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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen’

Ignorance Studies, and Other News

August 27, 2015 | by

An illustration of ignorance personified from an 1890 edition of Pilgrim’s Progress.

  • Literary fame has been a thorny thing more or less forever—according to Suetonius, Virgil sometimes ducked into buildings to flee his fans and the adulating masses. But what accounts for this celebrity, and what stokes its flames once a writer has died? Being struck down in your prime helps: that’s why we read Keats, who died at twenty-five, and not Barry Cornwall, who lived to eighty-six. All told, “an appetite for literary immortality, like the desire to read one’s obituary, poses sufficient challenge that a writer should concentrate on other goals.”
  • Today in etymology and the patriarchy: misogyny is a very old word, and sexism a fairly new one—in 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “a sequence of six cards”—but despite their nuances, the two are coming to be used interchangeably: “Imputing hatred, which is what misogynist does, is an unnecessary step in a different direction … Misogyny isn’t merely a strong version of sexism. Some men go past stereotyping to contempt. Those calling out ‘misogyny’ everywhere do so with the aim of helping women, but overuse of a word weakens it. If speakers keep misogyny to its original and more powerful meaning, it will pack a greater punch, hopefully to land all the harder on the misogynists of the world.”
  • If we want to dispel ignorance, there’s one tactic we haven’t really tried yet: teaching it. Ignorance Studies could impart valuable lessons about human folly, in its many guises. “The study of ignorance—or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford—is in its infancy … But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.”
  • Since The Corrections, published fourteen years ago, Franzen has assumed a role as our preeminent public moralist, following in the footsteps of Roth and Mailer where once he admired more fringe figures like DeLillo and Gaddis. “His new phase is marked by his conviction that novels be animated by causes … Franzen has always conceived of writing as a competition, with all writers everywhere, living or dead, aligned either with him or against him, or both at once. His critical writings often read like peace treaties or declarations of war, or like the posturings of a permanent undergraduate at pains to take a side. They frequently contain eccentric statements about what it means to read a novel.”
  • Charles Simic has been reading Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative, culled from thousands of pages of court records spanning three decades around the turn of the twentieth century: “I know of nothing like it in literature … what we have here is the first found epic poem. It certainly reads like one, with its huge cast of evildoers and victims, vast setting, and profusion of breathtaking stories. Murder, treachery, injustice, greed, foolishness, jealousy, rape, anger, revenge, marital squabbles, cruelty to children and animals, bad luck, and many other miseries human beings bring upon themselves and on their fellow men are all here to behold … It should not be surprising that Testimony is rarely assigned at our colleges and universities these days; it causes too much discomfort to those who prefer to know nothing about what goes on in the world. This may be precisely what Reznikoff intended with a book like this. Let whoever reads it be upset.”

Byron the Bloodsucker, and Other News

May 28, 2015 | by

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Detail from a hand-colored engraving of Villa Diodati, by Edward Francis Finden, ca. 1833, after a drawing by William Purser.

  • Jonathan Franzen gave his first interview about his new novel Purity yesterday, and even the Associated Press showed up: “Those who left early missed a highlight of the event, a self-described ‘rising sophomore at the University of Connecticut’ telling Franzen that The Corrections was the basis for her project on the ‘depressed male protagonist in post-9/11 literature.’ ‘Say no more,’ answered a surprised, but amused Franzen.”
  • John Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician, and they traveled Europe together—no mean task, given the latter’s celebrity, which left the doctor feeling “like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible.” He was often the butt of Byron’s jokes that he began to write a cruel story about him—“The Vampyre,” which “establishes the vampire as we know it … reimagining the feral mud-caked creatures of southeastern European legend as the elegant and magnetic denizens of cosmopolitan assemblies and polite drawing rooms.” One problem: when the story was finally published, it was attributed not to Polidori but to Byron himself.
  • Virginia Woolf’s suicide—admittedly one of literary history’s more memorable, in its methods—has come to overshadow her life. Depictions of the author focus almost exclusively on her melancholic side, and Woolf Works, a new ballet, is no different: “What a miserable Woolf it always is! The focus in Woolf Works, The Hours, and Waves alike is on her tragic demise. This limits our view of her as a person—there’s none of the wit, charm and spirit that Woolf, by all accounts, had.”
  • Next time you see a commercial for Swiffer, remember the big picture—in the vastness of the cosmos, dust is not our enemy, but our friend. And we have the pictures to prove it. “Dust plays an essential part, not only in the history of life, but in the history of the universe as a whole. Although dust is a very small part of the mass of the universe, it controls the birth and death of stars and the heating and cooling of interstellar gas. Dust is prominent in the Hubble pictures, not only because dust clouds are beautiful, but because dust-clouds are big players in the cosmic drama.”
  • When the recession hit in 2008, an eighty-year-old novel, Kanikosen (Crab Cannery Ship), landed on Japan’s best-seller lists. What explains its sudden popularity? Well, it’s a story of the people: a tale of proletarian struggle based on a 1926 mutiny aboard a Japanese fishing ship. “Kanikosen laid bare not only the grueling reality of capitalism, but also the possibility of united resistance by workers.”

Don’t Be an Author—Be an Authorpreneur! and Other News

February 17, 2015 | by

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“Please read my book.” From a 1917 poster for The Traveling Salesman.

  • “People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes. That’s exactly what you want if you’re having a hard life. Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?” A new interview with Jonathan Franzen.
  • On the new era of “authorpreneurship,” in which no one can simply write: “Authors are becoming more like pop stars, who used to make most of their money selling albums but who now use their recordings as promotional tools, earning a living mainly from concerts. The trouble with many budding writers is that they are not cut out for this new world. They are often introverts, preferring solitude to salesmanship.”
  • A new study suggests that the three most desirable jobs in the United Kingdom are “an author, a librarian and an academic … The ‘aura of prestige’ connected with a career in writing or academia is preferable to jobs that brought promises of wealth and celebrity status.”
  • Copyeditor didn’t make that list, but maybe it should have. There’s a lot of prestige that comes with the title of Comma Queen, especially if you’re judicious in wielding your power: “Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little.”
  • Are the British superior political satirists? Short answer: Yes. They enjoy “a combative temperament that our political satirists can’t help but envy.”

Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink

December 8, 2014 | by

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Photo: Fred Filkorn

Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper came out in October and was listed last week among the 100 Notable Books of 2014 by the New York Times. Jonathan Franzen—who had earlier tried to interest publishers in Zink’s first novel, Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats—wrote, “Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.”

The Wallcreeper is the coming-of-age story of Tiffany, a young woman who marries a man she hardly knows and follows him to Switzerland. Zink’s compressed scenes and chapter-less form showcase her mastery of tonal register—think Diane Williams with a little less bathos—as the newlyweds’ shared interests in each other and birding quickly shift to other lovers and separate environmental causes. Meanwhile, the zingers and bon mots fly so fast and furiously that one often forgets that Tiffany is on the brink of poverty.

Zink, now fifty, has also published several pieces in n+1. She lives in Bad Belzig, Germany, where she worked most recently as a translator. As a writer living abroad, she does not seem fond of things like e-mail interviews, and understandably so. This exchange took place in August—part of a longer interview filled with some of the most riotous, pummeling insults I’ve ever absorbed—and Zink explained that the course of her experience as a writer has involved a great deal of travel, marked by an intense effort to insulate her creative life from the work required to make rent. Her second novel, Mislaid, is due out next year. She sold it, as she has said elsewhere, for “megabucks.” This may be half jest, but it hints nevertheless that her fortunes have shifted for the better since this summer, when she shared the following account of her personal history.

What kind of jobs have you had? Do you write full-time now, “living the dream”?

I was always a bit concerned about purity of essence. I never wanted a job that might affect the way I wrote or thought. I remember how in college I was very proud of having finagled a job in the English department, where I spent most of my time collating and stapling. I didn’t major in English, obviously, because I preferred being challenged in courses where I might get bad grades. Once, Gordon Lish came to speak there and warned us explicitly against going to work in publishing, because it forces you to read bad prose all day every day and spoils your style. After his talk, all the other student writers jumped up to beg him for jobs in publishing while I wandered off strengthened in my resolve to do manual labor. Read More »

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From the Land of Pleasant Living, and Other News

October 3, 2014 | by

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A Baltimore icon slips into Russian hands.

  • Remembering John Berryman, whose centenary is later this month: “Berryman has not been forgotten, but his gnomic revelations have less force than they used to. His drinking and womanizing, his unsoothable anguish, seem less the stuff of heroism than of mutinous neurotransmitters. I can all too easily imagine him today, sitting at a seminar table in Palo Alto or Iowa City, buoyed by a decent dose of Wellbutrin, listening as some regular contributor to the Northwestern Maine Quarterly Review piously instructs impious John to simmer down, center himself, drop the unceasing allusions to Shakespeare, find his voice and tell us how he really feels.”
  • “As well as categorizing novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular, one could also, and perhaps more usefully, distinguish those that become part of the conversation, and those that do not. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not … John Updike’s Terrorist was arguably his least talked-about novel … But how does a book enter the conversation today?”
  • A good problem to have: “I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.”
  • An 1894 map by the New York Tenement-House Committee divides the city by nationality. But you won’t find Scotch, English, Welsh, Scandinavian, and Canadian New Yorkers on the map, because they were, according to its creator, “in small numbers and perhaps less foreign than the others.”
  • The Orioles are in the playoffs, which means Baltimoreans are swilling profligate amounts of Natty Boh, the greatest bad beer in the world and one of the city’s most cherished brands—it dates back to 1885. (At least one Baltimorean would drink a can right now, even though it’s nine-thirty A.M. and he’s in New York.) The only problem? “National Bohemian hasn’t been locally owned since the nineteen-seventies, and it hasn’t been brewed in Maryland in more than a decade … Last month, it was announced that the brand’s owner, Pabst, is being purchased by the Russian beverage company Oasis.” Say it ain’t Boh.

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Working on My Novel

July 28, 2014 | by

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From Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel.

I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966

Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel—based on the Twitter feed of the same name—is a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels. No more, no less. On Twitter, this concept feels merely clever; printed and bound as a novel would be, though, it becomes a vexed look at novels’ position in the culture, and a sad monument to distraction. Or so it seems to me. Arcangel’s “elevator pitch” puts a brighter gloss on it:

Working on My Novel is about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves today. Exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it's the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.

But the book piques my interest for the opposite reason: it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. (“I love my mind,” writes one aspirant novelist, as if he’s just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)Read More »

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