Franzen’s Rules

When I was in my twenties I had quite a few magazine subscriptions: The New Yorker, Out*, the New York Times Book Review, Spy, UTNE Reader, and Harper’s. It seems like a lot, now, because I was so poor then. Plus, these days everything I could ever want to read is at my fingertips for free.

Every magazine I subscribed to fulfilled a different need and purpose but most roads led to writers and writing. These days we are inundated with every writer’s opinion on every kind of writing anyone has ever tried and failed at or attempted and thrived at. Jonathan Franzen was not a Big Deal Back then except to the same people who worshiped the fledgling and seasoned postmodern gods – David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster.

Franzen wrote a very lengthy (and still-talked-about) treatise in Harper’s called “Perchance to Dream,” regarding the future and purpose of writing novels “in the age of images.”

Man, if he knew what was coming it’s doubtful he could have ever predicted the scope and magnitude of this age of images. None of us could have back then.

When Franzen expanded the essay and published it in a collection called How to Be Alone, he changed the title of it to “Why Bother?”

But why did he bother? One has to laugh at the thought of Franzen hoping to appear less pretentious than he does.

“Why do you hate me but love Michel Houllebecq? It makes no sense!”

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of Franzen, and the thing that turned me off of him was this little nugget in “Perchance to Dream:”

”As a smoker I’ve come to distrust not only my stories about myself but all narratives that pretend to unambiguous moral significance.”

When I was 26 – also smoker and also a writer – I read that and probably rolled my eyes before saying, “Oh, for God’s sake!”

To this day, I can read that sentence over and over (as I have while writing this post) and wonder, What the fuck does that even MEAN?

And this is why I was confused by the confusion of people who read Franzen’s “Ten Rules for Novelists.”

It’s so short and so useless on a universal level that I won’t even try to comment. To my mind that list could have been written by few people besides the guy who wrote the ridiculous sentence mentioned above that has haunted me for nearly a quarter of a century.

I didn’t think I could like him less as a writer, but he certainly helped me out with that.

There is one columnist in The Guardian who really didn’t get why people hated it (because they hate him) so much. An apologist for someone like Franzen is precisely what we don’t need in this world right now; let’s wait until the numbers of asshole white guys who don’t even realize their unfair advantage in society have nearly died off, thus becoming worthy of pity or defense in the only way possible.

“Oui, il parle trop des oiseaux.”

* Out was the first glossy lifestyle and fashion magazine geared toward the gays. Despite the fact that it discussed nothing outré or racy (it was like a homosexual version of, say, Elle or GQ [the quality of the writing wasn’t quite as good as Playboy or Esquire]), this magazine arrived in a “plain brown wrapper,” which back then (and maybe even now) was shorthand for “this goes between the mattress and box spring after reading.”

Because it was 1992 and nobody needed anyone outside a trusted circle to know that he or she was, er, a gay.