• Franzen Folderol

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 16 comments

    The other day LitHub published a piece titled “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists,” borrowed from Jonathan Franzen’s new essay collection.

    It caused some hubbub.

    Literary Twitter went nuts. Writers and readers piled on Franzen, calling his list pretentious, narrow-minded, and/or just plain ridiculous. Chuck Wendig, to the delight of many, went on a long rant.

    Others argued that the piece is taken out of context and say that Franzen’s publicists were just trying to promote the book. Some even claimed the list is meant to be satire. (It may be. I’ve never read Franzen, so I’m not familiar enough to comment.)

    Anyway, agree with the list (or parts of it) or not, there are two of them I want to dig into, especially here in mid-November, halfway through NaNoWriMo.

    Your turn: You NaNoWriMoers, how’s it going so far? Are you on pace? And, arguably more importantly, are you enjoying the process? Let us know in the comments below.

    What’s your Thanksgiving weekend attack plan, if you’re traveling and/or spending time with family/friends?

    (If you’re looking for tips on that, we had a great discussion last year about writing during the holidays. Make sure to read the comments for some helpful hints from fellow WriteByNighters.)


    Write What You Don’t Know

    Franzen’s rule No. 2: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”

    The syntax is weird. Also, is he saying that fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown is worth writing, but only for money? Doesn’t seem very Franzen-like.

    But anyway.

    I think what he’s saying is, we have to challenge ourselves as writers. We have to figure out what it is we’re afraid of, and then confront those fears.

    (Or maybe not necessarily “have to,” but should.)

    Writers have beaten into the ground Twain’s famous “Write what you know.” Franzen’s response seems to be: “Write what you don’t know.” Added to that, “and/or are afraid of.”

    Your turn: What do you think No. 2 means? And do you agree with it? Can you tell us about a time you took “a personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown” in your fiction?


    Pure Invention

    Franzen’s rule No. 6: “The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.”

    Again the syntax is troubling. But I wonder, is this just a different way of saying the “frightening and unknown” thing?

    Kafka, writing his novella, takes a “personal adventure” into his deepest fears, through pure invention, and therefore reveals himself most purely?

    Franzen doesn’t seem to be making an explicit value judgment here. I don’t necessarily read this as carrying an implied “and the most important fiction is fiction that is most purely autobiographical.” But I do imagine he feels this way, based on the little I know of him. And assuming this isn’t satire…

    Your turn: What do you think No. 6 means? And do you agree? Tell us about a time your autobiographical fiction required and/or displayed “pure invention.”

    Do any of the other eight rules jump out at you as particularly interesting or stupid?

    Also, have you read any great fiction during this novel-reading and -writing month?

    Have you read any Franzen? What do you think of his work?


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    Barbara Mealer

    You don’t have to write what you know. You can do research and come up with things you didn’t know to use in a story. As Dan Brown says, write what you don’t know after doing your research. Learn things which fascinate you, blending them into your story. If you stick to only what you know, you will soon run out of material which fascinates you. If it was rephrased to something like, “When you write fiction, if it isn’t a trip into the unknown, or frightening for your character, you might want to rethink your story.” You should put… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    When you are sitting still, things come to you and there is time to see, study and understand. If you are chasing it, you are to busy to see the details of what you are chasing. I have learned to sit quietly on a log out back away from the house. I see rabbits, ground squirrels, ravens, a snake or two, a road runner, a couple of coyotes, moles and even a deer. If I went chasing them, I’d never get close enough to really see them. (Road runners are a riot. They are quite large and very fast.) Try… Read more »

    david lemke

    I’ve read his ten. It sounds like he a poet or being poetic. poets lie. it’s one of their best qualities. They say look here but don’t look there because ‘there’ isn’t important and doesn’t exist anyway. If you believe them it can change your path which may or may not be good. I’ve never read The Metamorphosis so I have no context. My opinion is that he believed what he wrote at the time he wrote it. In stead of writing what you know or don’t know, write on the edge of what you’ve experienced and what you are… Read more »

    Pia Manning

    I think rule 2 is commanding writers to be personally invested in their creation in some emotional or life defining way. Otherwise, they’re writing just for the money. I’m not sure I agree with that. Is anyone who writes not invested in their work? Especially if they publish and/or are subject to some form of judgement.

    The computer/ internet thing? Writing using real paper and a pen might be more intimate than computer, but naaaa.

    david lemke

    There was a SF story about a future utopia but writers and artist would have to work for free. If I remember correctly the hero who was about to expose the secret was killed to save all of us writers and artists.

    david lemke

    I agree. I’m left-handed and after winning the battle to stay left-handed my handwriting was so bad that I took typing classes at 12 and typed all my homework from then on. I used to write creatively by hand a lot and I can’t read some of it. Naaaaa.

    david lemke

    That used to be an actual thing. Left-handedness used to be evil. Consider; when to kings (or whoever) meet to discuss stuff. By shaking hands, they would show each other they were unarmed, ah, but if one was a evil lefty the other king could be stabbed to death. Most lefties have poor hand-writing. There are lots more lefties now then there used to be since they don’t persecute us as badly any more.

    Pia Manning

    Ya, me too. Wasn’t pleasant in the pre-word processor days.

    Barbara Mealer

    I’m not left handed, but my handwriting is so poor they called me the nurse’s revenge to the doctors since most of them couldn’t read my writing like I couldn’t their’s. I loved typewriters and earned money typing other people’s papers (while correcting them, of course) and the the word processor (my Apple IIc) was my best friend. Paper is good for notes but that’s about it.

    david lemke

    Actually, I did read Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” I just forgot the name. I thought it was poor SF since he offer no rationale and was so simplistic besides. There were two reasons I finished it; I usually finish everything I pick up (eventually)and it was very short. As far as pure imagination, well, people don’t act like that, “The Fly” was better. His concept was fine but he didn’t put in real people you could care about. If Franzen wrote to get us arguing, talking, well done.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x