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Jonathan Franzen is an easily understood genius

freedomAt some point Jonathan Franzen decided to write easily understood works of literary genius. It was likely while writing his 1994 essay Perchance to Dream which tries to find some purpose for the novel in the technological consumer culture of the late 20th / early 21st century (alternate title “Why Bother?”) It’s a decision that has made Franzen the most successful literary novelist of recent decades. And also one that has won me as a reader.

*There may be some spoilers ahead. It’s not the kind of book that is easily spoiled. But if you worry about such things, you have been warned.*

Freedom is a big book about…freedom. It’s a family saga, although in truth while it appears to follow the Berglund family over a number of decades, it is actually all about one pivotal relationship at the heart of that family’s life and identity. The Berglund’s are a midwest American upper middle class family, which is so much Franzen’s societal stomping ground he’s now frequently called on it as a limitation by reviewers. Lots of the story unfolds during the college years of the central characters, so Franzen can also enjoy writing a campus novel. There’s a love triangle, and at heart the book is a very moving story about the relative value of love, marriage and commitment.

And, of course, freedom.

Franzen tips the reader off that this is a book about freedom by calling the book Freedom. He’s trying hard to make sure you don’t miss this, because without having it front and centre in your mind, you’re not going to enjoy the many clever ways Franzen explores the theme of freedom. This is of course an American novelist, writing an American book about American culture. Freedom is the foundational myth of America, the “home of the free.” So literally any observation of contemporary American life an also be re-tooled as an observation on what it is to be a “free people”.

The large but not sprawling cast of Freedom – Walter and Patty Berglund, their two children Joey and Jessica, their oldest friend and rock musician Richard Katz, their relatives and in-laws and – pivotally – the supporting chorus of neighbours Franzen employs for comic relief – all represent different approaches to living a free life. Or not. In response to their freedom The Berglunds choose a not very healthy but very common form of codependent relationship – marriage. Richard Katz chooses total independence, and all the loneliness and craziness that comes with it. Neither is vindicated in their choice, they are merely different responses to the existential problem posed by freedom.

We know Franzen is doing this, because whenever he is done illustrating the conundrum that is freedom in a particular character, he slips in a sentence or two about being free, or living freely, or having freedom.

“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

OK. The instances of free and freedom aren’t actually highlighted in the book. But they may as well be. How stupid would you have to be for the word freedom not to come flying off the page at you while reading a book called Freedom? Which is precisely the point. Franzen knows how stupid we are, and he knows how much he has to compensate for the stupidity of the average reader.

Franzen occasionally confuses his argument by using the word freedom in an entirely literal and non-thematic context. And I’m confusing my argument by being a person regularly guilty of extreme snark who now sounds like he is being snarky when actually he’s being 100% sincere. We need writers like Jonathan Franzen who can say intelligent things and aren’t too proud to highlight them in neon markers for a readership who simply aren’t very good at reading. I’m a professional book reviewer, and *I* need this, so I hate to think what the average bloke on the street needs.

We are a culture of surface and sensation. The cultural activities we actually do willingly are things of immense visual spectacle – stadium sports, blockbuster movies, widescreen home video games etc etc – and they in turn are experiences of intense sensation. We like food that burns our mouth with spice, drinks saturated in sugar and acid, news that soaks us with fear sweat and dramas that make us shriek and weep at the villainy and heroism on screen. We fill our real lives with fast cars, high power careers, extreme sports and hallucinogenic drugs. All of it, all of it, every last shred, to escape from the mundane life we would have to live if these things did not distract us.

Literary fiction does none of these things. It is, arguably, the antithesis of surface and sensation. It is the stripping away of fantasy and delusion to take us back to mundane reality. And it does this to help us see that it’s in the actual lives we are living that all the most valuable things are to be found. Love. Relationships. Emotion. Meaning. Hope. But to get there we have to re-engage with all the mundane stuff we’ve been avoiding. Lost love. Relationships gone sour with lack of care. All the emotions of grief, fear, hate, anger and the rest that we try so hard to avoid feeling. But without feeling them we can’t find any meaning or hope. It’s why literary fiction so often seems gloomy and depressing. It’s taking us back to our own gloomy depressing reality, without which we can’t find any true joy or happiness.

This is the first reason why literary fiction is a hard sell. It’s so much easier to escape in to a fantasy than to face reality, and there are whole genres of fantasy for readers who would rather do that. The second reason is somewhat more prosaic. As a culture of surface and sensation, we simply aren’t conditioned to look at the subtle internal life that literary fiction directs us to. In fantasy grief is solved when the hero kills the villain and saves the princess. In reality, grief is never solved. Things and people lost generally stay lost, and every time we lose something else the grief gets worse. That’s reality. It’s hard. Literary fiction can help show us – as Freedom does beautifully – how grief can be transformed in to redemption and renewal. But for those of us conditioned to look for a comforting fantasy, following the subtleties of real emotional experience and human behaviour is hard.

Franzen understands that for the potent medicine of literature to get through to readers, it sometimes has to be blunt. It’s tempting for literary writers to make the subtleties of emotion and experience ever more subtle. Maggie goes to the kitchen and washes a mug, and from this we’re supposed to divine that Maggie has found piece with the loss of her elder brother some years before. Well, frankly, most of us aren’t going to get that. We need writers like Franzen who’ll already have told us repeatedly that this was Johnny’s favourite mug, and will then have Johnny’s pet pitbull enter the kitchen with a note tucked in its collar from Johnny that he wrote as a joke just before dying which ironically lists all the things he finds annoying about his kid sister. Now, some of the audience at least are following along.

Freedom is one long series of well placed notes strapped to pitbulls. It’s a highly engineered work of fiction about important and subtle realities of life that almost anyone will be able to read with pleasure and take at least something from. In a world that seems to have fewer meaningful stories, and ever more escapist fantasies, that makes Freedom a book of immense power and value.

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How difficult is it to write a good book?

Here’s an interesting experiment you can replicate if you ever have a class of creative writing students. I’ve tried it a number of times. Give the students a set of writing samples. Have them sort through the samples and categorise them as “good” or “not good”. Regardless of the level of experience of the students, you’ll find high levels agreement on what writing is good, and what writing is not good.

I’m not putting this forward as scientific proof. Although I’d be interested to know if it’s ever been tried as a study. But I am putting it forward as an indication that as readers we have a clear idea of what good writing is. And that this understanding is at some level objective, and reaches beyond subjective preferences over the style and content of writing.

It can also be useful to work through with students what qualities the good writing samples share, or the not good samples lack. Here are a few qualities you will often find in good writing :

  • Spelling and grammar – samples with bad spelling and grammar, however well they do in other areas, will always go in the not good pile.
  • Clarity – the writing is easy to read, with simple words chosen over complex ones, shorter rather than longer sentences, and clearly defined paragraphs.
  • Information Flow / Narrative Drive – the writing presents one piece of information at a time, and all the information presented is relevant to the subject of the writing. If the writing is telling a story of any kind, there are a clear series of events that happen one after another.

The qualities that make a piece of writing “good” are very fundamental. They are also not secret. These are the basic rules you would be taught as a reporter or journalist working for a newspaper, as an advertising copywriter, and indeed as a novelist. But because a novel is a relatively complex form of writing, these fundamentals are often obscured by issues of style and structure. Students can spend years kicking around in circles trying to master point-of-view and five act structures to no good purpose because the fundamentals of “good” writing just aren’t there.

And like most simple things, they can be damnably hard to master. Writing 100,000 words of grammatically correct, clear prose with good information flow and narrative drive is hard. And these qualities are to varying extents fractal. Not only do your sentences and paragraphs have to be clear, they have to build in to clear scenes and sequences, which have to build in to clear chapters. And then these fundamentals have to underpin the flashier parts of the writers craft – the flourishes of style, the compelling plot twists, the beautifully drawn characters that people are turning up to read.

How difficult is it to write a good book? It’s hard!

But keep going. Because if you can write a good book – good in both the fundamentals that readers measure without knowing it, and in the more sophisticated ways that we consciously think about – you are guaranteed a readership. Good books are rare. And they last. They are the books that still populate the bookshop shelves twenty, fifty or a hundred years after publication. Because in all that time no better ones have been written to shove them off their perch.

If you enjoyed this post you can buy Damien a coffee.

Does God have a place in science fiction?

If SF is grounded in hard scientific fact, and science is killing God, then what place does that leave for divine intervention in the pages of SF literature? When I tweeted this question, @MirabilisDave gave Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum a twist, quipping that “Any sufficiently advanced technocrat will be indistinguishable from God.”

Read more @ Guardian books

Meta-content is the future of the book

This evening I bought Jeffrey Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’ from the Amazon Kindle store. I would love to say that I always buy books when it would be just as easy to download a pirate version for free, but I would be being  dishonest. But buying the book has recently become a far more likely outcome, for the simple reason that I want to see what other people are saying about it.

Reading through The Marriage Plot I am able to see where other readers have highlighted passages. I find this really quite interesting. It would of course be much, much more interesting if readers could share comments on the text directly through their Kindles. We may read books in isolation but we love to talk about them together. Books are about our shared human experience, so it’s good and natural that we want to exchange thoughts about them. Take it a step further. Think about the commentary that accrues around a text over the years. Reviews. Academic studies. Reader comments. Author interviews. Social media gives us the technology to connect all of these materials directly to the text. That’s incredible added value, which has hardly even begun to be tapped.

The publishing industry has been chronically slow in exploiting the unique added value of user generated meta-content around the product they publish. Particularly as it provides an absolutely compelling solution to the problem of piracy. Only the authorised text allows you both to read commentary, and to comment upon the text. Readers are in effect paying not for the book, an increasingly worthless product, but for entry to the community of the book’s readers, an increasingly valuable experience. My prediction is that the first players to provide a seamless commentary and meta-content system for published texts will gain an advantage in the game of modern publishing. It will almost certainly be Amazon, unless the major publishers suddenly gain a gift for innovation they have previously lacked.

The now of the book

Since I began writing, the book has been dying. No one has time to read any more. In our busy digital lives prose needs to readjust itself to fit in. It needs to be sliced in to ever tinier sections. The blog-post. The status update. The tweet. These things have their purposes, but they do not suit fiction overly well. There will never be a great, or even satisfactory, Twitter novel.

It’s one of those common sense fallacies that flash fiction suits our modern life better. No one has time to read anymore, goes the logic, except the occaisional five minute life-gap during the daily commute. Maybe, between emails and tweets, we might read a very concentrated burst of literature.

We won’t.

We won’t have novels with embedded videos either. Or sound-clips. Or RSS feed streaming content. And stories won’t be interactive. Most of all, they will not be interactive. Not that people will stop trying to do these things. They make perfect sense from a marketing perspective. The customer is always right. Prose fiction, says the marketeer, must adapt itself to the whims of the customer.

No. The customer must adapt themself to the demands of prose fiction. The book is defined by the fact that it takes time, and during that time you must concentrate on what you are being told. You do not get to lapse in to the zombie state of the television viewer. You do not get to choose what happens. The book does not change, the book changes you.

The book does not have a future. It is already the thing it needs to be. Fewer people may choose to test themself against it, in which case there will be more idiots in the world. Or more people will grow their minds and consciouness through reading, and the world will be a better place.