Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen

Bringing the news

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“I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1973. This statement is justifiably famous, and if you think that Wolfe, who passed away yesterday, was making a declaration of intent, you’d be right. In the very next sentence, however, which is quoted much less often, Wolfe added a line that I find tremendously revealing: “I see no reason why novelists who look down on Arthur Hailey’s work couldn’t do the same sort of reporting and research he does—and write it better, if they’re able.” It might seem strange for Wolfe to invoke the author of Hotel and Airport, but two years later, in a long interview with the writer and critic Joe David Bellamy, he doubled down. After Bellamy mentioned Émile Zola as a model for the kind of novel that Wolfe was advocating, the two men had the following exchange:

Wolfe: The fact that [Zola] was bringing you news was a very important thing.

Bellamy: Do you think that’s enough? Isn’t that Arthur Hailey really?

Wolfe: That’s right, it is. The best thing is to have both—to have both someone who will bring you bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world plus a unique sensibility, or rather a unique way of looking at the world.

I’m surprised that this comparison hasn’t received greater attention, because it gets at something essential about Wolfe’s mixed legacy as a novelist. As an author, Wolfe hovered around the edges of my reading and writing life for decades. In high school, I read The Right Stuff and loved it—it’s hard for me to imagine an easier book to love. After I graduated from college, I landed a job at a financial firm in New York, and the first novel that I checked out from the library that week was The Bonfire of the Vanities. A few years later, I read A Man in Full, and not long ago, when I was thinking seriously about writing a nonfiction book about The Whole Earth Catalog, I read Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In each case, I was looking for something more than simple entertainment. I was looking for information, or, in Wolfe’s words, for “news.” It was a cultural position for which Wolfe had consciously prepared himself, as he declared in his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Speaking of the big social novels that had supposedly failed to emerge from the sixties, Wolfe wrote:

That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience.

As counterexamples, Wolfe cited Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Lewis as writers who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” But he didn’t mention Arthur Hailey.

Yet when I think back to Wolfe’s novels, I’m left with the uncomfortable sense that when you strip away his unique voice, you’re left with something closer to Hailey or Irving Wallace—with their armfuls of facts, stock characters, and winking nods to real people and events—than to Dickens. That voice was often remarkable, of course, and to speak of removing it, as if it weren’t bound up in the trapezius muscles of the work itself, is inherently ludicrous. But it was also enough to prevent many readers from noticing Wolfe’s very real limits as an imaginative writer. When A Man in Full was greeted by dismissive comments from Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike, who accurately described it as “entertainment,” Wolfe published a response, “My Three Stooges,” in which he boasted about the novel’s glowing reviews and sales figures and humbly opined that the ensuing backlash was like “nothing else…in all the annals of American literature.” He wrote of his critics:

They were shaken. It was as simple as that. A Man in Full was an example—an alarmingly visible one—of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century literature: the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now—a revolution in content rather than form—that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.

This is grand gossip, even if the entire controversy was swept away a year later by the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, another vast social novel with an accompanying declaration of intent. But it also overlooks the fact that Wolfe’s novels are notably less valuable as reportage than even Updike’s Couples, say, or any of the last three Rabbit books, in which the author diligently left a record of his time, in the form of thousands of closely observed details from the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And the real irony is that Updike had quietly set himself to the exact task what Wolfe had attempted with much greater fanfare, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography:

What did [Updike] know about his hero’s new job [in Rabbit is Rich]? What did he know about the business of running a Toyota dealership? As he did for The Coup, he rolled up his sleeves and hit the books. And he also enlisted outside help, hiring a researcher to untangle the arcane protocols of automobile finance and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, what the salaries are for the various employees, what paperwork is involved in importing foreign cars, and so on. Updike visited showrooms in the Boston area, hunting for tips from salesmen and collecting brochures. He aimed for, and achieved, a level of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to a legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: “No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.”

This is nothing if not reportage, six years before The Bonfire of the Vanities, and not because Updike wanted, in Wolfe’s words, “to cram the world into that novel, all of it,” but in order to tell a story about a specific, utterly ordinary human being. Automobile finance wasn’t as sexy or exotic as Wall Street, which may be why Wolfe failed to acknowledge this. (In Rabbit Redux, instead of writing about the astronauts, Updike wrote about people who seem to barely even notice the moon landing.) Wolfe’s achievements as a journalist are permanent and unquestionable. But we still need the kind of news that the novel can bring, now more than ever, and Wolfe never quite figured out how to do it—even though his gifts were undeniable. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at his considerable strengths.

My ten great books #5: Couples

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In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

The myth of the public novelist

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sontag

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on April 8, 2015.

Novelists, by nature, are neurotic types, and never more so than when they’re justifying the pursuit to which they’ve devoted their lives. Looking around at the issues that beset us—social and racial inequality, poverty, terrorism, institutionalized sexism, and much more, all arrayed like a tapestry of woe beneath the gloomy specter of climate change—it’s easy to regard writing novels as an activity of spectacular uselessness. When we do try to rationalize it, we have a few stock answers at our disposal. The art of fiction, we say, is largely the art of empathy, or of training ourselves and our readers to take an interest in the lives of others, and even if the novel has rarely, if ever, changed the course of history, it encourages a habit of thinking outside ourselves that teaches us how to walk in another person’s shoes. (In theory, anyway. But you could also argue that it provides the illusion of empathy, a way of exercising or discharging our emotions that lets us off the hook when it comes to putting those impulses to work in the real world.) And it also turns us into skeptical, even agonistic generalists, capable of grasping complex systems of cause and effect, even if in practice we spend most of our time tackling excruciatingly specific problems of narrative, which often feels like constructing a cathedral out of toothpicks.

Deep down, though, I suspect that a lot of novelists nurture a secret hope. One day, we’ll break through with a major novel or work of nonfiction that will establish us in the sphere of public intellectuals. Glossy magazines and talk shows will solicit our opinions, whatever they are, and our voices will be heard on a range of subjects simply because everything we say is deemed to be interesting. Writing a decent novel, which is undeniably one of the most challenging projects a human being can undertake, is assumed to qualify us to think about other subjects. (Literary novelists, like chess players, have a way of seeing themselves as more intellectually fit than others, as Charles Colton said of mathematicians: “He will be in argument what the ancient Romans were in the field: to them the day of battle was a day of comparative recreation because they were ever accustomed to exercise with arms much heavier than they fought.”) And it can’t be an accident that so many of our most versatile intellectuals—Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre—either started in the novel or devoted a fair amount of attention to it. Thinking hard about reality and about problems of fiction feels like the same skill set directed into two different streams, and an accomplished writer should be able to switch effortlessly between one and the other.

Edmund Wilson

A glance at recent rankings of public intellectuals suggests that this ambition, to put it mildly, is misplaced. The most widely distributed list of this kind, published annually by Foreign Policy, includes just a handful of novelists or imaginative writers: Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, the late Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Gao Xingjian, and maybe Michael Ignatieff, an author better known these days as the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. A most recent Prospect Magazine list adds a few more names to the pile: Hilary Mantel, Michel Houellebecq, Marilynne Robinson, and Arundhati Roy, who is returning to fiction after a lengthy sojourn in more political fields. For the most part, though, these lists are composed largely of academics, scientists, economists, and businessmen. You could attribute this partially to the decline of the novel as the central art form of our culture: these days, if an entertainer wanders into a position of punditry, he’s likely to look more like Russell Brand. But there’s also a real sense in which a good novelist might be less equipped than average to deal with the complicated problems of public life. Writing is so solitary, so focused on points of craft that have no application anywhere else, that it turns a serious novelist into a machine who can speak credibly on issues of fiction alone—and maybe not even then. And an ability with words only makes it easier to be convincingly wrong.

Yet the illusion persists. And it’s a useful one, at least to the extent that it allows intelligent people to stick with writing when they might have found a more acceptable outlet for their ambitions. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which writing novels wasn’t seen as a worthwhile pursuit for raw talent. If I’m honest, though, I also find that part of the reason I was so annoyed with Jonathan Franzen’s attempt two years ago to inject himself into the climate change debate is that he’s one of the few authors who actually got the platform that every writer wants. There isn’t a novelist alive who doesn’t secretly wish that The New Yorker would give him space to speak out on whatever he perceives to be the central issue of our time. And Franzen squandered his chance on an argument that even his editors must have known was insupportable. Yet I have a hunch that most novelists would have responded in the same way. Along with being inherently neurotic, writers are often misguided, even perverse, in their social and political stances: they spend so much time willing themselves into the minds of others that they turn into creatures who aren’t like anyone else. Franzen is part of a proud tradition, stretching back through Mailer and Sontag and beyond, of novelists backing themselves into weird, indefensible positions. Writers aren’t reasonable; if they were, they wouldn’t try to be writers. And it’s good to keep this in mind whenever a writer—including this one—tries to give you advice.

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

A writer’s climate

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Elizabeth Kolbert

Note: I’m away at the World Science Fiction Convention for the rest of the week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, on April 21, 2015.

Last year, the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction was awarded to Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent, sobering book The Sixth Extinction. I had finished reading it shortly beforehand, which may be the first time I’ve ever gotten in on a Pulitzer winner on the ground floor. It was the high point of a month in which I worked my way through a stack of books on climate change, including This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. I also read Jonathan Franzen’s infamous article in The New Yorker, of course. And for a while, these works provided a lens through which I saw almost everything else. There was the New York Times piece on Royal Dutch Shell’s acquisition of BG Group, for instance, which doesn’t mention climate change once; or their writeup, a few days later, on the imposition of new rules for offshore oil and gas exploration, even as the Atlantic Coast is being opened up for drilling. The Times describes this latter development as “a decision that has infuriated environmentalists”—which, when you think about it, is an odd statement. Climate change affects everybody, and if you believe, as many do, that the problem starts at the wellhead, pigeonholing it as an environmental issue only makes it easier to ignore.

I don’t mean to turn this into a post on the problem of climate change itself, which is a topic on which my own thoughts are still evolving. But like any great social issue—and it’s hard to see it as anything else—the way in which we choose to talk about it inevitably affects our responses. Franzen touches on this in his essay, in which he contrasts the “novelistic” challenge of conservation with the tweetable logic, terrifying in its vast simplicity, of global warming. I happen to think he’s wrong, but it’s still crucial for writers in general, and journalists especially, to think hard about how to cover an issue that might be simple in its outlines but dauntingly complex in its particulars. It may be the only thing we’re qualified to do. And Kolbert’s approach feels a lot like one that both Franzen and I can agree is necessary: novelistic, detailed, with deeply reported chapters on the author’s own visits to locations from Panama to Iceland to the Great Barrier Reef. Reading her book, we’re painlessly educated and entertained on a wide range of material, and while its message may be bleak, her portraits of the scientists she encounters leave us with a sense of possibility, however qualified it may be. (It helps that Kolbert has a nice dry sense of humor, as when she describes one researcher’s work as performing “handjobs on crows.”)

Naomi Klein

And in its focus on the author’s firsthand experiences, I suspect that it will live longer in my imagination than a work like Klein’s This Changes Everything, which I read around the same time. Klein’s book is worthy and important, but it suffers a little in its determination to get everything in, sometimes to the detriment of the argument itself. Nuclear power, for instance, deserves to be at the center of any conversation about our response to climate change, whether or not you see it as a viable part of the solution, but Klein dismisses it in a footnote. And occasionally, as in her discussion of agroecology—or the use of small, diverse farms as an alternative to industrial agriculture—it feels as if she’s basing her opinion on a single article from National Geographic. (It doesn’t help that she quotes one expert as saying that the Green Revolution didn’t really save the world from hunger, since starvation still exists, which is a little like saying that modern medicine has failed because disease hasn’t been totally eradicated. There’s also no discussion of the possibility that industrial agriculture has substantially decreased greenhouse emissions by reducing the total land area that needs to be converted to farming. Whatever your feelings on the subject, these issues can’t simply be swept aside.)

But there’s no one right way to write about climate change, and Klein’s global perspective, as a means of organizing our thoughts on the subject, is useful, even if it needs to be supplemented by more nuanced takes. (I particularly loved Funk’s book Windfall, which is loaded with as many fascinating stories as Kolbert’s—and one chapter ended up inspiring my upcoming novella “The Proving Ground.”) Writers, as I’ve said elsewhere, tend to despair over how little value their work seems to hold in the face of such challenges. But if these books demonstrate one thing, it’s that the first step toward meaningful action, whatever form it assumes, lies in describing the world with the specificity, clarity, and diligence it demands. It doesn’t always call for jeremiads or grand plans, and it’s revealing that Kolbert’s book is both the best and the least political of the bunch. And it’s safe to say that talented writers will continue to be drawn to the subject: truly ambitious authors will always be tempted to tackle the largest themes possible, if only out of the “real egotism” that Albert Szent-Györgyi identifies as a chief characteristic of a great researcher. Writers, in fact, are the least likely of any of us to avoid confronting the unthinkable, simply because they have a vested interest in shaping the conversation about our most difficult issues. It’s fine for them to dream big; we need people who will. But they’ll make the greatest impact by telling one story at a time.

The two kinds of commentaries

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The Principal and the Pauper

There are two sorts of commentary tracks. The first kind is recorded shortly after a movie or television season is finished, or even while it’s still being edited or mixed, and before it comes out in theaters. Because their memories of the production are still vivid, the participants tend to be a little giddy, even punch drunk, and their feelings about the movie are raw: “The wound is still open,” as Jonathan Franzen put it to Slate. They don’t have any distance, and they remember everything, which means that they can easily get sidetracked into irrelevant detail. They don’t yet know what is and isn’t important. Most of all, they don’t know how the film did with viewers or critics, so their commentary becomes a kind of time capsule, sometimes laden with irony. The second kind of commentary is recorded long after the fact, either for a special edition, for the release of an older movie in a new format, or for a television series that is catching up with its early episodes. These tend to be less predictable in quality: while commentaries on recent work all start to sound more or less the same, the ones that reach deeper into the past are either disappointingly superficial or hugely insightful, without much room in between. Memories inevitably fade with time, but this can also allow the artist to be more honest about the result, and the knowledge of how the work was ultimately received adds another layer of interest. (For instance, one of my favorite commentaries from The Simpsons is for “The Principal and the Pauper,” with writer Ken Keeler and others ranting against the fans who declared it—preemptively, it seems safe to say—the worst episode ever.)

Perhaps most interesting of all are the audio commentaries that begin as the first kind, but end up as the second. You can hear it on the bonus features for The Lord of the Rings, in which, if memory serves, Peter Jackson and his cowriters start by talking about a movie that they finished years ago, continue by discussing a movie that they haven’t finished editing yet, and end by recording their comments for The Return of the King after it won the Oscar for Best Picture. (This leads to moments like the one for The Two Towers in which Jackson lays out his reasoning for pushing the confrontation with Saruman to the next movie—which wound up being cut for the theatrical release.) You also see it, on a more modest level, on the author’s commentaries I’ve just finished writing for my three novels. I began the commentary on The Icon Thief way back on April 30, 2012, or less than two months after the book itself came out. At the time, City of Exiles was still half a year away from being released, and I was just beginning the first draft of the novel that I still thought would be called The Scythian. I had a bit of distance from The Icon Thief, since I’d written a whole book and started another in the meantime, but I was still close enough that I remembered pretty much everything from the writing process. In my earliest posts, you can sense me trying to strike the right balance between providing specific anecdotes about the novel itself to offering more general thoughts on storytelling, while using the book mostly as a source of examples. And I eventually reached a compromise that I hoped would allow those who had actually read the book to learn something about how it was put together, while still being useful to those who hadn’t.

Peter Jackson

As a result, the commentaries began to stray further from the books themselves, usually returning to the novel under discussion only in the final paragraph. I did this partly to keep the posts accessible to nonreaders, but also because my own relationship with the material had changed. Yesterday, when I posted the last entry in my commentary on Eternal Empire, almost four years had passed since I finished the first draft of that novel. Four years is a long time, and it’s even longer in writing terms. If every new project puts a wall between you and the previous one, a series of barricades stands between these novels and me: I’ve since worked on a couple of book-length manuscripts that never got off the ground, a bunch of short stories, a lot of occasional writing, and my ongoing nonfiction project. With each new endeavor, the memory of the earlier ones grows dimmer, and when I go back to look at Eternal Empire now, not only do I barely remember writing it, but I’m often surprised by my own plot. This estrangement from a work that consumed a year of my life is a little sad, but it’s also unavoidable: you can’t keep all this information in your head and still stay sane. Amnesia is a coping strategy. We’re all programmed to forget many of our experiences—as well as our past selves—to free up capacity for the present. A novel is different, because it exists in a form outside the brain. Any book is a piece of its writer, and it can be as disorienting to revisit it as it is to read an old diary. As François Mauriac put it: “It is as painful as reading old letters…We touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes, of dust.” I’m not quite at that point with Eternal Empire, but I’ll sometimes read a whole series of chapters and think to myself, where did that come from?

Under the circumstances, I should count myself lucky that I’m still reasonably happy with how these novels turned out, since I have no choice but to be objective about it. There are things that I’d love to change, of course: sections that run too long, others that seem underdeveloped, conceits that seem too precious or farfetched or convenient. At times, I can see myself taking the easy way out, going with a shortcut or ignoring a possible implication because I lacked the time or energy to do it justice. (I don’t necessarily regret this: half of any writing project involves conserving your resources for when it really matters.) But I’m also surprised by good ideas or connections that seem to have come from outside of me, as if, to use Isaac Asimov’s phrase, I were writing over my own head. Occasionally, I’ll have trouble following my own logic, and the result is less a commentary than a forensic reconstruction of what I must have been thinking at the time. But if I find it hard to remember my reasoning today, it’s easier now than it will be next year, or after another decade. As I suspected at the time, the commentary exists more for me than for anybody else. It’s where I wrote down my feelings about a series of novels that once dominated my life, and which now seem like a distant memory. While I didn’t devote nearly as many hours to these commentaries as I did to the books themselves, they were written over a comparable stretch of time. And now that I’ve gotten to the point of writing a commentary on my commentary—well, it’s pretty clear that it’s time to stop.

Love and research

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Jonathan Franzen

I’ve expressed mixed feelings about Jonathan Franzen before, but I don’t think there’s any doubt about his talent, or about his ability to infuriate readers in just the right way. His notorious essay on climate change in The New Yorker still irritates me, but it prompted me to think deeply on the subject, if only to articulate why I thought he was wrong. But Franzen isn’t a deliberate provocateur, like Norman Mailer was: instead, he comes across as a guy with deeply felt, often conflicted opinions, and he expresses them as earnestly as he can, even if he knows he’ll get in trouble for it. Recently, for instance, he said the following to Isaac Chotiner of Slate, in response to a question about whether he could ever write a book about race:

I have thought about it, but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare…Didn’t marry into a black family. I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.

It’s quite a statement, and it comes right at the beginning of the interview, before either Franzen or Chotiner have had a chance to properly settle in. Not surprisingly, it has already inspired a fair amount of snark online. But Franzen is being very candid here in ways that most novelists wouldn’t dare, and he deserves credit for it, even if he puts it in a way that is likely to make us uncomfortable. The question of authors writing about other races is particularly fraught, and the practical test that Franzen proposes is a better entry point than most. We shouldn’t discourage writers from imagining themselves into the lives of characters of different backgrounds, but we can insist on setting a high bar. (I’m talking mostly about literary fiction, by the way, which works hard to enter the consciousness of a protagonist or a society, and not necessarily about the ordinary diversity that I like to see in popular fiction, in which writers can—and often should—make the races of the characters an unobtrusive element in the story.) We could say, for instance, that a novel about race should be conceived from the inside out, rather than the outside in, and that it demands a certain intensity of experience and understanding to justify itself. Given the number of minority authors who are amply qualified to write about these issues firsthand, an outsider needs to earn the right to engage with the subject, and this requires something beyond well-intentioned concern. As Franzen rightly says in the same interview: “I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America.”

The Corrections

And Franzen’s position becomes easier to understand when framed within his larger concerns about research itself. As he once told The Guardian: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” Yet like just about everything Franzen says, this seemingly straightforward rule is charged with a kind of reflexive uneasiness, because he’s among the most obsessive of researchers. His novels are full of lovingly rendered set pieces that were obviously researched with enormous diligence, and sometimes they call attention to themselves, as Norman Mailer unkindly but accurately noted of The Corrections:

Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination—it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better—they stick to the surface.

For a writer like Franzen, whose novels are ambitious attempts to fit everything he can within two covers, research is part of the game. But it’s also no surprise that the novelist who has tried the hardest to bring research back into mainstream literary fiction should also be the most agonizingly aware of its limitations.

These limitations are particularly stark when it comes to race, which, more than any other theme, demands to be lived and felt before it can be written. And if Franzen shies away from it with particular force, it’s because the set of skills that he has employed so memorably elsewhere is rendered all but useless here. It’s wise of him to acknowledge this, and he sets forth a useful test for gauging a writer’s ability to engage the subject. He writes:

In the case of Purity, I had all this material on Germany. I had spent two and a half years there. I knew the literature fairly well, and I could never write about it because I didn’t have any German friends. The portal to being able to write about it was suddenly having these friends I really loved. And then I wasn’t the hostile outsider; I was the loving insider.

Research, he implies, takes you only so far, and love—defined as the love of you, the novelist, for another human being—carries you the rest of the way. Love becomes a kind of research, since it provides you with something like the painful vividness of empathy and feeling required to will yourself into the lives of others. Without talent and hard work, love isn’t enough, and it may not be enough even with talent in abundance. But it’s necessary, if not sufficient. And while it doesn’t tell us much about who ought to be writing about race, it tells us plenty about who shouldn’t.

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2016 at 8:37 am

“The deckhand cut the engine…”

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"Climbing behind the aft console..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 53. You can read the previous installments here.

I think it’s fair to assume that most writers these days—fiction and otherwise—do much of their research online. Yet this seems to make some people uncomfortable, as if it were a violation of the implicit contract between author and reader. One possible analogy is to hiring a consultant or an expert witness: you’d feel cheated if you paid somebody for their time and expertise, only to find that he or she was simply googling the answers to all your questions. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that the ease of online research circumvents the lengthy period of absorption in a subject that makes true understanding possible: when you get the answer too quickly, you run the risk that your brain won’t be ready for it. I’m willing to believe this, but I have a problem with the idea that the accessibility of so much information somehow renders the novelist less special. As Jonathan Franzen notoriously said to The Guardian: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” But Franzen writes novels that all but advertise the tremendous amount of legwork they required, which implies that it isn’t whether or not you do research that matters, but what kind it is. The novelist’s role, it seems, is to add value to the data that we have at our disposal, and typing a query into a search engine doesn’t cut it.

This is true enough, but it misses the more important point, which is that a novelist can add value even to just the sort of information that we’re likely to come across on the Internet. As anyone who has spent any time researching a complicated issue online has learned, it isn’t simply a matter of clicking on the first search result that you see: you often have to pull together facts from many places, while constantly monitoring the credibility of your sources, and the result is a pattern that didn’t exist before, even though all of the pieces were theoretically available to everyone. This kind of assemblage poses problems of its own, which is part of the reason I spent so much of The Icon Thief using that process to invent a conspiracy theory: it’s what it does best. But when kept under control, and in the right context, that kind of exercise can be immensely valuable as a way of generating beautiful ideas. (Most of the fiction I’ve published in Analog wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the tools that we have for combining and associating bits of isolated data into a surprising shape.) A novelist can also perform a useful public service in the form of a deep dive—the singleminded pursuit of material to fill out a gap in the narrative. Sometimes this means spending weeks researching something that will end up as a couple of sentences, or even get cut altogether. And a writer is obsessive enough to invest that level of attention on the most trifling of details.

"The deckhand cut the engine..."

For instance, I spend a lot of time downloading and reading user manuals. Usually, this is because there’s an arcane piece of hardware in a story that I need to accurately describe, at least to the extent of knowing the right names for all the parts or the actions required for every step in the process. Poking around a little online, once I’ve managed to figure out which search terms to use, often yields useful technical material, especially when I add “filetype:PDF” to the query, and I’ll sometimes spend whole days poring over manuals and spec sheets to make sure I’m getting everything right. The danger, of course, is that the story can turn into a sort of user’s manual itself, in which the author is unwilling to part with any of the factual background that he has so laboriously acquired. (I’m keenly aware of this problem, because it’s particularly troublesome in science fiction and suspense, which are the two genres in which I’ve done the most work.) But it helps to keep the true purpose of this kind of research in mind. As I’ve said many times before, this isn’t about accuracy, which is an incidental benefit; it’s about providing material for dreams. The kind of step-by-step description we find in a user manual, in particular, can serve as a useful backbone or scaffold for the action. If every scene, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be structured as a series of objectives, a manual is nothing less than a one-act play with a beginning, middle, and end, and it climaxes when the user triumphantly completes the repair or installation.

Obviously, it’s possible to take this sort of thing too far, and we’ve all had the experience of reading a story that fails to keep the research where it belongs—in the background. But when properly utilized, it can give shape to the more important things taking place up front. Chapter 53 of Eternal Empire, for example, is all about the evacuation of the sinking yacht after it has been attacked by a drone, which is the kind of big set piece that can quickly degenerate into a bunch of disconnected fragments. Being able to accurately describe, say, the procedure for lowering a lifeboat was a huge deal for me. If you read the scene closely, you see that the characters are almost always doing something, even while more important narrative material receives the most emphasis. It’s a little like the bits of business, like lighting a cigarette, that actors use to do something with their hands, except that every tiny action feeds back to the throughline of the scene, which is to escape safely from the yacht. Much of it came from the lifeboat and sea safety manuals I found online, which briefed me on the vocabulary I needed to get the sequence onto the page. If the reader notices it, I haven’t done my job, but without it, the scene would just lie there. And it’s the kind of research that would be prohibitively difficult if it weren’t for the combination of easy accessibility and the writer’s willingness to spend ungodly amounts of time on it. Writers can and should read user manuals. After all, they may be the only ones who ever will…

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2016 at 8:48 am

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