Sunday, October 11, 2015

Poor writing about someone everyone says is a poor writer, who may or may not be a poor writer but is certainly a jerk.

At this point, with all the griping, I don't know what to think of Jonathan Franzen's writing anymore. I remember liking The Corrections and being disappointed by Freedom. Now everyone says Purity is drivel, everyone other than those who say it's brilliant.

But I do know what I think of him as a person, and he is so awful that I no longer will bother to worry about him as a writer.

All because I happened to read an interview with him in the Financial Times, one I probably wouldn't have even stuck with if it hadn't been for the weirdness of this sentence:

It is nearly 2pm when the door opens and the great American novelist makes a modest entrance. He’s in an old navy fleece.

Is he in an Old Navy (TM) fleece? Or is he in a fleece that is a very dark shade of  blue and also appears to be aging, made by some indeterminate manufacturer?

The interview gets weirder from there.

the waiter, evidently excited to be given something to do at last, is bearing down on us, pad in hand. “I would love some still water if I may, please,” says Franzen, all politeness and diffidence. “And maybe something along the lines of a Diet Coke?”

A quick search for "still water" on the Internet finds nothing to suggest what kind of drink it is. The interview took place at The Gore Hotel, where the menu does not have "still water" but does have "Judy Garland" tea, which is tea with rose petals. 

After some griping about the 1 percenters and New York restaurants, it's pointed out that Franzen is a 1%er himself.

“I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center, yes,” he says, his eyes not on me but on the empty table next to us. “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.”

Do you know where the 1% starts? $400,000. Only the top 1% of Americans earn $400,000 or more per year. I once wrote a post that suggested that nobody should be allowed to earn more than $200,000 per year. I stand by that.

The interviewer notes that Franzen writes about wealthy white people. Franzen fights back by pointing out that the interviewer is quoting Flannery O'Connor.  Apparently Franzen has won this round.

While I smart, he goes on: “I’m a poor person who has money.”

The mystery of the fleece is solved:

Franzen doesn’t spend anything. The fleece he is wearing is 10 years old. He doesn’t like shopping and hates waste. Upstairs in the fridge in his hotel room are the leftovers from meals, all of which he will eat in due course. His only luxury is expensive [sic] for birdwatching.

His other "only" luxuries are the cleaner he overpays.

“I don’t like to hire people to do work that I can do,” he says. So that means he does his own dusting in the New York apartment he shares with his girlfriend? Franzen looks slightly shifty. “We do have a cleaner, although even that I feel some justification because we pay her way more than is standard and she’s a nice Filipino woman who we treat very well and we’re giving her work.”

In America today you can justify anything by saying it creates jobs. Weirdly, overpaying the Filipino maid convinces the interviewer of Franzen's poor-man bona fides:

In a way this middle-class guilt is sweet.

The man is worth $10,000,000. 

Asked about whether he understands why people hate him, Franzen gives the classic jerk answer:

“Well, I have to acknowledge the possibility that I’m simply a horrible person.”

People who tell you upfront that they are horrible people appear to think that somehow excuses their being horrible people. It does not. It makes you worse.

How horrible is Jonathan Franzen? So horrible that he feels it was unfair of people to take it the wrong way when he said that we should just go ahead and stop even trying to do anything about climate change:

He tells me about a piece he wrote in the New Yorker in March about climate change and bird conservation in which he managed to alienate everyone, including bird watchers. “I pointed out that 25 years after humanity collectively tried to reduce its carbon emissions, they reached an all-time high last year; further pointed out that the people who say we still have 10 years to keep the average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius are, charitably, deluded or, uncharitably, simply lying. And, therefore, maybe we should rethink whether we want to be putting such a large percentage of our energies into what is essentially a hopeless battle.”

When I was a self-satisfied smug jerk in college, in 1993, I had an 'environmental dynamics' class where I did a report on how there should be more, not less, beef cattle. I thought I was shocking and provocative and etc etc. I was 24 and naive. Jonathan Franzen has no similar excuses.

Jonathan Franzen doesn't like the internet. If he did, he could have quickly found (as I did) this chart showing that in some years our carbon emissions actually shrank. Who knows how bad things would be without the measures taken? Also: saying we haven't stopped it don't bother trying technically means that everything from speeding to cocaine to murder should be legal.   "Maybe we should rethink whether we want to try to stop murder what with the way people are still murdering each other." -- Jonathan Franzen, thinker.

Other writers, maybe unaware of the fact that Jonathan Franzen thinks the planet is doomed so why bother, hate him for more practical reasons:

I ask if he saw the review of Purity in the Financial Times , which called it “middlebrow”. He says he never reads what people write about him. “I don’t know what ‘middlebrow’ even means. I think it’s threatening to commercial writers that someone who’s selling well is also getting literary respect, and it’s threatening to literary writers who don’t sell that somebody who’s literary also is getting commercial success.”

Other things Jonathan Franzen hates: agriculture.

 he explains how the agrarian revolution was a mistake and argues we were happier as hunter-gatherers. 

Can that thought be conflated into modern-day terms, in a confusing way that will quickly be abandoned? Let's see:

With the internet, he implies, the same may apply. Is he really saying people were happier before the internet? He ducks the question and says instead: “I wasn’t. But I didn’t start feeling happy, really, until my forties.”

I lived in pre-Internet and post-Internet times. I do not miss the pre-Internet days. I like having information at my fingertips, even if sometimes that information is "Man, is Jonathan Franzen a douche."

Consider the next paragraph, right after Franzen has just said he didn't start feeling happy, "really" until his forties:

Happiness for Franzen is slightly problematical. He has often said the best writing comes from discomfort. He has had his share of pain — he has referred to the unhappiness of his 14-year marriage to writer Valerie Cornell — so I wonder, if he had always been as happy as now, would he . . . He cuts me off. “I was,” he says. “I was a smiling, smart, healthy, straight, Midwestern American male who went to decent public schools, what we call public schools, and an excellent college. I had everything it took.”

So he was happy? Or he just had everything you need to be happy but still wasn't? Before you can ponder that too much, you get into his guilt about his parents:

In a way, the thing I feel worst about is writing about my parents, even though I did all my writing after they were dead. It has more to do with their not having had an education that would have enabled them to appreciate what I was doing and why I was doing it.”

The thing Jonathan Franzen regrets most is that his parents were too stupid to appreciate the things he was writing about them and why.

The waiter brings him a bowl of fruit salad so large he looks at it in dismay, as if fearing the inevitable waste.
“Would you like a little bit of this? Even just one bite would help,” he pleads, shovelling fruit on to my plate.

I would punch him right now.

This part I don't even get, other than to suspect (the way I always do around everybody) that somehow I am the butt of the joke:

I wonder if he would have written anything quite as dark if he had children himself?
Franzen sighs. “I’m sure everything would’ve been different. Maybe I would’ve been retired and working on a historical novel about the civil war and teaching fiction at Portland State University if I had had kids.”
I get the reproach, but it’s only later that I get the snobbery. 
Then you get into the really bad stuff:

There was a time, though, when Franzen wanted to have kids. According to the Guardian, for a while he considered adopting an Iraqi orphan so he could get to know young people. Was that true? “The story was the work of a nasty personage,” he says, then tells me what really happened. “There came a point when I was struggling with my fourth novel and I suspected the reason was that I had lost touch with the world, that I came from a strong family, and maybe I was meant to be a family man. But it’s a long way from that to adopting a war orphan to study young people. It fed into what everyone wanted to believe, which is I am an absolutely horrible person.”

So did Jonathan Franzen consider adopting an Iraqi war orphan so he could connect with young people? Yes. He readily admits it in this interview with The Guardian, but says that the idea only lasted about six weeks. Now he appears to be saying that someone is just spreading terrible lies about him. Only they are not lies, and the 'someone' is himself.

The interviewer does not point out that Franzen himself spread the story about Franzen's adoption plan, instead lobbing him a softball that Franzen somehow still takes to a terrible place:

He seems so weary of all this that I ask if he finds fame a burden. Has success made him less nice? No; he says it has made him less angry, and much less envious. 

The thing is, there's really nobody out there to envy, for Jonathan Franzen:

These days if anyone else writes a good novel, he doesn’t feel upset; he is glad. The only trouble is that it hardly ever happens.

The interviewer reminds him of how his 2003 girlfriend had written an essay on how jealous she was of the success of The Corrections.  Franzen, had their roles been reversed, wouldn't have been so upset, but only because women are beneath him:

 If the boot had been on the other foot, Franzen says he would have felt differently, partly because he roots so seriously for “whoever I’m living with” but also because he is usually only competitive with men.

Other things Franzen hates: using then as a conjunction:

He has written a whole essay on the evils of “then” as a conjunction, which strikes me as entirely baffling.
I try out a sentence: “Jonathan Franzen leaned forward, then he leaned back again.” What’s wrong with that? “That’s just a run-on sentence,” he says. “What you will find in bad English prose is, ‘He leaned forward then spoke again.’ ”
Sounds OK to me, I say. “Read my essay,” he says.

The takeaway:

Lunch is nearly over, and there is one more thing I want to ask him. He has said that all decent novelists are changed by every book they write. So how did Purity change him? He stares at the table for so long with his eyes closed that I wonder if he has gone to sleep.

Seriously. I am not a violent person but I'd punch him again. I wasn't going to put in how he changed but then I decided that you pretty much have to read it:

“How I changed was I realised that I really am a fiction writer, I don’t have all that many years, and that I’ve got to find a way to write another couple of novels.”

I really did like The Corrections, but I don't even want to read Purity. Not only was Freedom such a colossal dropoff from The Corrections that I couldn't really conceive of reading his next book, for fear it would be so terrible it would suck pleasure from other, better books I've read, but after reading this article, I don't think I could suffer through the book, lest I start counting how many thens were in it, and keep having to picture Jonathan Franzen, head bowed over his 'still water' with a weariness borne only by those people so poor as to have enough money to hire a cleaning lady.

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