In August 2010, Time magazine announced that the search was over; Jonathan Franzen was the “Great American Novelist.” In response, The New Yorker reported that “the white whale has been vanquished. Ahab, bless his addled soul, can rest easy.”
“I’ve never finished Moby Dick,” Franzen admitted on Friday to Lev Grossman, the Time senior writer and book critic who composed the cover story. Grossman spoke with Franzen in front of a mostly young audience at Bass Concert Hall in a discussion co-presented by Texas Performing Arts and the Texas Book Festival.
“That’s appalling!” Grossman said.
“I won’t spoil it for you.”
Such was the tenor of Franzen’s uncensored and candid discussion with Grossman. Franzen was awarded the National Book Award for his 2001 novel The Corrections. His best-selling novel Freedom was published last year.
“Do you feel the novel is still a good tool for dealing with, or at least drawing attention to, the country’s problems?” Grossman asked Franzen.
“Maybe not,” Franzen answered. “Can it still be productive for a novel to be aware of those issues, to have them flavor and influence the story? That’s a resounding yes. But solving problems? In terms of novels with an actual, discernible impact, it thinned on the ground after Grapes of Wrath.”
“So it’s no longer the novelist’s job?” Grossman asked.
“What’s the novelist’s job?”
“To keep giving people, the single-digit percentage of people, books they’d value and enjoy. I’m so grateful when someone writes me a book that makes me feel less completely crazy in my responses to the world, when someone has the courage to say, ‘I’m weird, but here’s how I feel.’”
One of the evening’s recurring topics was Franzen’s distaste for social media. When Franzen struggled to articulate his thoughts, Grossman offered, “I feel as though the kind of connections between people that novels create is of more value to you than the kinds of connections between people that technology creates.”
“I come away feeling fed by that,” Franzen said. “I don’t feel fed by even a relatively intimate and antiquated form like e-mail, where you’re not restricted to 140 characters. Getting a tweet from Christina Stead could tell me what her opinion is or that she can be witty in 140 characters, but it wouldn’t tell me anything about what it felt like to be Christina Stead.”
This month, within four days of each other, it was announced that HBO will adapt Franzen’s The Corrections for a four-year series, and Fox will adapt Grossman’s debut novel and its sequel, The Magicians and The Magician King, into a series.
Franzen said he has been “generating tons of new material for the show” and writing “The Bible,” an extensive manual about each character.
“I think of you as such an ardent partisan of the novel,” Grossman said. “Aren’t you sort of cheating on the novel with another medium?”
“My feelings have changed,” Franzen answered. “I see movies and TV as being more or less cousins of the novel. They are coherent narratives with characters that are at once frankly fictional but also close enough to the viewer’s or reader’s experience to be identifiable. To immerse yourself in something frankly fictional for pleasure seems common to all of those things. And TV has gotten great in the last decade.”
Franzen said that when he met with MFA creative writing students at UT this week, he talked to them about the importance of loving the characters you write.
“You’re cruel to your characters, not in a gratuitous way, but you let the ax fall,” Grossman said. “Do you find that difficult with characters you love?”
“No,” Franzen said. “Almost the definition of a mensch, a good person, is that in their heart of hearts they’re rather hard on themselves. And yet you can’t get out of bed in the morning if you don’t love yourself. I’m merciless towards myself, so being merciless towards my characters comes naturally.”
Above: Photo by Mike Willis. Below: Photo by Brenda O’Brian.