever read. Kafka himself may never have turned into an insect, yet he devoted his whole life to exploring his own “personal struggle,” creating prose more autobiographical than the mundane details of his life ever could be. “What is fiction, after all,” asked Franzen, “but a kind of purposeful dreaming?“ Unless an author is excavating some fundamental truth about themselves, Franzen says a book is not worth reading and definitely not worth writing. Hence writing good fiction will almost never be easy. The author must become a different person in each book that he or she writes.
He then talked at length about the process of writing The Corrections, discussing the way that he himself had to become a different person in order to finish it. Started when his first marriage was disintegrating, Franzen spoke of the feelings of shame, guilt and depression that he had to overcome in order to tell this story. Loyalty had always been a characteristic he prided himself on, yet at some point he realised that he, as a writer, had a responsibility and loyalty to himself; that he had to overcome the shame he felt surrounding his own inexperience to become the writer that he needed to be.
Writers are often masters of obscuring as much as they can about themselves while maintaining the illusion of openness. Yet Franzen’s discussion of his craft was as much a discussion of his life, to the point that, for Franzen, the two seem to be inseparable. Perhaps the fact that he did not discuss the person he had to become to write Freedom, a novel that took him 10 years to complete, is the secret he’s keeping for himself.