I’ve not read Jonathan Franzen’s novels and may never read them, although convention—of which I am rarely a fan—suggests I should ‘never say never’. His public pronouncements on technology, perhaps especially Twitter, have, rightly or wrongly, put me off. He comes across as too pompous for my liking, someone intelligent who absolutely must express that intelligence in what he says at all times—that is to say, a right clever dick who doesn’t do silly as it would demean him.
Not my kind of chap at all.
However, I did read his lecture published in today’s Guardian and honestly enjoyed it, as one author reading about how another author approaches his work. This section, especially, struck a chord—several chords, in fact:
“I’m suspicious of any novelist who would honestly answer no to this question [is your work autobiographical?], 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.”
Fiction is exactly that. It isn’t autobiography. We writers use what’s in our brains to imagine stories. Recognise yourself, your friends, your enemies, elements of known life in an author friend’s work all you like—you’re still reading fiction. One moment of “I know who that’s supposed to be” leads to “that didn’t happen” and “did that happen?” and, before you know it, you’re lost in a complete paralysis of misconception. Of course fiction draws on and reflects real life, even fantasy, science fiction and absurdist comedy. Truth is there but it isn’t wrapped in lies—that label, fiction, confesses all before you even get past the cover to the first chapter.
Read the complete lecture here.