Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

J.C. Hallman on Nicholson Baker

I’ve got a review of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal in the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation. The book is an exploration of Hallman’s infatuation with Nicholson Baker and is similar but meaningfully different from Baker’s own book, U & I, which chronicled his infatuation with John Updike.

Hallman describes what he’s up to better than I can:

What needed to be done, I’d been saying, what no one had ever done, was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception, from that moment when you realize that there are writers out there in the world you need to read, so you read them.

The resulting book is totally, enjoyably, maddeningly nuts and I couldn’t put it down. Before you read the review, just go ahead and buy it. Here is a link.

The book is way more fun than whatever exercise in cultural sensitivity is currently being given the critical thumb job. For instance, while I’m just being recklessly opinionated here, instead of buying Ishiguro’s latest bland beast, save those hard-earned bucks and get this book instead.

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In related matters, my one small teensy beef with the Hallman book is what I’ve come to call the Bluets Problem. That is, an illusory commitment to full disclosure on the part of the nonfiction author, which then gets elided at some point of ultimate narrative convenience. Certain details one has come to expect are withheld from the reader. It’s the false promise of total honesty, which on the one hand totally makes sense. No author can or should tell you everything. But this completely reasonable sentiment is trapped within the autobiographical confessional mode, which subsists on the promissory premise of “I’m going to tell you everything.” What happens is that by the end of these books I feel chagrined that I’m not told more about these characters’ lives, and then I feel guilty for wanting to know everything, and then I feel like I’ve been manipulated into being a voyeur.

This also goes into my personal file of what fiction can get away with vs. what nonfiction can get away with, and actually a useful insight into this comes from none other than Jonathan Franzen.

Quick aside: I know, I know. “Jonathan Franzen, blah blah blah.” I’ve given up on the mission of having an opinion on everything Franzen does or says and whether or not he is Good or Bad for literature. Seemingly, a whole generation has substituted having a ragey opinion about Franzen in place of being well read. Love him, hate him, I do not care. (But props where props are due: the first section of Freedom is a magnificent panoramic Steadicam of novelistic goodness, even if you don’t dig that kind of thing.) (Update: See below.)

Susan Lerner: Given that you’ve written novels as well as personal essays, do you find these two forms suited to different types of exploration?

Jonathan Franzen: I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive. And it’s true that in journalism and reported essay I am exploring something. I go to China because I want to know what the environmental situation is like in China. But for internal investigation there’s nothing like fiction, because you have so much more freedom to go to places that would be too personally compromising either for yourself or for other people. You’re essentially putting on a mask, various masks, in the form of these characters. The demands of a novel are so much greater in terms of narrative propulsion, that you are really forced to poke around deep inside yourself to find strong enough emotional drivers to get you through five hundred pages of the book.

The emphasis is mine (obv).

Now, lord knows I’ve had my own critical beef with some of Franzen’s nonfiction (short version: much of the time it reads like a failure of narrative persona), but this idea of fiction as an arena that allows you to mercilessly explore what would be too compromising to explore in nonfiction — isn’t this just the essence of my Bluets Problem? Because aren’t the rocks that these nonfiction books run up against actually the shores of fiction? Isn’t the solution to the convenient narrative blurring that happens at key points in these types of books — sort of like narrative blind spots — for their authors either to throw caution to the wind and fully exploit their friends and family, or to fully fictionalize their experiences and thereby discard the booster rockets of the factually verifiable and either make up or mine and shape experience as needed? Where “need” is defined here by the necessary steps that a book has willed itself into taking? Isn’t this similar to what Lorrie Moore said in her essay a while back in the New York Review of Books, where she reviewed three memoirs and did a sort of punchy eloquent shrug at the contemporary memoir as a phenomenon and said that the books under review acted like they wanted to be novels but didn’t give themselves over to the full reckless imagination of becoming novels? In other words, these works of nonfiction come across as somewhat post-novelistic but their apparent limitations paradoxically point back to the benefits of fiction. There’s gold still in them thar hills.

Of course all of this is in my wheelhouse of self-justification because I’m constantly looking for some kind of genre legitimacy for my own work. But my main point is that authenticity, full disclosure in prose, is always a pose. And a pose is the beginning of a mask.

Update: Today, March 19, 2015, FSG released the book cover for Franzen’s next novel Purity, which won’t come out until September 1, and people are losing their everloving minds.

Come on, people. We’ve got bigger Franzens to fry than this.