RIPOSTE TO SOME SE­RI­OUS LIT­ER­ARY

The New European - - Eurofile Literature -

Af­ter Jonathan Franzen’s puffed-up ad­vice for as­pir­ing writ­ers got a maul­ing on­line, CHARLIE CON­NELLY of­fers his own, less pre­ten­tious tips

Jonathan Franzen is a Se­ri­ous Writer, the sort of Se­ri­ous Writer who re­quires cap­i­tal let­ters when­ever you de­scribe him as a Se­ri­ous Writer. Most of us are se­ri­ous writ­ers inas­much as we take our writ­ing se­ri­ously and try to make it as good as we can, but that’s just peanuts com­pared to how se­ri­ously Se­ri­ous Writ­ers like Jonathan Franzen take their writ­ing and how se­ri­ously they’d like us to take their writ­ing too. These guys – and it is usu­ally guys – have se­ri­ous things to say that need to be not only said se­ri­ously but read se­ri­ously, in­ter­preted se­ri­ously and dis­cussed se­ri­ously, for writ­ing is a se­ri­ous busi­ness.

When you see a pic­ture of Jonathan Franzen he is usu­ally look­ing very se­ri­ous. His hands are clasped to­gether un­der his jaw, or one hand is rest­ing lightly on his brow or, in that clas­sic Se­ri­ous Writer pose favoured by por­trait pho­tog­ra­phers since the days of the da­guerreo­type, the fore­fin­ger is curled against the chin. There are a few pho­to­graphs out there where he ap­pears to be smil­ing but this could just be trapped wind. Oth­er­wise Jonathan Franzen is a walk­ing, talk­ing fur­rowed brow who takes Se­ri­ous Writ­ing to new lev­els of Se­ri­ous Writ­ing to the point where he’s ef­fec­tively the Se­ri­ous Writer’s Se­ri­ous Writer.

It was in that ca­pac­ity that last week he pub­lished on the Us-based lit­er­ary web­site Lithub ten bul­let points of ad­vice for writ­ers. They were, as you can prob­a­bly imag­ine, very se­ri­ous. They were, as you can prob­a­bly imag­ine, lam­pooned to the high­est of heav­ens on so­cial me­dia.

In ten pithy gob­bets Franzen cov­ered mat­ters prac­ti­cal, rhetor­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal. He also seized the op­por­tu­nity to try, in the man­ner of the true Se­ri­ous Writer, to sound in­cred­i­bly brainy. This wasn’t a club­bable, hey-we’re­all-in-this-to­gether-pals prof­fer­ing of use­ful tips for those ham­mer­ing away at a man­u­script in the odd snatched few min­utes when not at work or jug­gling the noisy, smelly needs of small chil­dren. No, these were tablets of stone handed down from on high. This was not just ten pieces of ad­vice for as­pir­ing writ­ers but a crack at The Great Amer­i­can Ten Pieces Of Ad­vice For As­pir­ing Writ­ers.

Let’s look at some of the high­lights. “You see more sit­ting still than chas­ing af­ter,” he writes as num­ber seven, which surely de­pends if you’re chas­ing af­ter some­thing ab­so­lutely mas­sive or not. Num­ber five reads, “When in­for­ma­tion be­comes free and uni­ver­sally ac­ces­si­ble, vo­lu­mi­nous re­search for a novel is devalued along with it”, which is one in the eye for any­one us­ing their lo­cal li­brary to re­search their book.

The last piece of ad­vice, num­ber ten, was prob­a­bly the most enig­matic of the lot, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the one in which he de­scribes Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis, in which the pro­tag­o­nist is a trav­el­ling sales­man who turns into an in­sect, as the most au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel ever (you can sort of see what he’s get­ting at but that’s not so much a piece of ad­vice as a hi­lar­i­ously pre­ten­tious bit of lit­er­ary show­boat­ing).

Num­ber ten read, “You have to love be­fore you can be re­lent­less”, at which point I pic­tured Franzen typ­ing the full­stop at the end, tak­ing off his spec­ta­cles and suck­ing lightly on the end of one of the arms, lean­ing back in his chair and con­grat­u­lat­ing him­self on end­ing with some­thing so clev­erly ob­scure, so in­ge­niously enig­matic that he could just go ahead and give him­self a great big cud­dle, right there.

As pieces of ad­vice for as­pir­ing writ­ers, Franzen’s ten are prac­ti­cally use­less but then they weren’t re­ally sup­posed to be any­thing else. This wasn’t so much the shar­ing of lessons learned and ex­pe­ri­ence gained as an ex­er­cise in show­ing off, a pulling up of the lad­der to em­pha­sise the for­bid­ding gulf be­tween Se­ri­ous Writ­ers and the riffraff with their crumb-cov­ered key­boards and bleary 5am snatches of time be­fore the real world recom­mences its di­ur­nal round. Not read Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis, huh? Well how can you pos­si­ble ex­pect to write a pub­lish­able novel, you drib­bling oaf ?

Should we ex­pect any­thing else when great writ­ers de­cide to pass on some of their ex­per­tise and ex­pe­ri­ence to us lesser mor­tals? There is no big se­cret, no magic for­mula to be­ing a suc­cess­ful writer. What works for one per­son might be dis­as­trous for another.

While some might ad­vo­cate, say, writ­ing early in the morn­ing – Tol­stoy, for ex­am­ple, be­lieved that, “in the morn­ing one’s head is par­tic­u­larly fresh” – oth­ers will bang the drum for late at night.

“When the ob­jec­tive world has slunk back into its cav­ern and left dream­ers to their own there come in­spi­ra­tions and ca­pa­bil­i­ties im­pos­si­ble at any less mag­i­cal and quiet hour,” said H.P. Love­craft. “No-one knows whether or not he is a writer un­less he has tried writ­ing at night.”

Some writ­ers’ ad­vice is very spe­cific. El­more Leonard’s “never open a book with the weather” is some­thing sur­pris­ingly help­ful that I’ve al­ways sub­scribed to, while Muriel Spark’s be­lief that a writer should own a cat (“the ef­fect of a cat on your con­cen­tra­tion is re­mark­able and very mys­te­ri­ous”) is some­thing I haven’t.

Hav­ing turned out a few books my­self to wide­spread dis­in­ter­est peo­ple some­times ask me for ad­vice, some­thing that I’ve in­vari­ably re­acted to with hor­ror as I don’t re­ally have much of a clue how it’s done. It’s only rel­a­tively re­cently that I’ve re­alised no­body else does ei­ther. They just do what seems to work for them. It’s a bit like learn­ing a trade or a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment: some­one can show you the ba­sics, then it’s up to you to hone and

Photo: HGHG

AD­VICE: Jonathan Franzen

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.