Writer’s Desk: Don’t Move to New York…Yet

27thcitycvr.jpg

When he was starting out as a writer, Jonathan Franzen of St. Louis, Missouri (well, Webster Groves if we’re trying to be exact) figured New York was the kind of place that would demoralize and just eat him up. So he went to Somerville, Massachusetts, got an apartment for $300, and worked part-time. That’s when he wrote his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.

So now here’s what Franzen tells new writers:

Go to, like, northeastern Ohio, and write your first book. Go someplace cheap, and move to New York later.

Rent matters.

Nota Bene: Can Books Teach Empathy?

From Jessa Crispin in The Baffler:

Reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, I wondered, what the hell is it going to take? For decades we have had these types of critiques … And yet still we have critics like Jonathan Franzen speculating on whether Edith Wharton’s physical beauty (or lack of it, as is his assessment of her face and body) affected her writing, we have a literary culture that is still dominated by one small segment of the population, we have a sense that every significant contribution to the world of letters was made by the heterosexual white man…

Crispin then jumps right past celebrating the continued necessity of Russ’s work:

I am worried we’re all subdividing into tiny, highly specific demographics, and that I’m only going to be encouraged to read the works of other white, middle class, heterosexual, spinster, Cancer sun and Taurus rising women who came from the rural Midwest but now live in an urban area, because only they can truly understand and speak directly to me. It’s a cliché that literature builds empathy. It can help you along in that process, but only if you aggressively work against the impulse to treat literature like a mirror. The first step is to notice that you are doing that…

Writers’ Corner: Franzen vs. World

Jonathan Franzen

As literary contretemps go, the great Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner debate of 2013 might not measure up with the best of them. It’s not exactly Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald or James Woods panning Zadie Smith’s writing as “hysterical realism.” But it’s nevertheless a bookish debate with some fire to it playing out in the commons, and thusly rare enough to deserve note.

the-corrections_oprah_book_club1In short, Franzen started things, as is his wont, with a cranky screed in The Guardian against, well, things he doesn’t like about the modern world. It’s a lengthy piece, with some well-considered points about Austrian satirist Karl Kraus and how (now, as in Kraus’ time in fin-de-siecle Vienna), “the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past.”

But there’s also a good dose of simple ornery lashing out against a modernity that has been much more artfully critiqued elsewhere. Franzen also doesn’t seem to think that novelists have ever in history been dragooned into doing anything to sell their books besides writing more of them better. To him, just being asked to take part in social media for the sake of publicity is anathema. Of course, the jury is definitely out on whether an author’s Twitter or Facebook presence actually helps sell books. But Franzen’s above-it-all attitude rankles here, as it did back in the days of his tantrum over seeing an Oprah Book Club burst on the cover of The Corrections.

jennifer_weiner1

Then there’s Jennifer Weiner. A writer of middlebrow popular fiction, Weiner’s books (like those of Jodi Picoult and others) are exactly the kind of thing which sell plenty of copies and yet never get any critical attention. She’s been having a go at the New York Times and other publications for not covering books of this sort. Whereas Franzen’s books—which might deal with more serious subjects but are difficult to classify as literature—are covered in depth. More particularly, Weiner’s been denouncing the Times, and correctly so, for having a dire shortage of female contributors.

Now, replying to Franzen’s line about “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” Weiner herself penned a swift and lightly denunciatory piece for The New Republic where she calls out Franzen for essentially whining from the mountaintop:

In 2010, I coined the hashtag Franzenfreude. It was very bad German for a very real problem: When Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, newspapers and magazines devoted thousands of words to the book and its author, while giving other literary books far less attention, and, in some cases, ignoring commercial works completely. Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn’t have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”

As Weiner points out, Margaret Atwood tweets. So does Joyce Carol Oates. And it probably doesn’t help sell a single extra copy of their books. Maybe they just like having a new format to write in. Is that so horrible?

Reader’s Corner: David Foster Wallace

When David Foster Wallace took his life in 2008, among other painful echoes he left behind a gaping void in the American literary landscape. He was arguably the brightest star in that roughly defined gaggle of writers like Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, and Jeffrey Eugenides who broke through in the 1990s with styles that were entirely different and yet felt of a piece with all their emotional chaos and stylistic verve. (Check out Evan Hughes’s fantastic piece on that group here.)

For many readers, of that group, Wallace was the guy who people would still be reading in a hundred years. As one of Wallace’s editors said afterwards about the devastation so many people felt, “A lot of people are really sad for all the books we’re not going to get to read.” That’s not an entirely selfish thought, it’s more of a mourning for the beauty and intelligence that had gone out of the world with that shocking act.

D.T. Max’s biography on Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, is coming out later this year. There’s an excerpt from the book over at The Daily Beast, which includes this vivid scene about Wallace’s courtship of the memoirist Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), when he was wracked by writer’s block and indecision, and was just coming out of rehab:

Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no; he knew only one way to seduce: overwhelm. He would show up at Karr’s family home to shovel her driveway after a snowfall, or come unannounced to her recovery meetings. Karr called the head of the halfway house and asked her to let Wallace know his attentions were not welcome. Wallace besieged her with notes anyway…. One day, she remembers, he arrived at a pool party she was at with her family with bandages on his left shoulder. She thought maybe he had been cutting himself and wouldn’t show her what was underneath—a tattoo with her name and a heart. He clearly felt he had made a commitment there was no retreating from. The details of the relationship were not clear to others though: Wallace told friends they were involved; Karr says no. She too steered Wallace to a new course in his fiction. “His interest in cleverness was preventing him from saying things,” she remembers. She told him not to be such a show-off, to write more from the heart. One time when he told her that he put certain scenes into his fiction because they were “cool,” she responded: “That’s what my f–king five year old says about Spiderman.”

Later, Wallace would write Infinite Jest and many other novels and shorter pieces in which he showed off as much as possible, but still managed to write from the heart.