Jonathan Franzen, Honesty and the Lines of Literature

December 14, 2009 | 7 6 min read


“What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible”Jonathan Franzen

In Germany to deliver a talk on fiction, Jonathan Franzen couldn’t be more American. He is friendly and informal, casual and comfortable, approaching the podium of a University of Tübingen auditorium so packed that students are sitting on the floor in front of the podium and on the stairs between the seats. A few even perch up on the broad windowsills, two or even three students to a window. About to kick off a week-long series of lectures and discussions, Franzen has his talk printed out in a sheaf and rolled up sort of nervously in his hands. Then he realizes the Germans haven’t finished introducing him yet, have actually only finished the first half of an introduction that will describe him in ways that might be more fitting for a landscape or a panorama; proclaim him to be the most significant voice in America, an arbiter of its culture and an example of the best of its art; and awkwardly recommend him for the Nobel Prize. It is only half over and he’s embarrassed himself by standing up in the middle. He grimaces, mouths “Sorry,” walks back to his chair in exaggerated tiptoe, and sits down.

Midwesterners, and Americans generally, often carry with them this suspicion of the formal and overly complicated – a fear that, other times, is expressed as a commitment to hospitality, honesty, and egalitarianism. In a piece in The New Yorker, in 2002, Franzen cringed in print at the thought of his mother asking him “if he was just showing off” with the big words in his third novel. She was, he writes, “a lifelong anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical ‘average person.’” In the essay, “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen finds himself caught between two models of the novel. One, which he calls “Status,” values a novel for its appeal to an elite. The harder it is, the better. The other sees the novel as a “Contract” between reader and writer. It’s the novel as an exact balance between entertainment and having something serious to say. “In my bones,” Franzen confesses, “I’m a Contract kind of person.” A great novel, according to this model, will aspire to the broad middle, neither showy and elitist nor low-brow and trashy. This is the novel that, if it were a politician, could win 51 percent of the vote.

The comparison to politics is actually helpful here. If you’re on the political fringe in America, you find yourself weighing two possible rhetorical moves. The first is to defend extremism, almost abstract extremism, extremism for its own sake. You deride the democratic majority, calling them “sheep,” unwitting pawns of powerful forces. Thus your fringe status is a sign of the value of your ideas, marking you yourself as one of the few, the chosen, those who really understand. This is the move of anyone quoting Barry Goldwater on extremism in defense of liberty. The other possible move is to attempt to redefine everything, to re-frame the picture so that you are actually at the center. Everyone else is on the fringe, the real crazies. This is what libertarians do with their World’s Smallest Political Quiz, wherein, through “just the honest magic of truth and common sense,” libertarians fall at the center and top part of the map, while mainstream Republicans are a dot on the far right, along with fascists. (Liberals and anyone who doesn’t think the government should be shrunk by 50 percent or more is out on the left with the commies.) The move is actually kind of brilliant, in that the reframing appears natural, and it’s hard, while looking at the redrawn Bell curve, to notice immediately that the terms being used aren’t quite the common, accepted ones.

Jonathan Franzen ended up making something like the second move in his December 1st talk in Tübingen. He structured his talk – “Description of a Struggle: How I (Mostly) Fail to Write” – around four unpleasant, vexing, and (he said) good questions authors are always asked:

  • Who are your influences?
  • What are your writing habits?
  • Do your characters sometimes take over and take on lives of their own?
  • Is your writing really autobiographical?

By way of answering them, Franzen talked about the moral struggle of writing, and – quite openly – about his own personal efforts as a writer to overcome shame, guilt and depression. “Unless the writer is personally at risk,” he said, “it’s not worth reading, or, for the writer, worth writing.” Early on, though, Franzen made a little detour, an almost-aside, in which he attempted deftly, like the libertarians noted above, to reframe literature so that he and his project occupied its absolute center. He began by dismissing genre novels, pushing them to the one side of literature, as “a literature of diversion.” He then dismissed experimental novels, postmodern writing and “art novels,” pushing them to the other side as, also, “a literature of diversion.” He cast genre writing as harmless but unserious, and experimental writing as unserious but harmful.

We value genre novels, in Franzen’s view (he mentioned Elmore Leonard specifically), for their consistent form, and we appreciate and anticipate their repeated pattern. They are entertaining, but do not address the human condition. Experimental novels, for Franzen, are also all about form, in the sense that they overemphasize and foreground it, focusing on technical tricks and theoretical poses. They are solipsistic. They are playacting. They are too conscious of the act of communicating and modes of communication. They are not, Franzen suggested, fun or entertaining enough – and they are also not about the human condition. The upshot was that literature, this thing left in the middle ground between genre and experimental novels, must take us, humans, people, as “both its subject and dubious object.” Offering Kafka as a model of what literature is and what literature should do, he said literature shows us how “to be human in the face of the awful truths of ourselves.”

However, problems arise from the conflation of what something is and what something should be. For one thing, Franzen’s definition of the literary novel doesn’t really leave space for a failed work, something that takes the human condition as its subject, but isn’t successful. He also, at this point, took a little hop-skip and said literature is about “people as they really are” – as if realism were as natural as breathing. In fact, novels are not and never could be just simple reflections of reality, but are always and have to be constructions, artificial and formal mediations, interpretations.

Moreover, it’s not at all clear that this description of literature as being about “people as they really are” will divide writing in the way Franzen wants to divide it. It doesn’t seem obvious that a story about a man turned into a bug, just to use Franzen’s own example, is about humans “as they really are,” in some way that, say, Leonard’s story about former ’60s radicals on a for-profit bomb spree is not.

During the question-and-answer period after his talk, Franzen visibly recoiled when someone asked him why he hated experimental writers. “I didn’t say ‘hate,'” Franzen said. “I was really careful not to use that word.” He did, though, describe postmodern writers, experimental writers, as his “enemies” and as enemies of the novel, people who make reading harder. He didn’t name names, but did give a long list of descriptions of the writing he doesn’t like, including “too self-conscious” and “solipsistic.”

Afterwards, I asked Franzen whether his aversion to experimentalists included his good friend David Foster Wallace. After all, everything Franzen said he didn’t like could be (and has been) used to describe Wallace’s writing, and yet Franzen has never seemed to think of him as an enemy of the novel, or to cast him beyond the boundaries of the literary.

Franzen offered three not entirely compatible answers, illuminating some of the unexamined tensions among the Midwestern virtues extolled in “Mr. Difficult” – hospitality, egalitarianism, and candor. First, Franzen insisted that he really wasn’t decrying experimentalism, and threw out some names of experimental writers he liked. Instead, right now, he was really opposed, he said, to the “sentimentalists.” When asked whom he would describe as a sentimentalist, however, he made the motion of zipping his lips and throwing away the key, which isn’t exactly the best way to oppose something. The sentimentalists, he said, were writers who wrote with a sort of moral superiority.

His second answer was more of a holding firm to his dislike of experimentalism while also defending Wallace, whom Franzen described as a “once-in-a-generation genius.” His idea seemed to be that Wallace was able to overcome experimentalism and its limitations by virtue of his immense talent – to surpass it en route to real literature. Asked for clarification, though, Franzen gave what might actually have been his most satisfying answer. “You know,” he said, “honesty was a life and death struggle for Dave.”

Franzen too has struggled. He spoke very openly, in Tübingen, about his own struggle to “becom[e] the person you need to be to write the novel you need to write.” And he said that his “conception of the novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct confrontation” – that

the point at which writing becomes easy for a writer is where it becomes unnecessary to read that writer…. What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible.

And so Franzen’s fear of being mistaken for an elitist ultimately seems like a distraction, for himself and for his readers. If we disregard his rather conservative attempt to demarcate the boundaries that divide literature from mere writing – if, that is, we disregard his abstract pronouncements and look instead at the writing he admires, it becomes clear that he values above all the great moral effort to be honest in writing, no matter what form it takes. And here we must side with Franzen against himself. In the end, honesty is the moral project that divides good writing from bad, whatever “literature” turns out to be.

is an American writer living in Tübingen, Germany, where he is getting a Masters degree. He has worked as a gardener and gas station attendant, a Wal-mart shelf stocker, woodcarver, tree cutter, college teacher, and a crime reporter for a daily newspaper. More of his writing can be read at