Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Freedom

The purity test

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Earlier this week, The New York Times Magazine published a profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner of the novelist Jonathan Franzen. It’s full of fascinating moments, including a remarkable one that seems to have happened entirely by accident—the reporter was in the room when Frazen received a pair of phone calls, including one from Daniel Craig, to inform him that production had halted on the television adaptation of his novel Purity. Brodesser-Akner writes: “Franzen sat down and blinked a few times.” That sounds about right to me. And the paragraph that follows gets at something crucial about the writing life, in which the necessity of solitary work clashes with the pressure to put its fruits at the mercy of the market:

He should have known. He should have known that the bigger the production—the more people you involve, the more hands the thing goes through—the more likely that it will never see the light of day resembling the thing you set out to make in the first place. That’s the real problem with adaptation, even once you decide you’re all in. It just involves too many people. When he writes a book, he makes sure it’s intact from his original vision of it. He sends it to his editor, and he either makes the changes that are suggested or he doesn’t. The thing that we then see on shelves is exactly the thing he set out to make. That might be the only way to do this. Yes, writing a novel—you alone in a room with your own thoughts—might be the only way to get a maximal kind of satisfaction from your creative efforts. All the other ways can break your heart.

To be fair, Franzen’s status is an unusual one, and even successful novelists aren’t always in the position of taking for granted the publication of “exactly the thing he set out to make.” (In practice, it’s close to all or nothing. In my experience, the novel that you see on store shelves mostly reflects what the writer wanted, while the ones in which the vision clashes with those of other stakeholders in the process generally doesn’t get published at all.) And I don’t think I’m alone when I say that some of the most interesting details that Brodesser-Akner provides are financial. A certain decorum still surrounds the reporting of sales figures in the literary world, so there’s a certain frisson in seeing them laid out like this:

And, well, sales of his novels have decreased since The Corrections was published in 2001. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1.6 million copies to date. Freedom, which was called a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph of its New York Times review, has sold 1.15 million since it was published in 2010. And 2015’s Purity, his novel about a young woman’s search for her father and the story of that father and the people he knew, has sold only 255,476.

For most writers, selling a quarter of a million copies of any book would exceed their wildest dreams. Having written one of the greatest outliers of the last twenty years, Franzen simply reverting to a very exalted mean. But there’s still a lot to unpack here.

For one thing, while Purity was a commercial disappointment, it doesn’t seem to have been an unambiguous disaster. According to Publisher’s Weekly, its first printing—which is where you can see a publisher calibrating its expectations—came to around 350,000 copies, which wasn’t even the largest print run for that month. (That honor went to David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which had half a million copies, while a new novel by the likes of John Grisham can run to over a million.) I don’t know what Franzen was paid in advance, but the loss must have fallen well short of a book like Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, for which he received $7 million and sold 62,000 copies, meaning that his publisher paid over a hundred dollars for every copy that someone actually bought. And any financial hit would have been modest compared to the prestige of keeping a major novelist on one’s list, which is unquantifiable, but no less real. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about publishing over the last decade, it’s that it’s a lot like the movie industry, in which apparently inexplicable commercial and marketing decisions are easier to understand when you consider their true audience. In many cases, when they buy or pass on a book, editors aren’t making decisions for readers, but for other editors, and they’re very conscious of what everyone in their imprint thinks. A readership is an abstraction, except when quantified in sales, but editors have their everyday judgement calls reflected back on them by the people they see every day. Giving up a writer like Franzen might make financial sense, but it would be devastating to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to say nothing of the relationship that can grow between an editor and a prized author over time.

You find much the same dynamic in Hollywood, in which some decisions are utterly inexplicable until you see them as a manifestation of office politics. In theory, a film is made for moviegoers, but the reactions of the producer down the hall are far more concrete. The difference between publishing and the movies is that the latter publish their box office returns, often in real time, while book sales remain opaque even at the highest level. And it’s interesting to wonder how both industries might differ if their approaches were more similar. After years of work, the success of a movie can be determined by the Saturday morning after its release, while a book usually has a little more time. (The exception is when a highly anticipated title doesn’t make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, or falls off it with alarming speed. The list doesn’t disclose any sales figures, which means that success is relative, not absolute—and which may be a small part of the reason why writers seldom wish one another well.) In the absence of hard sales, writers establish the pecking order with awards, reviews, and the other signifiers that have allowed Franzen to assume what Brodesser-Akner calls the mantle of “the White Male Great American Literary Novelist.” But the real takeaway is how narrow a slice of the world this reflects. Even if we place the most generous interpretation imaginable onto Franzen’s numbers, it’s likely that well under one percent of the American population has bought or read any of his books. You’ll find roughly the same number on any given weeknight playing HQ Trivia. If we acknowledged this more widely, it might free writers to return to their proper cultural position, in which the difference between a bestseller and a disappointment fades rightly into irrelevance. Who knows? They might even be happier.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2018 at 7:49 am

Birdman, or the unexpected virtue of ignorance

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Jonathan Franzen

By now, many of you have probably read Jonathan Franzen’s baffling New Yorker essay on climate change, as well as the rebuttals it quickly inspired from a wide range of scientists and conservationists. Franzen opens his article by describing himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man,” and he argues that the issue of climate change has usurped time, money, and resources from environmental efforts focused on saving particular species. His proposed solution, if he has one, can be hard to parse in its specifics, but he seems to envision the future as a choice between two alternatives:

We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.

Franzen doesn’t leave much doubt about where his sympathies lie—although we should also note the neat rhetorical trick here of referring to climate change as a “human” catastrophe, when it’s nothing if not an existential threat to countless species, birds included. And the science and politics behind the piece have already been thoroughly debunked elsewhere. (In Franzen’s insistence that all models are “fraught with uncertainties,” and that “North America’s avifauna may well become more diverse” in the wake of global warming, he verges perilously close to his own brand of denialism.)

Still, I don’t think anyone really expected Franzen to come up with startling insights on either science or public policy. What I find more interesting—and which I haven’t seen analyzed so far—are his opinions on the one subject on which he can credibly speak with authority: the way we talk, or ought to talk, about issues like climate change and conservation. He writes:

As a narrative, climate change is almost as simple as “Markets are efficient.” The story can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters: We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re fucked.

Conservation work, in contrast, is novelistic. No two places are alike, and no narrative is simple.

I think that Franzen gets this precisely wrong, and in ways that are more revealing than he intended. Both climate change and conservation are complicated subjects, but on the level that we’re discussing here—mobilizing voters or donors, raising money, and turning a scientific problem into a political one—conservation has an enormous emotional advantage. Environmental groups have long since learned the power of the flagship species, charismatic megafauna like the elephant or panda that can cement an issue in the collective imagination. It’s what climate change needs but has never had. And although the specifics of either topic may be hard to describe on Twitter, a picture of an endangered spotted owl nests easily on Instagram.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

And I know for a fact that Franzen understands this point perfectly, because it parallels the circumstances of his own environmental awakening. In his essay “My Bird Problem,” he says that he first became interested in nature through birdwatching, which in turn was sparked by a confluence of personal factors, including his childlessness, a troubled romantic relationship, and the death of his mother. “Always, in the past,” he writes, “I’d felt like a failure at the task of being satisfied by nature’s beauty.” Birdwatching became his gateway into the natural world, to the point where “nature had become the place where the birds were.” (There’s also a sense in which his obsession with birdwatching was an expression—or alternative form—of his work as a novelist: he describes it as learning how to pay attention, which only meant applying the same intense degree of noticing to nature as he did to human lives.) Later, his birdwatching trips in Europe awakened him to the plight of songbirds, which were being hunted ruthlessly in countries like Malta and Albania, a subject that he’s addressed with great passion and eloquence for The New Yorker and National Geographic. Yet the connection remains indelibly emotional: few readers will ever forget the moment Franzen goes to sample ambelopoulia, or grilled songbird, at a restaurant in Cyprus, and ends by burying their two tiny bodies in the earth with his fingers.

In other words, Franzen’s interest in environmental issues, including climate change, is rooted in an irrational—but genuine—thicket of autobiographical feeling, and much of his recent New Yorker piece reads like the work of a very smart man who has already reached an intuitive conclusion and is casting about for its intellectual justification. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of emotion in motivating environmental action. And Franzen is manifestly aware of its potency: a crucial subplot in his novel Freedom involves the use of the cerulean warbler as a “poster bird” for the larger issue of overpopulation. (As Walter, the protagonist, says: “As long as we put a cerulean warbler on our literature, I can do whatever I want.”) Later, when asked why the foundation has chosen to focus on the warbler, its benefactor says: “I like the bird. It’s a pretty little bird.” Compare this with Franzen’s feelings for a yellow wagtail he saw in Cairo: “My reaction was emotional: Here was a tiny, confiding, warm-blooded, beautifully plumaged animal that had just flown several hundred miles across the desert.” The language is more elevated, but the emotion is the same. And it’s exactly what climate change has always lacked. Instead, it needs writers who can talk about systems of behavior, distill complicated issues into vivid terms, and draw a line between present action and its consequences far in the future. It needs novelists, in short, like Franzen himself. And if he really thinks that climate change is something that can be explicated on Twitter, it’s because his heart has already been captured by a different kind of tweet.

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2015 at 9:49 am

Jonathan Franzen on transparency

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When I was younger, the main struggle was to be a “good writer.” Now I more or less take my writing abilities for granted, although this doesn’t mean I always write well. And, by a wide margin, I’ve never felt less self-consciously preoccupied with language than I did when I was writing Freedom. Over and over again, as I was producing chapters, I said to myself, “This feels nothing like the writing I did for twenty years—this just feels transparent.”…I was admittedly somewhat conscious that this was a good sign—that it might mean that I was doing something different, pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and to the characters in those stories. But it still felt like a leap into the void.

Jonathan Franzen, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2011 at 10:36 am

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