Thursday, March 08, 2012

Jonathan Franzen at Tulane

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

He attended Jonathan Franzen's March 5, 2012 talk at Tulane University and filed this exclusive report:

Jonathan Franzen usually doesn’t get away with offhand comments. His critics are vigilant and ready to pounce at any slight he directs at some person or institution, for example, Edith Wharton or Twitter. So how was it that he was able to make the following grandiose statements unchallenged, in his role as 2012 invited speaker in the Tulane English department’s “Great Writers” series?
  • Endings to novels – whether they are bleak or not - are arbitrary. Franzen claimed, therefore, that some years back he decided to alternate bleak with happy endings to all his books
  • In this unconventional way, Franzen highlighted his committed to endings. He underlined, therefore, how no longer does his writing bear even a passing resemblance to postmodernism
  • For him, the process of writing is more important than the product. The enjoyment comes in having a story to tell
  • Related to this, Franzen loves structuring a novel more than writing it
  • As a writer it is easier to be funny than moving, he declared. This is a general truth about writing, he indicated, not an observation about himself
  • Every story has been told before and there is a limited set of themes to address. What becomes most important for the author to do, then, is to establish his trustworthiness for the reader
  • Germans take literature seriously whereas American culture doesn’t care. “There is something… [long pause] goofy about American literature,” he said thinking out loud. If this was an afterthought, Franzen got away with it
  • And yes, “Twitter stands for everything I oppose,” and “It is the ultimate irresponsible medium” because it involves reductionism. It was this assertion that evoked disgruntled murmuring in the auditorium. His reasoning for rejecting social networks - “I care for my readers” – was met with a stony silent skepticism
The National Book Award winner showed he cares for readers when he signed and personalized books for over an hour after his reading – about as long as his talk lasted. I watched anxiously as one oaf of a student-athlete placed seven books on the table for Franzen to autograph. “I got them on sale at Barnes & Noble today, they were only $7.49 each, and I am going to read them,” he said, pointing to the paperback copies of The Corrections. “Just what an author likes to hear,” an onlooker commented. But not a peep of protest came from the luminary - only a mischievous grin.

In contrast, Franzen was infuriating to the moderator of the reading, an English professor who was described as a fellow novelist. After he asked a series of long-winded questions, Franzen suggested it was time to start the Q & A with students. But before then, he had artfully skewered the moderator following the question whether Franzen knew how Freedom would end when he started on it. Its author quoted a character in that novel, Richard Katz, a washed-up rock star turned roofer who has to suffer through an interview conducted by an eager eighteen-year-old admirer. After a particularly dumb question, Richard Katz replies to the kid: “Try another one, Zach.” Franzen looked over to the moderator - and repeated the line. If there is a bottom line to Franzen, it is he is pitiless towards the pompous.

(To his credit, the English professor ventured: “Now I know why you selected that excerpt to read.”)

Audio books recorded by their authors may reach unparalleled heights in humor when Franzen undertakes to do his. His reading from the chapter “Mountaintop removal” (beginning on page 191 of Freedom) captured the different characters with tone and inflection. The barbs were subtly sharpened in his reading. One target was the fans of Apple products (including of iPods which Franzen does not like either); they believe they have made the world better by purchasing them. Another institution in the crosshairs was National Public Radio; he satirized how those musicians unlucky enough to be featured on NPR will find their CDs under hundreds of thousands of Christmas trees each year. Is this a throw to Franzen’s reticence to have The Corrections become part of Oprah's Book Club? Perhaps, but the bigger picture is his scorn for American liberal institutions and the people attracted to them.

The sanest question of the evening was asked by an undergraduate student. Franzen had reported that he had not written fiction for two years because he had been preoccupied with writing screenplays for a ten-episode television adaptation of The Corrections. Given the omnipresent psychological realism of that novel where the action takes place mostly in the minds of the characters, how easy, the student inquired, was it to convert it to the small screen? The author’s answer was predictably oblique: “I wrote 20 drafts of episode two alone.”

Franzen was on his way to Albania the next day and so I asked him: “Why Albania?” “To see my Albanian translator,” he replied. Mocking, surreal, self-deprecating, or simply the truth? I left the now dim-lit, near-empty auditorium, catching a last glimpse of Franzen bent over signing books, and I became concerned he might miss his flight to Tirana.--Ray Taras.

--Marshal Zeringue