Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen

“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

The act of noticing

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Jonathan Franzen

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 24, 2014.

Yesterday, while playing with my daughter at the park, I found myself oddly fascinated by the sight of a landscaping crew that was taking down a tree across the street. It’s the kind of scene you encounter on a regular basis in suburbia, but I wound up watching with unusual attention, mostly because I didn’t have much else to do. (I wasn’t alone, either. Any kind of construction work amounts to the greatest show on earth for toddlers, and there ended up being a line of tiny spectators peering through the fence.) Maybe because I’ve been in a novelistic state of mind recently, I focused on details that I’d never noticed before. There’s the way a severed tree limb dangles from the end of the crane almost exactly like a hanged man, as Eco describes it in Foucault’s Pendulum, with its heavy base tracing a second, smaller circle in the air. I noted how a chainsaw in action sprays a fan of fine particles behind it, like a peacock’s tail. And when the woodchipper shoots chips into the back of the truck, a cloud of light golden dust forms above the container, like the soul of the tree ascending.

As I watched, I had the inevitable thought: I should put this into a story. Unfortunately, nothing I’m writing at the moment includes a landscaping scene, and the easiest way to incorporate it would be through some kind of elaborate metaphor, as we often see, at its finest, in Proust. (“As he listened to her words, he found himself reminded of a landscaping crew he had once seen…”) But it made me reflect both on the act of noticing and on the role it plays, or doesn’t, in my own fiction. Most of the time, when I’m writing a story, I’m following the dictates of a carefully constructed plot, and I’ll find myself dealing with a building or a city scene that has imposed itself by necessity on the action: my characters end up at a hospital or a police station, and I strain to find a way to evoke it in a few economical lines that haven’t been written a million times before. Occasionally, this strikes me as a backward way of working. It would be better, it seems, to build the story around locations and situations that I already know I can describe—or which caught my attention in the way that landscaping crew did—rather than scrambling to push out something original under pressure.

Joseph O'Neill

In fact, that’s the way a lot of novelists work, particularly on the literary end. One of the striking trends in contemporary fiction is how so much of it doubles as reportage, with miniature New Yorker pieces buried like bonbons within the larger story. This isn’t exactly new: writers from Nabokov to Updike have filled their novels with set pieces that serve, in James Wood’s memorable phrase, as “propaganda on behalf of good noticing.” What sets more recent novels apart is how undigested some of it seems. At times, you can feel the narrative pausing for a page or two as the writer—invariably a talented one, or else these sections wouldn’t survive the editorial process—serves up a chunk of journalistic observation. As Norman Mailer writes, rather unkindly, of Jonathan Franzen:

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.

This isn’t entirely fair to Franzen, a superb noticer who creates vivid characters even as he auditions for our admiration. But I thought of this again after finishing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. It’s a novel I’d wanted to read for years, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, while remaining conscious of its constant shifts into what amounts to nonfiction: beautifully written and reported essays on New York, London, the Hague, India, cricket, and just about everything else. It’s a gorgeous book, but it ends up feeling more like a collection of lovingly burnished parts than a cohesive whole, and its acts of noticing occasionally interfere with its ability to invent real interactions for its characters. It was Updike himself, I think, who warned writers against mining their journals for material, and you can see why: it encourages a sort of novelistic bricolage rather than an organic discovery of the action, and the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. And there’s more than one way of telling a story. As I was studying the landscaping crew at the park, my daughter was engaged in a narrative of her own: she ran into her friend Elise, played on the seesaw, and then had to leave abruptly for a diaper change. Or, as Beatrix put it, when I asked about her day: “Park. Elyse. Say hi. Seesaw. Poop. Go home.” And I don’t think I can do better than that.

On Walden Pond

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is a public menace, and he needs to be stopped. That’s the impression, at least, that we get from the critic Kathryn Schulz’s puzzling essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a savage takedown with no apparent news angle aside from the author’s determination to bury, not praise, Thoreau. Schulz tackles the task with relish, pointing out that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Let’s set aside the point, for now, that literary masterpieces in any genre aren’t likely to emerge from any other kind of personality: Walden, Schulz writes, is the work of a misanthrope “whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” The article’s attitude toward Thoreau’s antisocial tendencies is indignant, even strident, and it’s even stranger when we realize that it occupies the same prominent position in the same magazine—and was presumably the product of the same editorial process—as Jonathan Franzen’s equally baffling essay on climate change, in which he more or less advised the rest of us to resign ourselves to a “human catastrophe” to make room for more deserving species. And I can’t help but feel that Schulz has chosen a peculiar target for her rage, at a time when Thoreau, for all his flaws, stands as a necessary counterexample to the unsustainable impulses that surround us on every side.

I could tell that I was going to be out of phase with Schulz almost from the beginning, when she refers to the opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” as “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.” I’ve always found it riveting—it’s possibly the most heavily underlined section in any book I own—and I revisit it on a regular basis, while I rarely feel the need to reread Thoreau’s nature writing, which Schulz likes. But there are other early warning signs that we shouldn’t expect a fair hearing. Schulz dismisses Thoreau’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, including his work as a conductor on the underground railroad, in a single paragraph, and she concludes: “But one may reach good ends by bad means.” (If history has taught us anything, isn’t it that we need to be more concerned about the opposite?) “His moral clarity about abolition,” Schulz writes, “stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” Yet that abstract conviction led him to take positions and actions at considerable risk to his own safety, while the “compassion” of so many others, then as now, resulted in nothing more than moral self-congratulation at a comfortable remove. Walden, Schulz says, is “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” but in practice, it resulted in a greater sense of obligation and responsibility than many of the social and economic platitudes with which we surround ourselves today.

Marker for Thoreau's cabin

Which isn’t to say that Thoreau isn’t a deeply problematic figure. The core of Schulz’s position is familiar, and basically correct: Walden is a work of imaginative literature, not reportage, since Thoreau wasn’t nearly as removed from civilization as he claimed to be, and he wasn’t able to stick for long to the mode of living that he pressed on his readers. Schulz concludes: “So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.” (There’s also the fact that even contemplating such a retreat is a luxury afforded to very few. E.B. White’s famous quip that Thoreau wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected” carries more weight than Schulz’s essay does in its entirety.) But this also misses the point. “His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel,” Schulz writes, but this is a charge that can be leveled, with just as much reason, at other moral exemplars who have manifestly asked for the impossible. Walden is less like a practical handbook than what the Jesus Seminar calls a case parody, an admonition so exaggerated—like “Turn the other cheek”—that it exists only to shock us out of our old assumptions. A more reasoned approach, of the kind that Schulz would evidently prefer, would have had about as much impact as such arguments usually do, which is to say none. Thoreau overcorrects toward an extreme vision of simplicity because so much of America, both in his time and in ours, skews just as strongly in the other direction.

And it’s only through a conversation between extremes that we get at the kind of reasonable middle ground that Schulz finds acceptable. Thoreau wrote that even owning a doormat might mean succumbing to a kind of materialist temptation, of which Schulz says: “Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope.” But this misunderstands how balance arises in the first place. The kind of moderation that Schulz—and I—see as the best way of living doesn’t emerge from aiming constantly at the midpoint: it’s an averaging out of extremes, a pragmatic slalom that allows for a play of competing forces that otherwise would shake themselves apart. (In fact, the best defense of Schulz’s essay is that its shrill attack on Thoreau might be the corrective we need to get at a more realistic portrait, which doesn’t make it any more convincing on its own.) “Restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life,” Schulz writes, as if this were a flaw in Thoreau’s argument, when in fact he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics who recognize that strict rules of simplicity, requiring constant vigilance, are the only way to generate the right kind of complexity. “The hypocrisy,” Schulz says, “is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one.” Yet I don’t think the reader comes away from Walden with any impression other than that of a man of enormous inward complexity enabled by the outward constraints on which he maddeningly insisted. Thoreau’s example, even if it was inherently unattainable, points the way forward. In the words of the man who owned the land on which that cabin was built: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

“History often had plans of its own…”

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"According to legend..."

Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 17. You can read the previous installments here.

“A genre is hardening,” the literary critic James Wood wrote fifteen years ago, in his enormously influential New Republic essay “Hysterical Realism.” It’s the set of conventions, he observed, that we see in so many big, ambitious novels published in the last few decades: they’re crammed with plot and information, and they often take a greater interest in how social and political systems work than in the inner lives of their own characters. Dickens provides the original model, with Pynchon setting the standard, followed by the likes of Rushdie, Wallace, and DeLillo. Woods quotes Zadie Smith, who says that she’s concerned with “ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds,” and who goes on to state:

[It’s not the writer’s job] to tell us how somebody feels about something, it’s to tell us how the world works…These are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, math, philosophy, but…they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever. That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right. And I don’t think any of us have quite yet, but hopefully one of us will.

Woods, as the title of his essay implies, isn’t a fan. He notes, accurately, that this kind of “realism” can serve as an evasion of reality itself: it allows writers to retreat, fashionably, from the unglamorous consideration of the genuine emotions of real men and women. And even if you’re determined to work within that genre, the challenge, as Smith says, is balance. An ambitious literary novel these days is expected to move between two or more registers: the everyday interactions of its characters and the larger social context—meticulously researched and imagined—in which the human story takes place. Shifting between these levels is a hard technical problem, and we can feel the strain even in good novels. In Smith’s White Teeth, Woods sees “an instructive squabble…between these two literary modes,” and a book like The Corrections gains much of its interest from the tension between these kinds of storytelling. Jonathan Franzen, who is as smart a writer as they come, has as much trouble as anyone with managing those transitions: all too often, we end up with passages that read, as Norman Mailer puts it, like “first-rate magazine pieces, but no better.” But in a really fine example of the form, like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, the social concerns emerge so organically from the story that it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

"History often had plans of its own..."

What’s funny, of course, is that genre novelists have been dealing with these issues for a long time, and literary fiction is only now taking up the challenge. Science fiction or fantasy, for instance, is invariably set in an unfamiliar world, the rules of which need to be conveyed seamlessly within the action, and one of the first problems any thoughtful writer confronts is how to establish this background in an unobtrusive way. It also affects historical fiction, or even suspense, which often takes place in a realm far removed from the reader’s experience. And the bad examples—in which the story grinds to a halt as the author explains the workings of interstellar travel or the political situation in his warring kingdoms—aren’t so different from the moments in which hysterical realism abandons its characters for a treatise on geopolitical trade. The difference is that it’s our own world that these novels are describing, as if the authors were alien journalists encountering it for the first time. That kind of fictional reportage can be valuable: at its best, it forces us to see the world around us with new eyes, or discloses patterns that have lurked there unseen. But literary fiction, which was able to stick to a narrowly focused register for so long, is still figuring out what the best genre novelists have been doing for decades.

So what does this have to do with Eternal Empire? Like many suspense novels, it devotes ample space to filling in background—on the British prison system, the security services, and the world of oligarchs and gangsters—that few readers could be expected to know firsthand. It also follows a template, established by the first two books in the series, of engaging with history and religion, which creates another level of story in which it has to dip from time to time. I devoted a lot of effort, possibly too much, to integrating those digressions in ways that seemed natural, and it wasn’t always easy. In Chapter 17, for instance, I include a page of material about the Khazars, the enigmatic tribe of Central Asian horsemen that disappeared shortly after their unprecedented conversion to Judaism. The Khazars aren’t essential to the story; they serve primarily as a kind of sustained analogy for Ilya’s inward journey, to a degree that isn’t clear until the end. I realized early on that it would be asking too much of the reader to deliver all of this material at once, so I carved it up into three or four shorter sections, each of which represented a self-contained stage, and inserted them at points in which Ilya’s own thoughts or situation provided a natural transition. (They also serve, more practically, to create a pause in the action where such a delay seemed useful.) The result sometimes resembles the “squabble” that Woods sees in more literary novels. But the problem of moving between two worlds is one that most writers, like Ilya, will have to confront sooner or later…

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2015 at 9:56 am

A writer’s climate

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Elizabeth Kolbert

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction was awarded to Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent, sobering book The Sixth Extinction. As it happens, I finished reading it the other week, and it’s lying on my desk as I write this, which may be the first time I’ve ever gotten in on a Pulitzer winner on the ground floor. Recently, I’ve 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, they 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 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.) 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 myth of the public novelist

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sontag

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. The most recent Prospect Magazine list adds a few more names to the pile: Hilary Mantel, Michel Houellebecq, Marilynne Robinson, and Arundhati Roy, who appears to be 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’m so annoyed with Jonathan Franzen’s attempt 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

April 8, 2015 at 9:38 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

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