Even though I signed up in 2008, I’ve never used it much until this year, so the way information and emotion spread through the Twittersphere is somewhat new to me. The reason I find myself on there at all is to consume opinion and theories about the Trump presidency and the special prosecutor’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Twitter is where you go to read news before it becomes news, where you fill yourself with hope or anger or whatever emotion triggers your dope. Twitter is a pharmacy that fills all scripts.
Last week, for the first time, I found myself on the wrong side of a group I almost always support. That would be, if I may, Author Twitter. A viral strain of bemused outrage spread among writers, many of whom I admire, induced by an article published by LitHub titled “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists.” On its face it’s easy to see why such an article would rub authors the wrong way, especially successful authors, because anyone who’s found success has likely discovered their own highly personal method. For anyone to suggest a proper way to write fiction, a way that is probably different than your own, is an abrasive idea. For Jonathan Franzen to do it, well, it’s time to hit the CAPS LOCK button and start pounding a response.
Franzen’s reputation among many authors and readers is one of aloof condescension. Most of you reading this are probably familiar with his infamous row with Oprah, but fewer might be aware of his later contrition. Even before his poorly-chosen words about Oprah’s audience, Franzen wrote in a 1996 Harper’s article about the difficulty of being a novelist in a world dominated by television. Taken without context, his complaints suggest a sliver of sentient American beings are able to comprehend the intellectual concerns of his novels, while the rest of us are too busy shoveling Freedom fries into our mouths while watching the latest NFL quarterback carted off the field and into an MRI machine. The irony here is that Franzen has become a literary punching bag because too many of us fail to read beyond headlines and sound bites, which has long been one his loudest complaints. And it may surprise you to know Franzen loves NFL football.
Let’s add a little context to Franzen’s rules. The man did not sit down recently and compile his list to shame all authors who didn’t agree with his brilliance. Rather, in 2010, eight years ago, he was asked by The Guardian, along with (if I counted correctly) 27 other authors, to contribute a list of rules meant to complement Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Some of the authors in that story include Margaret Atwood (#5: Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.), Neil Gaiman (#2: Put one word after another.), and Richard Ford (#2: Don’t have children). What likely happened was, because Franzen has just published a new book, someone in PR for Farrar, Straus and Giroux dug up the rules and asked LitHub to publish them. It’s possible Franzen didn’t even know about the post, and even if he did, was likely aghast that his previous efforts were being reheated for marketing purposes. And surely he contributed them to The Guardian knowing they were his personal rules, that every writer finds his or her own way, but if any new or aspiring author could find inspiration in his methods, sharing them had been worth it.
I’m happy to admit I’m a huge fan of Franzen’s work. Reading The Correctionsin 2001 was a life-altering experience for an author who was only months away from landing his first publishing contract. Even as I put the final touches on my first novel (a commercial science thriller) I came to understand there were writers who leveraged complexity of language and emotional depth and cultural observation far beyond my own talent. But rather than be jealous of that disparity, or be affronted by it, I was instead inspired to elevate my craft. In fact, discovering Franzen introduced me to literary fiction in a way high school and college English courses had not. Throughout my writing career I have continuously strived to find a voice and depth that I hope, someday, will attract readers looking for a reading experience that is both entertaining and profound. I believe the publishing industry calls this “upmarket” commercial fiction. Maybe one day I’ll even write a truly literary novel.
It’s hard to find fault in authors using an incident like the reposting of Franzen’s rules to start a conversation about writing in general. Conversation leads to engagement, which is the currency of social media, and we all know a big reason writers even bother with Twitter and Facebook is to draw attention to their work without directly marketing it. Because even though most authors abhor self-promotion, we also desperately need it. The trick is to engage your audience without being obvious. And for many authors who do have a following, it’s a way to connect with your readers more intimately (or politically) than with your books
But I wish there were more solidarity and less jealousy among writers. Why disparage another author’s success? This business is tough enough as it is without finding reason to bring someone else down (except celebrities who earn seven-figure advances for books they don’t even bother to write — let’s all agree to hate them).
Maybe it’s true Jonathan Franzen has made an art form out of dining on his own foot. But maybe, just maybe, he’s a nice guy and an enormously-talented author who’s taken a few wrong steps along the way.
Or perhaps Franzen’s biggest crime is his refusal to participate on Twitter at all.