Interviews October 2001

Mainstream and Meaningful

Mainstream and Meaningful

Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, discovers that, when it comes to fiction, "serious" doesn't have to mean "marginal" or "boring"
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The Corrections

The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus & Giroux
528 pages, $26.00

"The institution of writing and reading serious novels," wrote Jonathan Franzen in a 1996 Harper's cover story, "is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways. Ringing the depressed inner city of serious work are prosperous clonal suburbs of mass entertainments: techno and legal thrillers, novels of sex and vampires, of murder and mysticism." Franzen, whose first two novels had received relatively little attention, argued that in an era when computer-savvy readers were increasingly distracted by new forms of technology and media, and readers had come to doubt the capacity of fiction to address significant social issues, his dream of writing a serious novel that could "matter to the mainstream" had become seemingly impossible.

Five years later, however, it seems that Franzen has overcome his despair over both the state of fiction and his own prospects as a novelist. After relinquishing his hope of writing the next Catch-22 and renewing his faith in serious readers, he was able to start writing productively again, and eventually to publish, last month, his third novel, The Corrections. If we are to believe the nearly unanimous chorus of literary reviewers, Franzen has at last achieved his goal: The Corrections has indeed tapped the vein of the mainstream—movie rights and all—without sacrificing social content.

The novel follows the neurotic interactions of the Lambert family—two adults and three grown children—and chronicles the tumult that ensues when the mother insists that she wants everyone home for Christmas. One son has to escape Lithuania where he's been running an Internet scam, another must choose between spending the holiday with his parents or with his own wife and children (who refuse to go with him), and the daughter must own up to the destruction her sexual confusion has wreaked upon her career. The resulting conversations and miscommunications are sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious. Each character, each relationship, and even the family's Midwestern hometown of St. Jude, are clearly in need of some change—and perhaps correction.

Jonathan Franzen grew up in a suburb outside of St. Louis. After graduating from Swarthmore in 1981 he won a Fulbright Scholarship and studied at the Free University of Berlin. His first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), received the Whiting Award. Strong Motion, his second novel, was published in 1992. Franzen writes for The New Yorker and lives in New York City.

We spoke over the telephone on September 6.

—Jessica Murphy

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen   

In your 1996 Harper's article, "Perchance to Dream," you wrote, "When I got out of college in 1981, I hadn't heard the news about the death of the social novel." How do you define the social novel? And how is it faring twenty years later?

I think Philip Roth's declaration in 1961 of the death of the social novel was accurate. There is no place anymore for social realism à la Germinal or Frank Norris or Dreiser, whatever Tom Wolfe might say. Other media simply do social realism much better. I was aware of that. I wasn't imagining the social novel as muckraking fiction, or exposé fiction. What I had in mind in 1981, as I said in the article, was a book like Catch-22, which cut deeply enough into the country's consciousness to create its own dictionary entry. The book was more than just a story—it was also about where we were as a country, asking big questions about war and pacifism. The idea that you could actually reach a large audience while engaging with questions that were interesting to society seemed alive to me in 1981. I think that's what I meant by a social novel—one that is engaged with society, both in its reception and in its preoccupations.

Do you think it's possible for a novelist to reach a large audience today with so much information and so many other types of media at our fingertips? In your essay you said that "television has killed the novel of social reportage." Is there a literary antidote to the television screen?

The idea that the novelist somehow has a responsibility to take on and combat television is something I probably would have found much more attractive in my twenties. My feeling is that the best way to combat TV is not by attacking it head on—not by producing fiction that explicitly exposes TV's negative aspects and causes the scales to fall from the viewer's eyes, producing a conversion to fiction on the spot. It's really much more about—book by book—trying to produce fiction that is so compelling that one would want to read fiction rather than watch TV. If enough writers do that then I think the medium can continue to exist as a plausible alternative to television, particularly as TV continues to exhaust itself.

Didn't writing a manifesto that lamented the state of American fiction put certain pressure on you to deliver?

I don't think it was a prescriptive article. It was not—if you compare it to the obvious touchstone—Tom Wolfe's manifesto of ten years earlier. He was really calling for a certain kind of fiction, which he then delivered in the form of Bonfire of the Vanities. My article asks, Why bother to write at all? And answers with some reasons.

I was saying, let's remember who really reads books and what they read for. The serious readers aren't reading for instruction or for journalistic content. My piece was about the scaling back of expectation.

It did put some pressure on me, although nothing like the pressure I already felt simply because it was taking me so long to get a third book out. The piece raised the question, Who is he to be speaking on behalf of all novelists in this way? It had already been four full years since I'd last published a book, and I had two novels to my name—neither of which had particularly made my career. So, there was some pressure to show people that I really was the person to be writing that piece.

Did you happen to read B. R. Myers's "A Reader's Manifesto" in the July/ August issue of The Atlantic in which he argued that contemporary literary fiction is pretentious? What did you think of that piece?

Myers seems to think that things were different in the past. But I don't think that's true. Look at the Pulitzer Prize winners in the fifties. A certain kind of pretentious, heavy, pseudo-literary writing has been being rewarded for a very long time. So my feeling is that there's some truth to his argument, but it was ever thus.

Many critics are saying that The Corrections is the next social novel. Would you agree?

No. I want to curl up and take a nap when I hear the phrase "social novel." So I would never want to apply that term to my book, because I wouldn't want you to think of it as a snore.

It's not.

Well, thank you. It's a novel and it does some of the things that a novel can do. And one of the cool things that I think a novel can do is connect the personal and the more broadly cultural and social. So it is social in that sense.

What are the risks of writing about society and addressing social issues in fiction?

In the head-on approach the risk is banality of observation. For instance, Neill Postman is right about TV, but it's not a complicated rightness. He basically makes the same point over and over. This is an infernal machine. This is an infernal machine. That's one of the dangers I talk about in the Harper's essay: making the same simple point. Any fiction that has a simplistic or repetitive or—increasingly nowadays—banal point to make is not going to be very interesting.

How could The Corrections be about "contemporary society" if it took eight years to write? How can you write a novel that sustains itself in our rapidly changing contemporary society?

It's easy, actually. It really wasn't until '96 that I could afford to devote full time to it. Even then, what I was doing for several years was trying to find the right set of characters and in particular the right tone and structure for those characters. The three are inextricably linked.

I took forever to get the first chapter written. The chapter which introduces the youngest son, Chip, kept wanting to be more complicated and it wanted to be a satire of academic manners and, God, do we need one? So, I tried going again and again to the well, trying to find the right tone, the right character, and the right situation that would allow me to do what I really wanted to do and find stuff that was fresh enough to sustain each of the five major chapters. The result was that I wrote almost all of the book in the year 2000. If you watch an office building getting constructed, workers spend nearly a year digging around in the dirt, and then the thing goes up in about two weeks. It's just like that. If you do that, most of the references and most of the spirit is stuff that really is fresh.

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine mentioned an elaborate diagram that you used to map out the entire novel and its characters. When during the process did you have the entire map with all of the characters and the engine driving the novel—that the mother wants everyone to get home for Christmas?

That came really late. As late as about three months before I turned the book in, I was just in despair, saying, "I don't know what the book's about. I don't know what the book's about. There's no story here." But that was partly because I didn't know how I was going to end it.

As each chapter was finished, I would add it to the map. About two years before I handed in the manuscript, I threw out everything I had been working on except the chapter where Enid and Alfred are on a cruise, and decided that this was going to be a five-part book. There were five main characters, and I decided that there were going to be five novella-size sections with a beginning and ending tacked on. That was the real map. That's what I knew. It wasn't until the very end that I figured out exactly what was going to be in each of those sections, particularly the last one. Those graphs didn't really do anything except reassure me that I had a different structure for each chapter. Also, the part of me that is somewhat formally obsessed and writes for insiders—for other writers—wanted to be able to say that each of the sections has its own distinctive, chronological structure.

Did your other two novels come together in the same way, character first, plot later?

Yes. In every case. Also in every case, there has been a long gestation period and then the writing happened relatively quickly.

The dysfunctional family seems to have been fertile imaginative ground in all of your novels, but especially in The Corrections. In many ways the Lamberts represent the typical generation gap between stoic parents stubbornly holding on to social mores and their grown children who are looking for something different. But there is a real sense of pain and struggle and dissatisfaction to all of their lives. Why is family such a focus in your work?

I find this phrase "dysfunctional family" very curious. It seems to imply that there is such a thing as a functional family. Can we find some other phrase?

The "normal" family?

Yes, exactly. It is the normal family as I know it. The Lamberts' experience—which is quite a bit stranger than mine—is really tame compared to a lot of what I hear about from my friends. (I probably do tend to know people who are somewhat weirder than average since I know writers and artists.)

We're in an era when it's very hard to be idealistic about anything. Even when you do manage to achieve idealism for a few moments, you immediately start examining it and becoming ironic. In a prosperous post great society era, when the two major political parties resemble each other so closely, and the Cold War is over, there aren't many places to find meaning. But family does remain an enduring generator of meaning. Since the fiction writer is trying to tell stories that have meaning, I think it's natural to be looking at family.

Chip has an illicit relationship with a student who gives him libido-enhancing drugs, a cruise-line doctor convinces Enid to take a different form of the same drug (and she likes it!), and then there is the whole Corektall phenomenon—the drug with the same name as a laxative that is supposed to cure everything from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's to depression and crime. What is your novel saying about our quick-fix, drug-loving society?

The book gestated in a period of greatly exaggerated technological promise, when worker productivity was going to increase by ten percent a year, and world peace would ensue from our sharing our thoughts on the Internet, and we would soon live forever because of the various improvements on the biological or medical front. It's not a complicated insight to say that history does not show that you can fix things. When you try to fix something, you create a new problem. I don't think that's a lesson—I'm not teaching anything. I'm having fun with some of that particularly American optimism. It's amusing to me. The spirit of most of my treatment of it in the book is meant to be funny.

How important is place to the characters and to you? This came to mind when I was reading, "In the pageantry of weddings Enid reliably experienced the paroxysmal love of place, as a mid-west in general and suburban St. Jude in particular—that for her was the only true patriotism and the only viable spirituality." Place is most certainly important to Enid.

That speaks again to the question of how you find meaning in your life. That's certainly a way Enid finds meaning—by belonging to a place (and also by being at the head of the family).

In the Harper's essay I talked about the dismay with which the fiction writer views the increasing homogenization in this country—the elimination of regionalism. That's just a fiction writer's petulant way of saying that there used to be all these cool details that you could use to really to liven up the page—the local manners, the local landscape. When every landscape is tract housing and Wal-Marts, and every mannerism is derived from hours of viewing MTV, you have to work harder to come up with an interesting page. But I believe place does still exist. There are distinctions among regions and among cities.

There were many moments where I found myself laughing out loud while reading your work, both at times when the characters find themselves in absurd situations, having absurd conversations and also in their mundane, everyday miscommunication. What role does humor play in your fiction? Is humor essential to you as writer?

I would no sooner fall in love with a humorless book than with a humorless woman. And there are a whole lot of humorless books out there, let me tell you...

And humorless women?

Indeed, there are. They tend not to be too aware of it, but there are. Everyone prides themselves on having a "sense of humor" but I know what the real thing is. It's vital to me for a lot of reasons. When I read stuff aloud to audiences, I always choose funny stuff because you get something back. It's the key indicator that I've got something right, when it begins to get funny. I spent a year trying to get the Chip chapter off the ground and what that consisted of was repeated attempts to start writing, and fifteen or twenty pages in, saying, this isn't funny, and it's no good. As a reader, I find humor to be an indicator that I can trust the writer, because I know the writer is not taking him or herself too seriously and has enough distance on the characters that I don't feel that I'm being sold a character whom the author is attached to in some unwholesome way. Mostly the funny pages are the ones that are fun to write. It's vital. It's the center of what I'm about.

Your books are all roughly the same length, just over 500 pages or so. Why this length?

This just feels like the right size for a book to me. Once you get everything rolling, why not have a world that you enjoy dwelling in for a while? If the book has passages that are a chore to read, or that are humorless and earnest ... then the shorter the better. But if you're committed to really entertaining the reader and having fun, then a longer novel seems right.

All of your novels pull in a very broad range of subject matter. In The Corrections there is metallurgy, a Lithuanian dot-com scam, the strange social interactions on a cruise ship, among other topics. In Strong Motion you have seismology, anti-abortionists, and Red Sox mania. How do such divergent topics make their way into the same novel?

One of the reasons I like a not-short book is that it gives me an opportunity to use a lot of different tones and have a lot of different colors. To the extent that a novel is like a painting, it's nice to have the expanse of simple, blue, lightly-clouded sky; it's also nice to have a real knot of compositional complexity in a different corner and a strong compelling figure or two in the foreground. (Obviously I'm talking about representational art here.) It makes for a richer reading experience if you can create different areas of interest because it contributes to that illusion—which is an illusion that I enjoy as a reader—of being bound up, caught up in a whole world.

How do I do it? I make a lot of stuff up and then I check afterwards to make sure the facts are okay. For the pages about Gary's attempt to get in big on the IPO, I talked to a stock broker friend of mine on how IPOs really work and how the shares are allocated in advance among institutional investors and private investors. There was work involved there, but the need to do that work was generated by the broad outlines of the chapter.

In reviews you're almost universally grouped together with and compared to Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo, both of whom you've said that you admire. Have you been influenced by them and if so, how?

Delillo has certainly been an influence—especially when I was learning how to write. Even when I lose my way now he's an influence, just because his writing is so strong. He has such clean and beautiful sentences and such rhythms. It is so rarely self-indulgent that it's clarifying. He's a palate cleanser for me. Both he and Pynchon are very good at getting at certain postwar moods—capturing the age of crowds, nuclear weapons, and the denaturing effects of the media and technology on language. So they're kindred spirits in that way. But I don't know how to speak to their influence much beyond that. There are many books that are important to me in terms of my pointing at them and saying, that's the kind of book I want to do.

Is writing a private, insular activity for you, or do you find that more material comes from being out in the world?

I think a little bit of experience goes a long way. It's relatively insular because the worst thing I can do in setting out to write about something is know too much about it. If I'd spent a month researching the way IPOs work, I would've had all of this information and I would've wanted to do justice to it, or I would know about some little snag that would have made the whole thing impossible. So just doing the minimum of out-there information gathering as it comes up, and as it's dictated by the exigencies of the story, is a better way for me to work.

You've sold the movie rights to The Corrections and you've had several publications trying to get interviews. How has that been? How are you reacting to all of this press?

In a way that goes back to the much earlier question about whether I put pressure on myself by writing that Harper's piece. I felt as if I'd written two fine and interesting novels by the time I wrote that essay, and the essay in part was a cry of pain for not having gotten what I considered sufficient recognition for them. Of course that sense of being under-noticed only got worse as the decade dragged on because I still hadn't published a third book. So some of this is satisfying a hunger I've had for a long time. I'm conscious of being very fortunate—not fortunate that I had a lucky break for some reason and everyone is getting excited about this book. I feel fortunate, rather, because I have great parents, great friends, a great girlfriend, a wonderful agent, a wonderful editor, I have a great relationship with The New Yorker—I have everything going for me, plus I don't know what else I might be good at, but I do know I really feel as if I am somebody who knows how to build a novel. I don't have a sense of getting something I don't deserve. It's not like I'm a hundred times better than a lot of short story writers, but short story writers just won't get this attention. They're a hundred times more dedicated, but I make maybe a hundred times more money, and I get ten times more media coverage. That's a sorry situation, but not one that I can do anything about.

The Corrections ends on a hopeful note, particularly for Enid, despite the habits and the fears that constrain the characters throughout the novel. Is this sense of hope and redemption important to you?

I think Enid's the hero of the book. At the outset it's infuriating how hopeful she is in the face of obvious grave troubles. It comes off as an annoying inability to face reality, and yet, ultimately her hope is one of the most beautiful things about her. I mean, hope is one of the primary Christian virtues—faith, hope, and charity. Enid struggles very hard with charity, and she has some little crises of faith, but she never loses hope. If you have a literature that is built around the tragic recognition that there's always going to be pain and suffering—no way to escape that—it sure helps if you can introduce some note of hope as well. I think that's true to my experience of life.

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