Jonathan Franzen has written a lecture on autobiography and fiction in The Guardian this week and, as always, he has influenced and irritated his readers in equal measure; the comments are worth reading, if you make it to the end of the piece.
Personally, I was fascinated by it and, more than that, I really appreciate an author taking the time to address things rudimentary and expand upon their process.
Of course, being Franzen, he does this with a slight “oh, if I must” sort of style. He begins his lesson by addressing four unpleasant questions that authors often get asked: Who are your influences? What time of day do you work and what do you write on? At a certain point when writing your novel, do your characters “take over”? and, Is your writing autobiographical?
A couple of things stood out for me or were important for me to read at this moment in time. In fact, it could be the issue of time and timing that has niggled me most of all.
In the ubiquitously snarky comments section (Guardian readers do snarky so well don’t you think?), a reader agrees with Franzen about these unpleasant, stupid questions, calling them the ultimate in lazy journalism and the sort of question “an eleven year old might ask.”
Well. I have been that eleven year old. At twenty-one and twenty-five and, now, at thirty-one, I have been and am that eleven year old. I’d hazard a guess that the majority of folks who ask those particular questions are not lazy journalists or journalists at all; I see a novice writer, uncertain and at a loss, unsure of how to begin and searching for some guidance; I imagine someone like myself.
As a young writer (I am not so young but I am a young writer, an infant) I often feel illegitimate, that there are certain things I do not have a right to say or express. “How can I, a neophyte, talk about writing? What do I know? Who are you to talk?” Etcetera.
So often, when reading these author interviews, not only am I seeking guidance, but I am delighting in those moments when an Annie Dillard or a Joan Didion or a Franzen says something that I have said or thought to myself before. It’s affirmative somehow. I breathe a sigh of relief: “Okay. Okay. I’m on the right track here. I’m not so unlike them.” Of course, I’m miles away from them as they are now. But maybe, just maybe, I’m in a place that they were once in – that is, in the beginning, when they were infants.
So it feels okay when Franzen, talking about his influences, says:
…much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer…
I’m in that place right now, as I work my way through those “Great Books” that are so often cited as major influences. I’m nearing the end of The Golden Notebook and, while I relate to the characters in many ways and am interested in its structure, I move through it listing its flaws and how it largely fails to achieve what it desires to. “But it’s Doris Lessing!” I say. She won the Nobel prize, she is a great writer. It must be me. I must be missing something.
Says Franzen in his essay:
To list every writer I’ve learned something from would take me hours, and it still wouldn’t account for why some books matter to me so much more than other books: why, even now, when I’m working, I often think about The Brothers Karamazov and The Man Who Loved Children and never about Ulysses or To the Lighthouse. How did it happen that I did not learn anything from Joyce or Woolf, even though they’re both obviously “strong” writers?
Phew. I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not necessarily my flaw, my inadequacy if I’m not benefiting from books that I thought I would or should. It’s not that it’s Franzen telling me this per se; I’m not crazy about his writing though I can’t say it’s not good. It’s the permission lent to me by those who’ve gone and succeeded before me. I don’t like needing these endorsements but it’s where I’m at right now.
Even Franzen struggles with this issue of legitimacy too, I think. It lies behind his dislike of the question: Is your work autobiographical?
I’m suspicious of any novelist who would honestly answer no to this question, and yet my strong temptation, when I’m asked it myself, is to answer no. Of the four questions, this is the one that always feels the most hostile. Maybe I’m just projecting that hostility, but I feel as if my powers of imagination are being challenged.
As in: “Is this a true work of fiction, or just a thinly disguised account of your own life? And since there are only so many things that can happen to you in your life, you’re surely going to use up all of your autobiographical material soon – if, indeed, you haven’t used it up already! – and so you probably won’t be writing any more good books, will you? In fact, if your books are just thinly disguised autobiography, maybe they weren’t as interesting as we thought they were? Because, after all, what makes your life so much more interesting than anybody else’s? It’s not as interesting as Barack Obama’s life, is it? And also, for that matter, if your work is autobiographical, why didn’t you do the honest thing and write a non-fiction account of it? Why dress it up in lies? What kind of bad person are you, telling us lies to try to make your life seem more interesting and dramatic?”
I hear all of these other questions in the question, and before long the very word “autobiographical” feels shameful to me.
I include this passage in its entirety because I recognise in it my own doubts, fears and insecurities when I sit down to write. A writer has to begin somewhere, he says, and almost everyone says Write What You Know. So why do I often feel like a fraud when I draw upon my life, when I use writing as a way of figuring myself out? Why does it feel less creative, less radical, less of a leap?
It encourages me to see Franzen share similar feelings on the subject and explain his discomfort with the question. And his answer to it – which you should read if you are worried or doubting too – allows me to be less afraid and less concerned; it gives me the freedom to continue in the way that I know I have to go. Of course I knew this already and all along. I’ve known it for some time. But sometimes, rightly or wrongly, I need a “real” writer to say it too, to lend legitimacy to what I have already intuited. I am still an eleven year old, asking the questions that I need. But I am also very old and know a lot of things. Soon I will be twelve.