RIPOSTE TO SOME SERIOUS LITERARY
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
ADVICE: Jonathan Franzen