My friend A. invited me to see Jonathan Franzen give a lecture last night. A lovely glass of pinot at a wine bar beforehand lubricated the evening, and the theater was packed. Jonathan Franzen is a writer whose work I both admire and find puzzling. I read The Corrections years ago and page-turned it (I’m coining a new verb, “to page-turn,” as in, to devour a book or read it very quickly. What do you think?). At the same time, I didn’t really like any of the characters–they were funny, sad, complex, and brilliantly done, but also icky–and that left me feeling hollow afterwards. I thought Freedom was much more successful, because I page-turned it but also felt connected, emotionally, to the characters. In particular, I liked one named Walter, who is painted as a wacky and extreme environmentalist (he stoops to murder–there’s a teaser!). I don’t always broadcast my desperation about the state of our planet, but I’m a bit like Walter: I get sort of crazy and extreme about saving threatened species (sharks was my last project). So in part because of Walter’s humanness, I thought Freedom was a better novel.
In person, Franzen was a bit like his novels, which is to say he started out kind of stiff, brilliant and entertaining but also, well, hard to connect to emotionally, and then all of a sudden he warmed up and became very human. His talk was definitely craft-based, and I felt for the non-writers in the audience. But I wished I’d brought my notebook so I could take notes. Some points I remember: “Your greatest loyalty has to be to yourself and your writing” and “don’t be arrogant: your friends and family are not sitting around worrying what you think of them all the time” (on the subject of whether you might alienate, say, your brother, if you write a character who too closely resembles him–stop worrying, says Franzen). He also had some very interesting things to say about using autobiography as a jumping-off point for fiction. This was of particular interest to me since I’m working on a short story based on real-life events (and there happens to be a character who might just be based heavily on my own older brother).
I used to go see literary events all the time. In grad school I went to two readings a week; a year or two later, I got to go free to all the Literary Arts events taking place in Portland, Oregon. I’m lucky to have seen some great writers read and lecture over the years. But lately, because I have a little one, I don’t get to nearly as many events. So last night was a real treat. Thank you, A.!
One last thing: Franzen mentioned, twice, a novel called The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead. I’m adding it to my summer reading list.
Happy reading, everyone,