A recent phenomena relating to the invariably glowing reviews that Jonathan Franzen gets in publications like the New York Times at the expense of “popular fiction,” especially that written by women,reported here and here.
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Despite Mr. Franzen’s views on womens’ fiction I was intrigued by his addition to an article in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper on the new rules for writing fiction.
1-The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
2-Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
3-Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
4-Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
5-When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
6-The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.
7-You see more sitting still than chasing after.
8-It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction (the TIME magazine cover story detailed how Franzen physically disables the Net portal on his writing laptop).
9-Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
10-You have to love before you can be relentless
This list was included with the rules of various other authors as well. Initially I was attracted to the guidelines, but as a fledgling Fryegian (if I ever make it to post-grad studies) I find myself wondering how Frye would react to the article. Any thoughts?
Well, off the top of my head, Tamara, I don’t know if Frye would regard these as “new rules” but as sound advice nevertheless. However, I think he’d have liked very much the epigrammatical “You have to love before you can be relentless.”
Well, who doesn’t appreciate an effective epigram? I like the idea of “relentless love.” It sounds breathless, as love often is. I think that the idea of these as “new rules” pertains to a set of rules for new fiction writers rather than to original ideas. As I become more confident as a writer, the idea of trying my hand at some short fiction becomes more appealing. It makes me wish I was 30 years older and had the benefit of some sort of contemporary literature degree. I wonder, is there something Frye wrote that could help me with this? Of course there is!
Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned has become an indispensible reference for me, Tamara, and it may prove to be that for you too. It is an encyclopedic selection taken from Frye’s private notebooks and diaries. Under the heading “Fiction Writing,” Denham quotes Frye reflecting upon his unrealized desire to become a writer of fiction (although I hasten to add that Frye did experiment extensively in fiction writing, he just never published it; those efforts can be found in volume 25 of the Collected Works). In one of the entires on “Fiction Writing” Frye observes that, in contrast to the Franzen rules you provided, he might have spent more time away from his desk to become the kind of fiction writer he’d have liked to be. Don’t get me wrong: Frye consistenly pointed out that all literary works are ultimately derived from other literary works. But in this context he means that the data of life experience rather than just the indispensible structure of literature constitutes the particular life of any literary work. So you need not wish that you were “30 years older.” You are always old enough. But besides living a life, your dedicated reading of literature is the best preparation for writing literature — like on the job training. And you most certainly do not need a “degree in contemporary literature” to do that. Of all the literary artists there have ever been, only a barely measurable minority of them have obained such a degree, although the vast majority of them are always in the best sense “students of literature,” because they read it omnivously with a view to to mastering it on their own terms and in their own time. Shakespeare, to cite the most obvious example, was mocked by his university educated contemporaries. But that never prevented him from being Shakespeare — the writer who, almost invariably and not just coincidentally, adapted his work from other already popular literary sources available to him. Everybody, for instance, knew the story of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s day — it was almost like urban folklore by the time Shakespeare turned his attention to it in the early 1590s. But it’s Shakespeare’s version of the story that we turn to when we need to experience it at its greatest articulation. I don’t think you can plan for this. But you can always be prepared for it. One of Frye’s favorite poets of the 20th century, Wallace Stevens, didn’t publish his first collection of verse till he was 44. Again, you’re never too young or never too old to produce literature. Wherever you find yourself is where you are, and, with a literary outlook to guide you, it may turn out to be the best place to be. But literature of course always has the potetential to take you from where you are to a whole new level of skill and perception. Just follow it with as much dedication and discipline as you can muster.
I know this concern is overly pedantic, but describing the concern as Franzenfreude–joy in Franzen–puts me off, with its miserable failure in the attempt to be overly clever. SchadenFranzen would be ridiculous, too, but at least would use the right part of the word Ms. Weiner was playing with when she invented Franzenfreude.
The underlying point of the piece is interesting, at least. If we contrast another generally well-regarded author with a new book this summer, David Mitchell and his brilliant _The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet_, the reviews have been mixed and do take issue with some weaknesses of the book. I wonder if Franzen is (seemingly) generally spared such criticism because of a desire for a great American writer?