An Email Conversation with Jonathan Franzen

A four-part discussion between the author and Cameron Martin

National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, The Discomfort Zone, How to Be Alone, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City, is our first correspondent in a new feature called Dialogue, an exchange of emails with notable authors on reading, writing, and other topics suggested by their work or their responses to our queries. Our conversation with Jonathan Franzen took place in four installments in the spring and summer of 2008, and was conducted by Cameron Martin.


PART ONE: May 5, 2008

B&N Review: You’ve recently returned from Asia. How was your journey? What places did you visit? What did you bring along to read?

Jonathan Franzen: I was in China for three weeks, doing a long piece about the environment for The New Yorker. The flight from Chicago to Shanghai lasted about 15 hours. For the first 6 hours, I was reading a manuscript of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s new novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles. It’s a really fun, sad, smart, funny book, and I was happy to be able to read it cover to cover in one sitting. I did the same thing with Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country last fall. I went from Zagreb to New York by way of two airports in London — started the Wharton in the departures lounge in Zagreb, read the last page in a taxi line at Kennedy Airport, and felt somehow stolen from myself for days afterward. Deeply infected with Wharton’s excellence and rage. The Bynum had a similar effect but in a kinder way, because it’s not such an angry book. I stepped off the plane in Shanghai with my senses and sensibilities sharpened by the honesty and precision and moral complexity of good fiction. It got the whole trip off on the right foot. A day later I was up in rural Subei, eating congee, sleeping under a foot-thick pile of comforters, and feeling just deeply fortunate.

BNR: You’ve written eloquently about “the incompatibility of the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life,” and have lamented the constant connectivity that technological consumerism encourages. So I have to say I was surprised to receive an email from you while you were abroad, saying you’d just landed in Shanghai. In fact, I’ve been surprised by your electronic accessibility in general. What’s your current thinking on the phantom ubiquity that email and its allies allow, if not demand?

JF: I was never a Luddite. My beef was — and is — with the techno-utopianists who think connectivity is the same thing as community, and who mistake texting and blogging for literary creativity. You can dress up a computer all you want — to me, it’s still just a piece of office equipment. And yet: I love good office equipment! I’ve come to hate my telephone and feel I would be happy if it never again rang unexpectedly for the rest of my life. I resent its intrusions and I admire email for its discretion. Email just sits there silently and waits until you’re ready to deal with it. That’s my idea of good office technology. With email, I can do a concentrated hour of business between a quiet day at the office and a quiet evening at home. Email actually helps preserve a quiet interior space. And if you’re a working journalist, a Blackberry is really helpful.

BNR: It’s spring and baseball is waking from its winter nap. I understand you follow the Oakland A’s. Why the interest in them?

JF: I’m not so into baseball anymore. I’m out in California for two months every summer, near Santa Cruz, and we get the San Jose Mercury News delivered in the morning, and if the A’s are making one of their unlikely late-season runs for the pennant, I start reading the box scores and following the scoreboard. Honestly, though, when it comes to baseball, the only thing I really care about is seeing the Yankees lose. I check the sports pages every morning, and if I see bad news for the Yankees, I start the day feeling as if there’s hope for the world.

BNR: In the essay “My Bird Problem,” which closes your book The Discomfort Zone, you discuss taking trips to South Texas for the express purpose of birdwatching, a hobby you came to in middle age. In describing your admiration for birds, you wrote, “To be hungry all the time, to be made for sex, to not believe in global warming, to be shortsighted, to live without thought of your grandchildren, to spend half your life on personal grooming, to be perpetually on guard, to be compulsive, to be habit-bound, to be avid, to be unimpressed with humanity, to prefer your own kind: these were all ways of being like a bird.” Is there a way in which novelists must be bird-like in their attentions and absorptions? Are you still birding?

JF: Yeah, I still do some birding. That’s part of what I was doing in China — hanging out with the brand-new community of homegrown Chinese birdwatchers. And, despite the apocalyptic environmental situation over there, we saw some great birds. I can’t say that I’ve found a comfortable relationship with birdwatching yet, though. You take it one direction and you feel like an addict running away from real life, you take it another direction and you feel like a sexless retiree filling empty days, you take it a third direction and you feel like a hyperconsumer of peak nature experiences. So it’s become an enduring part of my life but not the dominant part I thought it might be. One thing you learn from watching birds is how narrowly suited to their niche a lot of species are. The red knots that migrate through Chesapeake Bay need to eat horseshoe crabs to refuel. If you eliminate the crabs — which we have mostly done now — the knots die of starvation. I think fiction writers are very particular niche dwellers themselves. Writing good fiction is such a difficult job that I’m forever looking for some other way to sustain myself psychically. For a couple of years, I thought maybe birding could sustain me. Eventually, though, if I don’t find a way to go on writing, I always come to feel as if I’m starving.

BNR: In the past you’ve been critical of President Bush and the current administration. How closely are you following this year’s presidential race? Do you have any thoughts about it, or personal allegiances you’d like to share? Your work, both the novels and the nonfiction, are alert to the civic dimensions of American life in a way rare in contemporary literature. Does the fervor of the current campaign — the large turnouts, the inspirational tenor of Barack Obama’s campaign, the way the will of the people of both parties seems unconstrained by the conventional wisdom of the pundits and professional political class — speak to you in any way?

JF: The shortness of the list of great Washington novels — some people would say that Henry Adams’s Democracy is the only title that deserves to be on the list, though I would perversely add Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and give honorable mention to DeLillo’s Libra, to Andrew Holleran’s recent book Grief, and to the Nixon sections of Robert Coover’s Public Burning — is an indication of how uneasily national politics and novel-writing mix. There are likewise very few great sports novels and rock-and-roll novels. Politics and sports and rock are dominant narratives in American daily life. It’s very hard for an invented character to compete with the real characters from those worlds. And it’s not clear why a novelist would even want to compete. My readerly hunger for great political narrative is already being nicely satisfied this year by Obama, Clinton, and McCain. If you’re a novelist with an Obama-like main character, you’re trying to sell me superfluous and probably inferior goods. (It’s no accident that all the political characters in DeLillo, Holleran, and Coover are actual historical figures.) As for my own stake in the campaign, I’m rooting for Obama the way I root against the Yankees. He’s run a great campaign, he’s taking the high road, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a national candidate take the high road and actually win?


PART TWO: May 16, 2008

BNR: The thought of you reading The Custom of the Country and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s new novel in single sittings is intriguing. Do you prefer to read fiction that way when you can arrange it? Have you done it with other books? Do you imagine readers approaching your novels in the same way? Are fiction’s truest powers — its ability to portray moral complexity, for example — enhanced by such immersion?

JF: Strong fiction has a way of creating great reading experiences. I read George Saunders’s short-story masterpiece, “CommComm,” under seemingly bad circumstances — the first two thirds of it on a subway heading downtown, the last few pages of it the next morning in my kitchen. And I still remember putting the New Yorker down on my kitchen counter and thinking, “I’ve got to tell somebody else about this story right away.” I suspect that fiction actually lends itself to fragmented enjoyment better than other narrative forms do. If I try to watch an episode of a TV show on more than two different days, I get irritated and impatient, and unless you’re looking for some kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, it’s usually a bad idea to walk out of a play midway through the second act and come back a week later. But the experience of fiction takes place entirely in your head. Because you’ve created the experience by actively decoding language, rather than passively receiving fully formed images, and because your eyes can dance around the page so deftly, taking in only what you need to refresh your memory, rather than laboriously rewatching whole scenes, it’s easier to slip back into a book. It’s closer to what computer people call random-access — landing exactly where you need to be and getting back up to speed almost instantaneously.

I certainly wouldn’t want to say that one-sitting readings of a novel are the “best” kind. In fact, there’s often something binge-like and unhealthy about them. You risk taking in too much too quickly; you rush; you gulp. I’d rather be in one of those books that I look forward to returning to all day and then finally give to myself for a couple of hours before bedtime. My days are full of meaning and anticipation and a happy sense of being alive, and I have time to think carefully about the story and make sense of its moral complexities and talk about it with my friends and have dreams about it. This is one of the many reasons that War and Peace is hard to beat: unless you’re some kind of speed-reading freak, you get to live in it for weeks.

BNR: It’s startling to consider Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as a Washington novel. Could you elaborate a bit on that?

JF: Well, it’s a great novel and it’s set almost entirely in Washington. Isn’t that enough? The book presents a devastating portrait of a federal bureaucrat in the FDR era, Sam Pollit, whose very name, with its echoes of “Uncle Sam” and “politics,” invites us to read him as a Great White Father and a hideous caricature of America itself: at once a brutal bully and a sentimental idealist; a liar and a cheater who imagines himself a beacon of Enlightenment. Politicians come and go in Washington — one year you’re Majority Leader, the next year you’re nobody. Staffers become lobbyists, lobbyists become corporate flaks. What endures in Washington, decade after decade, is the world of the bureaucracy. And that’s where Stead’s novel is set.

BNR: I’ve read some of your occasional pieces and stories online. Do you think reading fiction on a computer screen radically changes the overall experience? What do you make of the contemporary Japanese phenomenon of cell-phone novels?

JF: I never read fiction online. I read for substance, and to me there’s no substance in a pixel. As for those Japanese novels: most new novels published anywhere in any given year are, strictly speaking, bad. And, in my experience, the natural tendency of all beginning writers is to produce thin, formulaic, clumsy, posturing, clichÈd, sentimental, poorly crafted work. It’s possible that one of those cellphone novels is good, and it’s possible that beginners writing in Japanese are vastly more accomplished than beginners writing in English. But it doesn’t seem very likely.

BNR: When we interviewed Philip Roth last fall, he said he was sure the cultural centrality of literature was “gone for good. It still has some impact, to be sure. But I think as the years go by, in the next 10-20-30 years, it will become more cultic, and be read by people in a cultish way, and that the novel won’t have much impact at all.” Do you share Roth’s concern?

JF: As far as I can tell, the only American novelist Philip Roth has ever really cared about is Philip Roth. So it’s understandable that he would be tormented by the thought of later generations of novelists still producing vital work and still being read after he personally is dead. How terribly painful for him! Roth has long been in not-so-secret league with the philistines he brilliantly inveighs against. And now, in his twilight, he’s rushing to reassure the philistines that their long wait is nearly over: as soon as their scourge, Philip Roth, is dead, they won’t ever have to worry about the American novel again.

I don’t fault Roth for feeling discouraged about the future. I fault him for being the kind of man who goes out of his way to piss in a room where other readers and writers are still having a good time. How much longer this particular good time will continue is anybody’s guess. But one thing I do know is that my own discouragement about the American novel rises and falls in exact correlation with my discouragement about whatever project I’m working on.

BNR: Jon, how often do you socialize with other novelists? In your experience, what are the benefits and/or drawbacks, both personally and professionally?

JF: “Socializing” is a funny word. Does having dinner with a good friend constitute “socializing”? It doesn’t sound right to me. Many of my best friends are fiction writers, though, if that’s what you mean. I live with a fiction writer who’s become a playwright. And there is no drawback to these friendships. They’re the central support pillar of my life.


PART THREE: June 16, 2008

BNR: It seems safe to say you won’t be “socializing” with Philip Roth anytime soon. Yet as you mentioned last week, you live with a writer, and in an essay published in Granta magazine several years ago, titled “Envy,” that writer — Kathryn Chetkovich — discussed quite openly how difficult it was to be dating you when The Corrections became a huge success. It seems impossible to be indifferent to such a personal exposÈ, so how did you feel about it? Did you read her essay before it was published? If the shoe was on the other foot, and her career had taken off while you were struggling to write The Corrections, how might things have played out? Could you imagine writing an essay like “Envy,” in which you openly discuss how your girlfriend, a fellow writer, is more successful than you?

JF: That essay of Kathy’s is a strong piece of writing — funny and smart and disturbing and moving — and I was really happy for her that she’d written it. I was grateful at a personal level, too. I’d been writing fairly exposing essays about my family and friends for a number of years, on the theory that it would ultimately hurt them less to be written about than it would hurt me as a writer not to write about them. And so it was a great karmic relief to have the tables turned and be useful, as subject matter, to somebody else’s growth as a writer. I felt like I was getting to pay something back to the universe. I did read a draft of her essay before it was published, to fact-check it and offer a couple of small editorial suggestions. If the thing had been full of lies about me, it might have upset me. But when a piece of writing is essentially honest, my only interest is in seeing it be as strong as possible. If our career situations had been reversed, and if I could have found a way to write about envy as appealingly as Kathy did, I would have been proud to publish an essay like that.

BNR: Your assessment of online fiction reading seems unduly harsh. Certain publications, including Narrative Magazine and FiveChapters.com <>, only publish online, and they do so largely for cost considerations: it’s cheap to post articles and it’s free to read them. And still they publish well-known fiction writers, not to mention up-and-coming writers who might not be able to earn publication via a more traditional route. If a writer can only get published online, does that really mean their work lacks “substance”? If you take an online story, print it out, and read it as a hard copy, does the story only then become substantive?

JF: Basically, yes, that is what I’m saying. Kafka is about as substantive as a writer can be, and it may be an interesting exercise to spell out the text of “Before the Law” in skywriting over Miami Beach, but I don’t think it will satisfy readers who care about Kafka’s substance. Part of the magic of literature resides in the making of the indelible mark — in our belief in its indelibility. Serious readers are able to invest even the crappiest, most beat-up paperback with a kind of magical permanence. To read Virginia Woolf on a little plastic screen that five seconds ago was filled with Ann Coulter is to undermine one of the basic conditions of literary reading. It’s to make all texts more or less equal and equally provisional. I admit that I may be particularly resistant to reading on a screen because I use a computer to write. When I see words are floating on a screen, I assume they’re still subject to revision. And it’s not that I assume they’re bad — I’m sure there’s plenty of interesting stuff getting published online. It’s more like the difference between fluorescence and a candle. Nothing you can do to a fluorescent fixture can make me want to have a romantic dinner by its light. Writing on the Web is at its best when it’s quick and spontaneous and in process. If there’s great fiction getting published online, I look forward to seeing it in print someday soon.

BNR: You hail from the Midwest, yet you’ve lived in New York for some time. What keeps you there? Conversely, are there day-to-day realities that detract from your pleasure in city life? Did the 9/11 attacks make you reconsider your dwelling place?

JF: I already feel like enough of a freak without living in a place where, when you step outside at two in the afternoon or one in the morning, the sidewalks and streets are all empty. Even in Brooklyn, in the quiet of the afternoon, my chest tightens up when I walk down those long empty sidewalks. It’s a weird kind of claustrophobia: Get me out of here! Now! In Manhattan there’s always some sort of life on the street to help combat loneliness. I also never have to walk more than a block or two, at any hour of the day or night, to find somebody who’s obviously even more freakish than I am. So the city is very comforting. Good airline connections, too. And more of my friends live in or near New York than anywhere else.

On the minus side, there’s always the threat of noisy neighbors. The wonderfully quiet woman downstairs from us recently sold her apartment, and I’m bracing myself for the woofing of the new neighbor’s TV at midnight in our bedroom. And September 11, yes, did make me more anxious about being incinerated or poisoned or horribly infected in a terrorist attack. But I think it’s important to resist hysteria.

BNR: Do you have a set schedule for reading and writing fiction, or is it catch as catch can? In your experience, what specific conditions contribute to a productive, fulfilling schedule?

JF: The best schedule I ever had was during the first five years I was married, right after college, in Somerville, Massachusetts. I basically had two friends, one of them my then-wife and the other a low-maintenance Swede, and I was able to earn a bare living by working two ten-hour days every weekend in a science lab. That left Monday through Friday for writing and reading. I could write for eight hours and still have five hours to read every night. My wife and I just inhaled world literature for five years, huge amounts of it, and I was able to accumulate the ten thousand hours of experience which brain scientists tell us are required to become proficient at a craft. So those five years were a great time. It’s been pretty much a mess ever since. One abiding rule is that if I don’t start writing first thing in the morning, I won’t get any writing done at all. It’s also usually a good sign if I’m waking up at four or five in the morning to worry about story problems. Levels of depression and anxiety that non-writers might experience as clinical are apparently a necessary part of the process.

BNR: Is there a contemporary literary critic whose writings and opinion you hold in high esteem? And why?

JF: I’m a fan of all critics who a.) clearly enjoy reading books, b.) display some basic grasp of irony and ambiguity and comedy and complexity, c.) are able to recognize fakes, d.) don’t shrilly moralize, and e.) care more about books and readers than about their own journalistic impact. The New York Times employs one critic who spectacularly violates all five criteria and another, Janet Maslin, who is a true friend of books and readers and is always a pleasure to read. Being a good critic — and continuing to be one — is such a hard and thankless job that I’m reluctant to single anyone out at the expense of the many others with good ears and good hearts. Still, I might particularly mention James Wood, Laura Miller, and John Leonard. It’s an amazing gift that critics like these still exist in a culture in which (to echo a remark of Don DeLillo’s about the beleaguerment of the novel) everything seems to argue against responsible criticism.


PART FOUR: July 7, 2008

BNR: Nowadays, how often are you “waking up at four or five in the morning to worry about story problems”? In as much detail as you’re willing to share, what’s your next novel about? How long have you been working on it and how far along are you in the process? Do you share portions of work in progress with friends or trusted readers?

JF: I took the winter off to write about China, but I’m back in fiction again and waking up early often enough. I have to admit, though, that the question that woke me up a few mornings ago was “Why did I agree to do that online Barnes and Noble interview?” It was prompted by my having looked at your last round of interview questions the night before. My feeling was: “No possible benefit of doing this interview can offset the cost of trying to deal with an inquiry about the new novel.” Obviously, since I have possession of the actual pages, I know what the book is about. So do a couple of good friends and a bunch of editors and agents. But the wish not to talk publicly about the story or the process is so powerful that it quickly morphs into a more general remorse about having talked publicly about anything, ever, to anyone. The fiction is incomparably harder and more important to me than any self-presentation. I realize this as soon as I’m asked about it and find myself worrying about self-presentation, rather than about story, at five in the morning.

BNR: You said one of the positive qualities of a good literary critic is their ability “to recognize fakes.” Can you elaborate on this? Presumably you’re referring to disingenuous memoirists, not literary frauds like J. T. Leroy. Particularly of late, the memoir genre has come under fire, because of exaggerations, lies and obfuscations put forth as nonfiction; most notably, the case of James Frey. Can critics and readers ever be immune to such deceit?

JF: Actually, I was talking about fake literariness, not so much fake “nonfiction.” A tin ear and moral righteousness are always found together in a critic, because they are, in a deep way, the same thing. Somebody like the lead reviewer at the Times, whose first question about a book is whether it’s to her own advantage to Approve or Disapprove of it, is randomly destructive to literature. Sometimes she happens to pan a bad book, sometimes she happens to like a good one. Lacking an ear, though, she’s just as likely to rave about an arrant fake. Which, of course, becomes amusing when the book in question is literally a fake. How did she explain to the Times‘ Public Editor her recent decision to get behind Margaret B. Jones’s fraudulent Love and Consequences? “I thought the writing was powerful,” she said.

BNR: It’s been reported that a film version of The Corrections is in development with producer Scott Rudin, who has helped bring other literary novels to the big screen, including The Hours and No Country for Old Men. Some authors have enjoyed writing the adapted screenplays of their works, while others have relinquished control. How involved would you like to be in the screen adaptation of your best-known novel? Have you written or attempted to write anything for film or television before? If so, what unexpected challenges did you encounter? If not, what keeps you from exploring this artistic medium?

JF: Right now I’ve got my hands full with the artistic medium of the novel. In any case, the problem with “exploring” the artistic medium of film or television is that the screenwriter doesn’t get to do much exploring. Movies and TV are team efforts. It might be fun to join the team if I could be team captain, but, with all respect to Scott Rudin and his people, who have been unfailingly nice to me, I think I have a better chance of becoming our country’s next Secretary of Defense than of having an artistic say in a major motion picture.

BNR: Your German-English translation of Frank Wedekind’s play “Spring Awakening” was published last fall, though it was reportedly written for the Swarthmore College theater department in 1986. Was this publication a one-time circumstance, or would you like to translate other German works, be they plays, novels, or short stories, into English? It’s been said that a translator’s biggest responsibility is to remain true to the spirit of the original; what aspects to Wedekind’s German play were the hardest to replicate or convey in English?

JF: I’m also working on a long-term project to translate some of the more brilliant and untranslatable essays of the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, whose writing remains underknown and undervalued in English-speaking countries. Translating Kraus is like doing a really hard crossword puzzle in four dimensions, and, as much as I love Kraus, the work is always going to take back seat to the fiction. Maybe, if I ever decide I’m done as a novelist, I can make myself useful as a full-time translator. The challenge is frustrating enough to be compelling but not so impossible as to be unsatisfying. With the Wedekind translation, which I did a draft of in 1986 and then forgot about for many years, the hardest thing to replicate was the tonal tightrope that Wedekind walks throughout the play, making the child characters at once ridiculous and heroically lovable, and to give them a vernacular that sounded neither dated nor too contemporary.

BNR: During a 2001 interview with Charlie Rose, you said about yourself, “(I have a) devil of self-consciousness in me.” Have the intervening years changed your assessment, or are you still bedeviled by self-consciousness? For instance, do you consider the distinct possibility that mention of Oprah Winfrey might be prominent in your obituary?

JF: I don’t remember what I meant when I said that, but I doubt I was thinking about my obituary. Aren’t obits the one embarrassment you never need to worry about? I expect to be dead for the duration of my afterlife. Regarding which, it’s hard to know whether people will still be reading novels a hundred years from now, but it’s a pretty safe bet that people won’t be watching reruns of Winfrey’s afternoon show.

I have the feeling that I’m getting less self-conscious as I get older. I’ve noticed lately, for example, that I’m less morbidly afraid of making mistakes when I’m speaking a foreign language. But maybe what’s happening is simply that I’m understanding more clearly what self-consciousness is and isn’t. Maybe what I took to be pure self-consciousness — a quantity important in itself — was in fact just the epiphenomenon of something more fundamental, such as powerlessness. Maybe I’m no less aware now of mangling a sentence in Spanish or German, maybe it’s just that I just don’t care as much, because I’m older and feel less vulnerable. Maybe shame and fear and vulnerability were always at the center of it. And these are things that matter less as you get closer to the day of your obituary.