Tag Archives: jonathan franzen

Little Fires Everywhere

 

“Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way…Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago, when we were in Nebraska. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow…People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”

— Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

On the heels of her hugely successful debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, the second literary effort from Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) is called Little Fires Everywhere, but could very well be titled “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (if not for Mr. Eggers) or simply “Trainwreck Central” (if only that title wouldn’t cause so much confusion among train enthusiasts). Call it beautiful, astounding, revelatory, captivating – just don’t call it late for the fireworks. And that’s because there are plenty of them in this rich tapestry of voices and shared histories.

Through Little Fires Everywhere, we are witness to an author who, with a practiced deftness beyond her years, delves into the intimate pasts of so many men and women, boys and girls, to bring about a cavalcade of experiences that are somehow, in some way far past the reader’s imagination, connected.

This novel reminded me so much of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in all of the good ways – excellent character development, an intriguing plot, a window into the human condition – but with a tighter ending than what some would call Mr. Franzen’s opus.

Now this is ironic, for me at least, because of who Ms. Ng’s publisher has chosen to be the frontline supporter for Little Fires Everywhere: Jodi Picoult. There’s Ms. Picoult’s name splashed across all editions of the novel! And why not? Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of something like 254 novels on…you guessed it! The New York Times bestseller list.

But within the publishing world, she’s also known as one of two women, along with fellow bestselling author Jennifer Weiner, who stood up to the alleged “literary establishment’s shoddy treatment of commercial writers” in the wake of “Freedomgate.” Jason Pinter wrote an article about this, “Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner Speak Out on Franzen Feud,” in which he interviewed both women.

Apparently, Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner got caught in the crossfire after Franzen published Freedom, landed himself on the cover of Time magazine, and had the Times drooling all over him and everything Midwest or Minnesotan.

Ms. Weiner summed up her point quite nicely by stating in the above interview:

“I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

I won’t concern myself with this curfuffle/kerfuffle – or whatever it is – but I will say that Little Fires Everywhere is most definitely Literature, prose fiction, or whatever the France label you want to put on it to make it sound more part of la noblesse or the literati.

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Franzen: ‘Nough Said

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Franzen’s ‘Oh, shitfacker’ look. ‘I have to answer this turdball’s question without suffering from road rage? Shoot me in the fact right now, but mind the hair.’

“Reading Jonathan Franzen on form is like watching a baseball star toss a ball, knowing that behind the casual gesture is a virtuoso talent and 10,000 hours of practice.” 

– Emma Brockes (@emmabrockes), The Guardian

When I say Jonathan Franzen’s name, I feel like the douchebag from the Viagra ads being run on TV ad nauseam these days. (You know the one where the bald, tone-deaf fashionista dude is waiting for his prescription when he says, “No, no, no, Jean-Luc! I said Viagra!” Then he turns around and goes, “Just saying the name Viagra gets me off. Vi~agra,” he continues in a pseudo-Spanish accent, attempting to imitate a…matador? Who knows. Then the freak-a-zoid goes, “VIAGRA! Viagra for every man, woman and child. Viva Viagra!”)

Anywho, that’s how I feel when saying Franzen’s name out loud. Without the sick, twisted parts, that is. There’s something refreshing about a writer that openly takes on Michiko Kakutani, feels ashamed about his breakthrough/mass coming-out-party novel, uses big words and actually knows what they means, has 9 of 11 road rage signs positively identified after a recent refresher driving test, and abhors social media to the point he feels sorry for young writers today who have to spend more time [INSERT STUPID VERB HERE]-ing than writing creatively.

I was going to make this a Quote of the Day post originally, but realized after reading a great article in The Guardian titled “Jonathan Franzen interview: ‘There is no way to make myself not male’” that I’d throw in a whole bunch of quotes because it’s like every time Franzen opens his mouth some mysterious treasure emerges that makes me like him a little bit more.

Here are a few choice bits from this particular  interview, which Ms. Brockes nailed if only because she got so many great sound bites in one sitting:

ON SOCIAL MEDIA

“[I]t feels like a protection racket. Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations…Why would I want to feed that machine?”

ON WRITING

“[W]riting becomes more autobiographical, the less it hews to actual lived experience. The text takes on meaning when you start to depart from experience. Because then it starts to tap into the writer’s nature.”

ON HIS NOVEL THE CORRECTIONS

“I thought I would write for a small audience. And had put all the stuff that was really shameful to me… it’s hard to conceive of now, that I was ashamed of writing a book, deeply ashamed, cripplingly ashamed of writing a book that turned on a mother’s wish to have the family together for Christmas.”

ON BEING LABELLED SEXIST

“I’m not a sexist. I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male.”

ON BLOWBACK FOR DISSING OPRAH

“It was a tragic misunderstanding. I blame myself, because I said things that were stupid. And hurt a number of people…I also blame Oprah [for the misunderstanding of his invite to be on her show] because, from our very first conversation, it was clear we were not speaking the same language. I didn’t scream when she called me. I said, ‘Oh, hey.’ And was trying to talk like a media professional to a media professional. And she didn’t know what to do with that.”

ON THE YOUNGER GENERATION

“They [the younger generation] seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me. And part of what journalism is for me is spending time with people who I dislike as a class. But I became very fond of them, and what it did was it cured me of my anger at young people.”

ON TECHNOLOGY AND THE EAST GERMAN STASI

“Technology itself is the Stasi. Technology is the genie out of the bottle. And the Stasi didn’t actually need to do that much. It didn’t arrest that many people. Even with all its resources, it couldn’t do that many full operations. So it counted on people censoring themselves. And controlling their own behaviour for fear of the Stasi, without their needing to lift a finger.”

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The Power of Invisible

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In a powerful piece for The New York Times, noted writer and essayist Roger Rosenblatt recently penned a piece titled “The Invisible Forces That Make Writing Work.” Although ostensibly about the non-visible forces that shape writing, the overarching theme is one that transcends the craft and whose lessons can be applied to our everyday lives.

That’s why, I suppose, Mr. Rosenblatt begins his piece for the Book Review section by quoting @kathrynschulz:

“[W]e cannot see most of the things that rule our lives. Magnetic fields, electric currents, the force of gravity all work unseen, as do our interior arbiters of thoughts, inclinations, passions, psyches, tastes, moods, morals, and — if one believes in them — souls. The invisible world governs the visible like a hidden nation-state.”

As Mr. Rosenblatt goes on to point out, good fiction mirrors life in that there are signs that pop up at every step of our lives; often it is only in hindsight that we as readers (and human beings) pick up on this and make sense of these clues. And just as nature is defined by change, so too is writing an organic process.

Roger Rosenblatt specifically refers to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but I think many readers would be surprised how much even character names (let alone their relationships and personal growth arcs) change through the draft process. The same is also true of us as humans. We have an idea where we want to be in, say, a year, yet along the way there are so many competing forces at play that it’s inevitable we will end up somewhere else – and as someone else.

I think that’s part of the reason an author like Jonathan Franzen is so popular today. His stories aren’t particularly complex or radical in their approach. Still, Franzen manages to capture the complexities of personal growth and interpersonal relationships, especially in a book like Freedom.

Mr. Rosenblatt ends his own piece for the NYT by describing how he resurrects the invisible through his own writing, and it’s a poignant message:

“I am not unaware that my writing has improved in the nine years since our daughter’s death. My work is sharper now, and more careful. Happily would I trade all the books I’ve written in those nine years for one moment with Amy alive, but since that bargain is impossible, I write to fill the void her death created. And something else: Since I believe it was Amy’s death that led me to write more seriously, she lives with me invisible. I write to see her.”

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The Good Ol’ Social Media/Toxicity Conundrum

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Author of Another Place You’ve Never Been (the prequel to I Know This Much is True?), debut novelist Rebecca Kauffman posted a thought-provoking piece on publishersweekly.com called “Is Social Media Toxic to Writing?” Ms. Kauffman explores an issue that I wrangled with for years, ever since publishing my first book way back in the Stone Ages of 2003 (hard to believe, but in that year there were no such things as Facebook [2004], Twitter [2006], Tumblr [2007], or Instagram [2010]): Do I succumb to the pressure and become a social media who**? For many years, I resisted. Social media platforms were dumb, fake (goddamn phonies, to quote Holden C.), pointless, and a waste of the space-time continuum.

Then, in 2013, I published my first novel and reality hit me like a stinky fish from Tsukiji Market across the face –>  No social media presence = No chance of building a core audience = No chance of landing an agent = No chance of signing with a respectable publisher = No chance of turning my dream into a full-time career. So what did I do?

Well, I think the answer is obvious by now. Perhaps Nick Carraway would be disappointed in my decision to sell out, but then again maybe Jay Gatsby would have seen it like Carraway described in Fitzgerald’s classic novel:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.”

Although Ms. Kauffman looks at literary superhero Murakami Haruki as a case in point as to whether one should  spend hours on social media daily, exposing intimate parts of yourself and your inner-workings to the public (the Japanese literary superhero is notorious for giving very few interviews or public readings, let alone using social media on a regular basis), I think it’s dangerous to seek guidance in this area from a writer such as Murakami; for anyone who started a career in writing after 2004, the rules of engagement are forever changed.

I believe it was Jonathan Franzen, celebrated author of The Corrections and Freedom, who said it best when he expressed his sorrow for young writers trying to make a go of it in today’s publishing world because they are so pressured to spend time Tweeting and Facebooking, for example, that it takes time away from their craft. Franzen is especially irked by Twitter, telling all those who gathered for a talk of his at Tulane University in 2012:

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose. It’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

Ultimately, I think Ms. Kauffman would agree with Franzen when she ends her Publishers Weekly piece by stating:

“For me, the best way to work, the only way to work, really, is to create a space for myself in which the reader’s perception of me (as a person) does not exist. It’s only after I have squashed down all awareness of myself that I’m able to access another world and explore it freely and truthfully.”

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Consciously Uncoupling & Jonathan Franzen

Are you married? Do you have a child/children? Do you find yourself staying with your partner mostly (or completely) because of the kids?

The New York Times ran a thought-provoking article a few months ago that I recently came across. The piece by Cole Kazdin, titled “The Original Conscious Uncouplers,” is the story of two parents who stay together for the sake of the kids. Theirs is a relationship devoid of affection or romance, but replete with love and kindness for their offspring. When the kids are deemed old enough to handle the news, the parents announce they are getting divorced, and what was once a seemingly perfect family where nobody fought or raised their voice quickly becomes a war zone, one in which the mother and father can’t even stand being in the same room together.

I know I’m not alone when I say I can relate to this scenario all too well. For me, fewer things represent (and stain) my generation than divorced parents (twice over in my case), some of whom consciously uncoupled, some of whom just went to blows while the ink was still drying on the marriage license.

In literature, it’s easy to find extreme relationships written about very well. Whether it’s the epic love story of books like The Map of Love or The Count of Monte Cristo, or the doomed love of books like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, it’s harder to find novels that explore marriage from the ground level, so to speak, a more realistic approach.

Reading this NYT article reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The Corrections may have been his coming-out party – and a good book in its own right – but it was Freedom that earned Franzen a place among the pantheon of great American writers. And for good reason. Although it could very well have been 100 pages shorter, it’s one of the most realistic fictional accounts of family life in middle America I’ve ever read. In some ways, Franzen has carried the torch forward from Updike’s “Rabbit” series, which chronicled everyday life, including marriage, in a compelling and believable way like few others.

Fortunately, Cole Kazdin’s article has a happy ending after a tumultuous relationship finally rights itself, one in which love and kindness win out. I guess sometimes there really is a silver lining in real life.

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