How to Be Alone

On Franzen.


Today, Huffpost Books tweeted, “A handy guide to why Jonathan Franzen pisses you off so much

And yet, he doesn’t.

I’m OK with Franzen as a grump, as a man who finds filming clips for Oprah so cheesy that he can’t help but say so.  I don’t need my authors to be shiny happy people.  I think many people are driven to express themselves through art due to pain and discomfort with their lives and the world around them, and their ability to tune into that wierd “Is there something wrong here?” frequency we all resonate with to some degree is what makes their work great.  As Franzen says in his essay Scavenging, “The pain of consciousness, the pain of knowing, grows apace with the information we have about the degradation of our planet and the insufficiency of our political system and the incivility of our society and the insolvency of our treasury and the injustice to one-fifth of our country and four-fifths of our world isn’t rich like us.  Traditionally, since religion lost its lock on the educated classes, writers on other artists have assumed extra pain to ease the burden for the rest of us, voluntarily shouldered some of the painful knowing in exchange for a shot at fame or immortality . . . Men and women with especially sharp vision undertook to be the wardens of our discontent.  They took the terror and ugliness and general lousiness of the world and returned it to the public as a gift:  as works of anger or sadness, perhaps, but always of beauty too.” (How to be Alone, 202)

Some have wondered why The Corrections or Freedom receive more attention than other books – is Jonathan Franzen a privileged white male author, steamrolling the rest?  As I discussed in a previous post, we know there is a documented phenomenon called The Matthew Effect, and success breeds success.  However, I believe Franzen’s fiction would be critically acclaimed regardless of who wrote it.  Freedom and The Corrections are each epic, aching odes to the loneliness and neurosis of Americans and the families they struggle to survive with.  These books manage to be timeless while being completely relevant.  I started to cite some quotes here from Freedom and The Corrections that illustrated this but thought they’d just go on and on, so here’s just one from each book:

“It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” (Freedom, 361)

“So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?” Gitanes said.

Chip showed his palm, “It’s nothing.”

“Self-inflicted. You pathetic American.”

“Different kind of prison” Chip said.” (The Corrections, 135)

Franzen’s How to be Alone: Essays ends with a brief piece called “Meet Me in St Louis”.  In it, Franzen describes the activities required as preparation for Oprah’s Book Club.  At the producer’s request, he visits his hometown with a TV producer and cameraman to film some footage for air on the show.  As the essay opens,  Franzen repeatedly drives slowly over a bridge, attempting to look thoughtful and excited, while semis blare at him from behind and the producer speeds along next to him in a van with the sliding door open, filming and shouting orders into a walkie talkie.  For some reason the show is really insistent on filming in Franzen’s childhood home, something he wasn’t comfortable doing.  (He writes in the essay of the brutal grief he felt saying goodbye to the home, seeing the remains of his mother’s last lonely days before his death, how hard that final goodbye to a home he was raised in and lost both parents in truly was.)  He becomes so anxious during the filming process he gets a hot, itching rash.  A tree grows in his childhood front yard where the family scattered his father’s ashes, and he cedes this personal point to the producer, lets him in to this level of loss, and they begin filming at the tree.  The producer eggs him on, asking him to think of his dead father in order to display more emotion for the camera.  At that point, Franzen blurts out, “This is so fundamentally bogus!”  And for god’s sake, I would have done the same.

This is the man we’re angry with?  This itchy, stress-rashy, too heartbroken to step in an old home, admittedly clinically depressed, lonely man who expresses himself to us in such raw words in essays and books because, perhaps, it is the only way he knows how?  This man who is almost certainly constantly fretting the decline of the serious literary novel, whose life’s work is fading from our society before his very eyes, who can’t stop watching a television if he owns one?

What I’m thinking is, “Just let the man write, and then let the man publish what he writes.”  I don’t need artists to be made in the image I create for them.  I don’t ask for a certain form of cheery media darling to appreciate creators or their work, and I certainly appreciate the fact of writing, and reading, as a solitary activities.  It would be a bizarre world if we all ran around all smiles and handshakes, drinking redbull and ready for the next interview, just so excited to be here.

It makes me wonder how many of the great writers of our history would be treated if they were alive today, for their lack of social or media prowess.  I imagine Sylvia Plath as she portrays herself in The Bell Jar, fired from a magazine internship, trying to please the masses through tweets while working on her writing at her mother’s home.  I imagine James Joyce, tottering, struggling to see, with Nora at his side, peering into the Oprah cameraman’s lens.  The modern judgement we’d pass on Ernest Hemingway’s life:  all reckless drinking and fighting, all the mad love and near death, and then death.  We’d certainly classify him as a grump.  But it isn’t a writer’s job to be liked or kind, to be a film star or a guest on a TV show.  A writer’s ability to communicate needs to shine only on the page.

Important book of the day – The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.


No doubt the connectivity and other features of e-books will bring new delights and diversions. We may even, as Kelly suggests, come to see digitization as a liberating act, a way of freeing text from the page. But the cost will be a further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader. The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which “the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,” will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm. As a group of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, the recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the “era of mass [book] reading” was a brief “anomaly” in our intellectual history: “We are now seeing such reading return to its formal social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.” The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the “power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital” or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of “an increasingly arcane hobby.” —The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

A young acquaintance who had been an English major, when I asked her what she was reading, replied: “You mean linear reading? Like when you read a book from start to finish?”  –Jonathan Franzen, Why Bother? an essay from the book How to be Alone

Some books have a tendency to haunt.  They stick to me long after I’ve read them, and I compulsively begin to tell people the anecdotes they contain at dinner tables and in cars.  “But taxi drivers have a larger part of the brain that visualizes the road!”  “Did you know deep reading hasn’t always been a part of various societies’ popular cultures?”  These tidbits of info floating in my mind are thanks to Nicholas Carr, who has some serious business with our brains and the internet.

I’ve felt the internet’s impact on novels, and especially been aware of it as of late.  I realize it is partly just a trend, but so many popular fiction novels aren’t linear anymore.  As with the internet, they’re hopping from place to place or time to time or narrator to narrator.  Some non-linear novels are great, but I do want to pause and ask – why are we, as a society, writing like this?  Why do we all want to read books which use this single literary device, the non-linear narrative?  What about settling in with a more traditional book, which plays out start to finish and beginning to end, has lost its appeal?  Nicholas Carr has the answer to this question in The Shallows.

The Shallows website