[Conversation Issue] ‘The family is a great convenience for a writer’—Jonathan Franzen talks to Ben Williams in South Africa

As part of our January Conversation Issue, Ben Williams talks to Jonathan Franzen.

Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 2016

American novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen made a rare visit to South Africa in late 2017 as part of a seabird-awareness project he’s been working on for National Geographic. The JRB scored one of the few interviews he gave during his visit: Ben Williams (The JRB Publisher) was in conversation with Franzen at an Exclusive Books coffee morning event in Cape Town, where the author took questions both from Williams and the early-bird audience at Cavendish Square.

The conversation covered everything from Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, to the art of fiction and the current state of Mother Earth.

Ben Williams for The JRB: You’re here at the behest of National Geographic magazine, correct?

Jonathan Franzen: It’s sort of a multitasking trip, but right now I’m doing some reporting for National Geographic in Cape Town, yes.

Ben Williams: Is there any particular subject you’re working on?

Jonathan Franzen: Seabirds. Seabirds are in trouble, for a lot of reasons, but two reasons in particular: one is invasive species on the islands where they breed, and the other is a horrifying level of bycatch from the world’s fisheries. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of mostly larger sea birds like albatross are killed each year, and South Africa is doing a better job than almost everybody else in essentially eliminating that bycatch. So in an otherwise bleak story there was a wish for something resembling good news, and I was told I could find it here.

The JRB: Are you going to Saint Helena, by any chance?

Jonathan Franzen: No—or, not to my knowledge.

Ben Williams: I ask because the seabird situation there is interesting and we’ve just started a direct flight to Saint Helena.

Jonathan Franzen: I was offered the chance to go to Marion Island, but that was a seven-week trip by boat—a good chance to reread Proust.

Ben Williams: You could also probably start work on a new book.

Jonathan Franzen: Or even finish one.

Ben Williams: Quite! But we have to touch on birding more generally, because you’ve said before that you’re ‘the worst kind of birder’, being a maker of lists of birds, rather than a person who does it for the love of birds—but actually there’s one worse, and that’s me, because I’m neither a birder who does it solely for pleasure nor someone who makes lists. I’m just a lazy birder, who has the basics in place but no real ambition, even though I call myself a birder. I’m a birder manqué, if you will. But I’d like to know how the list of birds is going this year—because you keep such a list of birds.

Jonathan Franzen: Go straight to my point of greatest vulnerability, why don’t you? I’m multitasking on this trip, as I mentioned: I’m doing a couple of public events for my South African publishers, and for this great bookstore, but I also did a nineteen-day birdwatching trip around pretty much the entire country, all the way up to the Orange River and across to St Lucia, and down into Lesotho briefly—all of which has been good for the year’s list. It’s silly—we all have brains that work eighteen different ways simultaneously, and there’s a little compulsive part of my brain that likes to be kept occupied, and knowing exactly how many birds I’ve seen in a given year is a relatively benign way to keep that compulsive part of the brain active.

Ben Williams: When I first moved to South Africa around twenty years ago, I was involved in a university project, and the person running it gave everyone a ‘totem bird’, mine being the Lilac-breasted Roller. I won’t ask you what your totem bird might be, but it’s something to consider.

Jonathan Franzen: It would probably be a nondescript lark.

Ben Williams: Or the Melancholy Woodpecker.

Jonathan Franzen: The Melancholy Woodpecker is a great name, isn’t it? I’d rather be the Imperial Woodpecker, though, myself.

Ben Williams: Right—birding questions out of the way, let’s talk about fiction. You write the most amazing, muscular fiction—it carries you away, like you’re caught in a river whose current you can’t escape. The first novel is called The Twenty-Seventh City

Jonathan Franzen: A weird little book that I wrote when I was twenty-five—a chilly thing, a chilly thing written by a very angry, very young person.

Ben Williams: But across the novels, and I’m just speculating here, one might be able to categorise your fiction into two types: those that give a sense of the ‘upside-downness of things’, versus those that give a sense of the ‘right-side-upness of things’. For me, the world of The Twenty-Seventh City is upside-down; that of The Corrections, even though everyone is messed up, is right-side-up; in Freedom we’re upside-down again; and in Purity we’re teetering between the two states. The fiction you write might be called ‘social realist’ in style, but it points to a certain state of things more generally. I wanted to know whether, when you start off writing a novel, it’s with a fundamental sense of the rightness or wrongness of things, which then goes into the fiction: do you feel a groundswell of upside-downness or right-side-upness and proceed from there?

Jonathan Franzen: That’s such a lovely set of categories that it would be rude of me to reject them, but no. For a long time I’ve been more interested in emotion and psychology than anything else, and the social stuff—the social stuff is there because I do like a realistic novel. I don’t like it when I’m a hundred pages in and suddenly things start happening, either at the personal level or the story level, that just simply couldn’t happen—it distances me from the characters. I say to myself, ‘You’re living in a world that couldn’t exist,’ which I find alienating as a reader. It forecloses a certain kind of emotional connection. So realism is there in my fiction—it’s something I can do.

I had a father who was frustrated in many ways, locked into a field that didn’t really make full use of his talents, but every day at dinner he would talk about the world, and the radio was playing all day, the news stations, so I grew up breathing an awareness of what was happening socially, so I put that in—but no—yeah, maybe once, I mean in the first two novels I really was trying to wake the world up to the problems it had …

Ben Williams: Including Maoist Indian insurgents taking over St Louis.

Jonathan Franzen: Yes, that’s The Twenty-Seventh City. In my defence I’d read a lot of sci-fi as a teenager.

Ben Williams: It comes off—you talk about things being not possible, and one would think that this wouldn’t be possible, but it comes off. But I assumed you were going to shoot down that question, so I have a second, follow-up question—

Jonathan Franzen: I gave you time to open your parachute, at least.

Ben Williams: Absolutely! Now for a question you probably hear a lot, but please bear with. People often gesture toward Tolstoy when they talk about families in novels, the famous quote being, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’—what do you think about the family as an ingredient in a novel? Is it a very important one?

Jonathan Franzen: I’ve come to not resist too vehemently the description of my books as ‘family novels’, but it still seems kind of wrong to me, given there are relatively few scenes of actual family life. But the family is a great convenience for a writer: as a reader I want to be locked into understanding and caring about characters, early on. If the central dynamic is between two business partners, there’s a lot of explaining that needs to be done. But if the first sentence of the book is, ‘He had a problem with his mother,’ then I’m interested. ‘Yeah, I get that.’ With those few words, I already know what the territory is, and so I don’t have to do all this extra work.

If you are a character-focused writer, as I certainly am, the non-optional-ness of family relationships—you may never see that parent again, but you will always be that parent’s child; you may be estranged from that sibling but you will always have that sibling—and the interesting interplay between genetic similarity and genetic difference, between and among siblings and generations, and the way that’s problematised by ‘nurture’, the learned behaviour you have from growing up, learning from parents and siblings and other relatives—it’s just so rich. It’s kind of fun to look at one sibling and another sibling, or to look at one parent and then look at the child—you can compare and contrast, it sets up these fields of meaning really conveniently. So—you’re a lazy birdwatcher, I feel like I’m a lazy novelist, I keep using family as a kind of shortcut to certain textured fields of meaning.

Ben Williams: You’re a lazy novelist. Sure, I’ll buy that. But I take your point: family does set up a nice structure to explore in a novel. Purity being the latest novel, there’s something going on there that I think is interesting because I’m becoming a crotchety old man, and I have thoughts about younger people, some of which are …

Jonathan Franzen: Negative.

Ben Williams: Yes, and some positive, and some of which are represented in the novel, particularly around Pip, one of the main characters. She’s led to believe that she is special, in the book, although, of course, as a Millennial—and this is my dig at Millennials—she might have believed that anyway. But this is revealed to be something like a cruel joke at her expense, and I wanted to know if you were trying to transmit some kind of message to the coming generation: ‘You may think you’re special, but you’re not; you’re a child of divorce like the rest of us.’ Because Pip does get a bit of a comeuppance.

Jonathan Franzen: Particularly after 2004, when the voter turnout in the United States was low, for what I thought was a rather crucial presidential election—George Bush seeking a second term, a rather weak Democratic candidate, John Kerry, opposing him, but nonetheless it was an emergency, Bush–Cheney were not doing good things—and a lot of young people just couldn’t be bothered to vote. I became very angry at them. They also seemed happier than I did, which also made me angry. They seemed comfortable with being consumers, for instance. I will never achieve that level of comfort, myself. So I was angry at them, and it got so bad that I was consumed by this kind of resentment toward people half my age. I was talking to my editor at The New Yorker about it, and he said, ‘Well maybe you’d like to get to know some of them.’ So he assigned this piece that he knew I could never write, in which I essentially interviewed twenty-two-year-olds for a year—eight of them, whom I would see every month or so, and occasionally as a group—and they were so sweet and told me so much that even if I wanted to write the piece I could never have done it, because there were stories like, ‘I wet the bed on a one-night stand.’ It’s like, ‘That’s a great story, but you shouldn’t have told me that, because I’m sitting here writing it all down in front of you.’

Anyway, as so often is the case, when you hate a group—a country, any class of people—if you actually get to know some individuals you can’t do that any more, because you find in fact that it’s not a monolithic thing. Really what I discovered in that year of talking to these particular young people, who admittedly were graduates of the University of California, so they were bright kids, was I realised that ‘Millennials’ is a marketing term: it doesn’t actually describe what people are really like. A number of those kids had become quite anti-tech, particularly anti-Facebook, and—they were not happy. They were not at all happy: they were confused and anxious, and so that kind of opened my eyes. Part of the thinking behind Pip was to imagine how somebody might not fit in with the stereotype of ‘Millennial’. Having a crazy mother who didn’t let her watch television and didn’t let her have a computer until she was a teenager—Pip grew up in a one-roomed cabin in a hippy area of California—well, then you can have a person who is a Millennial but who also has texture as a person, and then I’m happy as a novelist because it gets interesting. That was a longer and perhaps less interesting answer to your question than it deserved.

Ben Williams: I quite like it, actually—it helps me understand the overall approach to Purity better, although Pip specifically sticks in my imagination.

Jonathan Franzen: Yeah, I knew some people like Pip. People with problematic mothers.

Ben Williams: Carrying on with a similar theme in your fiction, in a recent essay you seemed to take a dig at the prioritisation of ‘likeability’ in reviewing culture at the moment. Your own work shows considerable skill in making a reader first like a character and then dislike them, then later like them again, and vice-versa. Do you consciously work on that, or are these chameleon-characters who simply write themselves, based on the logic of their own psychology?

Jonathan Franzen: Well, first, I have to like the character—and I have to love the character if it’s a main character. If it’s a main character and I don’t love him, then I don’t put him in the book; it can’t be done. There’s a particular word that a remarkable number of people—sometimes to my face—have applied to the characters in The Corrections, and that is: ‘loathsome’. And there’s a little door that quietly closes in my mind toward the person who says that to me. Sometimes I have the presence of mind to ask, ‘Did you think they were funny?’ And of course the person who called the characters loathsome always frowns and says, ‘Funny? No!’ And then it’s like, ‘Okay, we don’t have to talk any more, because I think they’re funny.’ If you don’t get a certain kind of humour—if your only humour is sitcom-style humour, or dumb sex-joke humour—then I can see how you might see those characters as loathsome, but to me, as long as I’m laughing at them, and they’re laughing at themselves on some level—they’re aware of just how, ‘Oh my God, this is a terrible situation I’ve gotten myself into, why did I put a piece of salmon in my pants?’ or whatever—then we’re okay.

I don’t think about ‘likeability’—although I did worry so much about what I put the reader through in Purity that I felt compelled to have a nice dog in the last chapter, literally a pet-the-dog kind of element. I was thinking, ‘If you’ve gone with me this far, my heart goes out to you, there’s some pretty wrenching stuff in here, let’s get a nice dog.’ I had, what, sixty pages to try to have the poor reader put down this book not feeling that they’ve just been bludgeoned, and part of the strategy was—yes, let’s have a really cool dog. But I wasn’t trying to be liked, and I didn’t want anybody in the book to be liked, I was more trying to fulfil my end of the contract that I think a writer has with the reader, which is, ‘I’m going to put you through some stuff but I’m going to take care of you, too.’

Ben Williams: Some writers don’t adhere to that contract at all.

Jonathan Franzen: No, Thomas Bernhard famously does not, for instance.

Ben Williams: You mention the humour in your books, which I certainly pick up—a kind of mordancy which has me darkly giggling along—but I wanted to get your thoughts on satire, because you don’t do satire per se, but there’s more and more satire coming up in world fiction, and in South Africa we have quite a long tradition of satire, particularly from those who were writing against the apartheid state. Of course, this year has been a good one for satirists from the US and SA alike, from the perspective of sheer abundance of material. Is satire something you’re interested in? Is there any particularly good new satire out there?

Jonathan Franzen: My first book—the weird one by the twenty-five-year-old—is a satirical novel. I was very taken with a particular satirist I’d studied as a student, Karl Kraus, a Viennese satirist, and I felt—society was corrupt, the media was bad, capitalism was bad, and the world needed my satire to expose all that. You can see why I later had a problem with that way of thinking, which was, ‘Who am I to know what’s good for the world?’ The thing about satire is you have to be pretty sure you’re right, and in a situation like apartheid, if you opposed it, satirised its operations, that was a good situation, because you could feel confident you were right in opposing it. Many other things, though—including, as one gets older, many of the most important things in life—are not susceptible to that kind of certainty about what’s right and what’s wrong. As I got older I became more interested in precisely those kinds of situations, where it’s impossible to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, which I think has traditionally been more the province of literature. So I moved away from satire. There are elements of it in The Corrections, but after that I basically set it aside.

There is still good satire in the US, although Philip Roth laid out the problem around 1960, saying, American reality is so ridiculous, it’s more extreme than any satiric vision of it could represent, and so satire is essentially dead, because things are so crazy there. Satirising Donald Trump doesn’t work: there’s nothing to add; every time he opens his mouth it’s worse than anything you could possibly say satirically.

My favourite satirical effort nowadays is the television show Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley, the place, is still revered enough and full of itself enough that it’s ripe for satire. I highly recommend the series.

Ben Williams: You’ve been called ‘The Great American Novelist’, most notably on the cover of Time magazine. Do you think that American novels need an innate sense of ‘the frontier’ to succeed? I ask because in South Africa we have a cognate, called ‘the hinterland’, which has led to a few successful, and many partially successful, farm novels. A sense of the frontier was, I think, important to American fiction up to a point, but then 9/11 happened, and I’m not sure that novels operate the same way following that event. Does the frontier still matter to American writers? What do you think about fiction, post-9/11?

Jonathan Franzen: Not a small question, that. I read a lot of American fiction—I have to because I know a lot of American writers and I have to read their books, but fortunately it’s not a chore in most cases, it’s a pleasure—and seldom has there been a less interesting subject for a novel than 9/11. It was evident to me even three weeks in that 9/11 as a phenomenon was less about the deaths of 2,900-plus people than about the media reaction to it, the saturation of coverage. It was a tragic, traumatic thing, I’m not making light of that in any way, but what really traumatised the country was being immersed in the processing of it. The field of signification that sprang up around 9/11, and the way it was a manipulated field of signification—the way it could be manipulated for political ends, as it was by Bush–Cheney—struck me as the real 9/11. So what we had was a massive surfeit of attempts to find meaning in this terrible terrorist attack, and why on earth would a novelist come trotting along two, three, five, seven years later to try and say something meaningful, when the problem to begin with was an excess of attempts to find meaning? So I don’t think anything changed for American fiction after 9/11. There was all this crazy talk like, ‘No one can ever be ironic again, we’ve entered serious times,’ but thankfully that period passed.

But—the frontier. I grew up in the suburbs so don’t know much about the frontier, although I was very interested in the American West, and some certifiably Great American Novels come from there. Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is one of the best American novels ever—if you want to read something really great, East of Eden can be recommended—and some of Twain. Faulkner wrote wonderfully about the frontier, because parts of the American South were still this really intense wilderness—his long story ‘The Bear’ is about that wilderness—but if you’re going to talk about Faulkner you don’t start with ‘frontier’, you start with slavery and the plantation system and their aftermath following the Civil War. So I don’t know about the frontier: it’s there, it’s important, but by the time I came along the frontier was the Velvet Freeze that I was not allowed to go to until I was twelve years old.

Ben Williams: For me it was the Dairy Queen—that was the almighty frontier.

Jonathan Franzen: ‘All the flavours of your mind.’

Ben Williams: You’re probably the writer who is the most frank, when it comes to the current state of the Earth’s environment, of anybody I read. You recently wrote that, ‘drastic global warming is already a done deal … it seems unlikely that humanity is going to leave any carbon in the ground given that, even now, not one country in the world has pledged to do that’. During apartheid in South Africa, one of the duties of a writer was to ‘bear witness’. Most individuals were powerless to take on the state directly, but this was one thing writers could do. Do you think writers are under a similar obligation today, vis-à-vis the destruction of the Earth’s environment? Is it important to talk about what’s happening, to keep track of it through one’s writing?

Jonathan Franzen: It’s an incredibly vexed problem, climate change in particular. It’s important to remember that what’s driving species extinction today—I care about other species a lot, all the more so in the fifteen years that I’ve been actively involved with birds—is habitat destruction and resource depletion. Yes, in the future, climate change will wreak unbelievable havoc, but that’s one of the many problematic things about climate change: it’s still largely in the future. True, we’ve had a couple of bad hurricanes, but could any scientist honestly say they were caused by climate change? No. So climate change is a very important fact, but it’s also a very practical fact: if the temperature is going to rise by five degrees Celsius by the end of this century—which, if I were around, I would be shocked if that didn’t happen, you can forget about two degrees, that’s a fantasy now—then there are some things that can be done right now, if you accept that truth. One of the things I use my platform, such as it is, as a novelist for is to try to get people talking in a realistic way about how to prepare for the unbelievable changes that are coming. But in terms of ‘bearing witness’—that’s the crazy thing about climate change, there’s not really much you can bear witness to.

In terms of the general environmental collapse that we are seeing, that’s why I’m in Cape Town now: I think people are genuinely unaware, for example, of how many albatrosses are killed avoidably in the course of ocean fishing activity. Okay, it’s just a bird—it’s a bird with a three- or three-and-a-half metre wingspan, the Wandering Albatross. It’s a glorious thing, absolutely amazing, and we’re killing them in large numbers, completely avoidably. Not completely—ninety-nine per cent avoidably. You can get the bycatch down by ninety-nine per cent with rather simple methods. So with something like this: yes, absolutely. I don’t want to be just a witness, I want to publicise the situation. I want there to be international pressure to make the very simple and incredibly cheap fixes to stop what’s currently happening. And in general I think that’s the best sort of environmentalism: it’s not crying, ‘Oh woe, we’ve killed nature, we must contemplate our guilt.’ It’s rather taking something you love—whether it’s a patch of forest or wetland, or a particular kind of animal or plant—and really doing what you can that might have a positive effect. But I’m not sure that’s a writer’s responsibility, I think it’s everybody’s at this point.

Ben Williams: It’s time to open this conversation to questions from the audience.

Audience member: Your essay about ‘comma-then’ construction [‘Comma-Then’ from the 2012 compilation Farther Away]. Do you still stand by that?

Jonathan Franzen: Absolutely. I just read The Mill on the Floss and there was not a single instance of comma-then and it’s 542 pages long. ‘Comma-then’ is a modern plague.

Audience member: The issue of cultural appropriation: do you ever worry about that? Are there areas where you would never go, or where you don’t feel you can go?

Jonathan Franzen: There are areas where I feel I can’t go because I don’t know enough—I haven’t had the experience. But it’s a weird thing when, nationwide in the US, according to standardised psychological tests, empathy levels are down shockingly among college students, compared to just fifteen years ago, and yet political consciousness is up. I almost have a suspicion that when someone says, ‘That’s cultural appropriation, you can’t do it,’ it’s a sort of mix up of categories, as though the person is saying, ‘That’s empathy, you can’t experience that.’ I think it is actually the fiction writer’s job to imagine things that are beyond his or her direct experience. You can do it badly, or insensitively, or stereotypically, but if you do it well, then you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. So there is no absolute ban on anything for me, just practical ones.

Audience member from Germany: Regarding Purity, I know you studied German, but how did you come up with a word like ‘Assibräuteaufreißer‘?

Jonathan Franzen: With a little help from some friends. There should be a footnote crediting them for that. I had a wonderful source—one of my best friends in New York grew up in East Berlin, and she was eighteen when the wall came down. She was a fantastic resource—she would say, ‘Nope, that couldn’t happen,’ and, ‘Well, maybe that could happen’—she told me everything I needed to think about. But she couldn’t think of a good word for that scene. Finally we went to Thomas Brussig and he took about five seconds to say it—‘Oh I know!’ It’s a crazy word.

Audience member from Germany: But I would spell it with one ‘s’.

Jonathan Franzen: There was some back and forth about that.

Audience member from Germany: Did you manage to go to East Berlin in the eighties? I grew up in West Berlin and what you write seems very authentic, so I was wondering if you spent time there.

Jonathan Franzen: I lived close to the wall in Berlin, but on the west side, for a year, so I knew what the air smelled like, which helped. And at the time I had a friend who was going over to the east side every day. She was on a fellowship, studying some of the dissident and supposedly dissident younger poets, so she had a lot of stories.

Audience member: Regarding the characters in the The Corrections, how did they develop? Did you start with the essence of a character and say, ‘I’m going to let events help them elaborate themselves,’ or did you have a specific event from which everything else followed as a consequence?

Jonathan Franzen: My first two books were very plot heavy, and plot determined a lot of things in them, and so I thought—’Well, let me try to write a really, really complicated plot for my third novel, because I’m ambitious and people will notice if I have a thousand-page book with a complicated, early-Pynchonesque plot to it’. But I got bored with that—it began to feel like plot complication for no reason, and I went through a huge crisis in the mid-nineties, and ended up thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll write about a group of characters instead.’ And these were the remnants of that process. I had a lot of rejected things in a drawer and taking an out-of-focus look at that, I realised I kept coming back to certain kinds of character, and those traits coalesced into five main characters who became the Lambert family.

The main quest for each of those five characters—and this is more of a process thing than a novel thing—was to come up with a topic sentence that suggested what that character wanted and couldn’t have. With Gary, the oldest son, I ended up with kind of a crazy sentence: ‘He was trying to print some pictures, and enjoy doing it, in order to demonstrate to his wife that he was not depressed, because depressed people can’t enjoy something.’ And it was months before I figured out that sentence. But when I got it, it was like, everything is there in that one sentence for me, and that’s Gary.

Audience member: Are any of your characters inspired by your own family members? Have you had problems with that—blowback? How do you deal with that?

Jonathan Franzen: My brother Bob felt that there was some of him in the character Gary—but I’d been writing for a while by then, and the family had gotten pretty inured to the fact that I was embarrassing them by printing things. At that point in my life I was nearly forty, and I was pretty sure Bob would not disown me. He had had some incredible scenes in front of me, and on at least one occasion I had been in another room typing the transcript of the fight that I was overhearing behind the door. It was like, ‘Dude, if you behave like this in front of a known writer, what do you expect?’ I have great brothers. It would have been much harder if my parents had been alive, because Alfred in particular partakes of my father—I don’t know what I would have done if my parents had been around when I published the book, but sadly—but also luckily—they weren’t.

Characters are complicated, because you only have a few really strong characters in your head, and you keep recombining them in different ways, trying to come up with new characters who feel individual and large and distinct.

Audience member: I’m also a novelist, but often find myself surprised by certain actions my own characters take. From what I’ve read, I take it that’s different from your own experience?

Jonathan Franzen: I find it an annoying canard that writers say, ‘The characters took over and told me what to do.’ I’ve got pages to write, and have to figure out how to advance the story of this character, but the character is not operating the keyboard, I am. I’m not saying I have absolute control—I don’t know everything about a character, I’m still trying to discover things, and part of the process is, let’s plant a flag over here that’s really hard to get to; how am I going to get this character from point A, which I know, to point B, which seems very far away? That’s really exciting. But it’s not as if a character has said, ‘Stand aside, I’m taking over this book.’

Audience member: Could you tell us a bit about your writing habits? Are there certain times you like to write, or specific places, or is it just a matter of sitting down and writing from early morning to late evening?

Jonathan Franzen: Find a cold, dark, quiet space immediately after breakfast. No books, no phone. Stay half-asleep, ideally. Cold is not strictly necessary, but over-warm is no good.

Audience member: From your first book to your latest one, all your books must be dear to your heart—they’re your children—but which of them stands out above the rest? Which holds a special place for you?

Jonathan Franzen: I’m going to totally dodge this question, but I will say I’m still fond of Purity because I can’t believe I got the thing written—I really thought I had nothing left to do in a novel. But there are a couple of essays that I’m particularly proud of, one called ‘My Father’s Brain’, in How to Be Alone [2002]; another called ‘My Bird Problem’, in Discomfort Zone [2006], and I was pretty happy with the essay I wrote about Antarctica [‘The End of the End of the World’, published in The New Yorker, 2016]. Particularly ‘My Bird Problem’ and that Antarctic piece I wanted to be considered for The Best American Essays anthology, but for whatever reason they weren’t, so I have a particular chip on my shoulder about that. I can’t do a better essay, hello? [laughter]

Audience member: How do you deal with critics?

Jonathan Franzen: Well, I don’t read them. At all. Not since 2001 or so, because I only remember the bad things they say. Even if they only say a few bad things, I remember them vividly and I forget everything else, and lie awake at night, angry. But it’s important to have readers before things are published: someone who will tell the truth, but in a loving way. Find three different kinds of people, all of whom are invested in you as a writer, all of whom will be reasonably honest, that’s usually enough. For the rest, I’m not writing for the critics. I once wrote a six-page single-spaced letter to the book reviewer of The New Yorker, whose review of my first novel I took issue with—it was a stupid and mean review, but my letter to him was much longer than his review, and at a certain point you become aware of an imbalance and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t read the reviews.’

Author image: 4th Estate

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