November 5, 2012

A Taste of Franzen

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Sage Chapel seemed to be both an appropriate and inappropriate place to host a reading by writer Jonathan Franzen. With seven books, a National Book Award for his novel The Corrections, numerous essays to The New Yorker magazine and a controversial selection to Oprah Winfrey’s book club, Franzen has gained literary acclaim. As the large (and early) crowd buzzed about its unique interpretations of one of his characters at Thursday night’s event, brought by the Creative Writing Program’s Fall 2012 Reading Series, proved, Franzen is the kind of critical writer seen as a public figure, attracting an audience to hear him preach about writing and other culturally relevant opinions. As the crowd waited in curiosity to see this literary inventor in person, Franzen carefully tiptoed to the wooden stand. Soft-spoken with his signature tortoise shell glasses, he assured the audience that he wore a leather jacket “not to be cool,” but “to be warm.” Franzen was at Sage Chapel not to impress, but to lead an approachably intellectual conversation between a writer and his readers with self-deprecating humor and a serious pursuit of important ideas.

To open the fourth installment of the Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series, Professor Stephanie Vaughn, English, gave a clear introduction to Franzen’s writing. She described him as the “most American of American writers” because he writes about the American family, particularly of the Midwest where Franzen grew up. With these types of stories, his writing is “high energy,” meaning it draws us into all the interesting things Franzen finds important. Most distinctly, Vaughn called Franzen “an alchemist” in the true sense, due to his ability “to change the world into words”.

Franzen then came before the audience and spoke for 45 minutes from two short excerpts. His first reading, “The Chinese Puffin,” was from his most recent book, a collection of essays called Farther Away. The story, which Franzen abridged “basically giving you the golf parts,” was about a puffin golf head he received. His attraction to the puffin led him to China where he investigated golf factories. Under all this, the story was personal: Franzen was battling with his own conflicted feelings about golf and masculinity. The crowd laughed as Franzen described an illogical craving to take back a set of golf bags after he gave them to his government host. With themes of environmentalism, globalization, self-reflection and being “white, male and leisured,” Franzen reflected concern over how globalization hurts the environment, which was appropriate given Hurricane Sandy’s recent destruction to New York City.

His second reading was from his most recent novel, Freedom. The chapter was called “Mountaintop Removal,” “for reasons that,” he said, “will not become clear to you in this reading.”  The point of view came from Richard Katz, a disengaged and angry member of the fictional Grammy-nominated rock band Walnut Surprise, who decides to stop making music and return to building decks. While working, Katz meets a young fan named Zachary who begs him to do an interview in hopes of attracting a girl named Kaitlin. To much humor (and horror), Katz contemplates breaking his celibacy to hurt Zachary by wooing Kaitlin, partly because he’s disgusted Zachary has a vintage guitar collection and rants that a song lasts as long as pack of gum these days.

Back to reality, in a short and slightly disoriented pass-notecard-up question and answer session, Franzen gave his words of advice. In regards to his relationship with his publisher, he said that their relationship is founded on “loyalty” which is what he feels is being lost in the direction of publishing world today.  In his experience, loyalty was something that got him through the poor sales of his second novel, of which even Franzen has never been told the exact sales numbers.  On the publishing world today, he gave two words: “Fear Amazon.” Who does he think is “the greatest living narrative artist?” Alice Munro. And, in regards to criticism, which is plenty, Franzen doesn’t read any criticism of himself anymore because he thinks it is much worse than the nice things critics say. He ended the night saying character-driven fiction depends on sympathy. Every writer has to “be a little in love with the character,” but it’s okay to be hard on yourself or a character if that criticism is “underwritten by love.”

Listening to an author read is a different experience than reading an author. In the case of Franzen, his reading shows how much the novels are, to my surprise, like him. He may be a fast, almost monotone reader, but he puts voices to his characters in expressive ways. While reading, he’d interject with doubts like, “I’m about to mispronounce a Chinese word,” or comments on something he felt he should have written differently. Listening to him, I was able to understand his novels better because I saw how exactly they were written in Franzen’s actual voice.

For the reader in the audience, there is something unexpectedly real about listening to Franzen. His narration can be so conversational that readers mistake something simple for something impossible to understand. But in this reading, Franzen introduced himself as a writer, not trying to promote a persona, but rather determined to design novels to speak clearly to the reader.

Original Author: Meredith Joyce