Noted American novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen likes a “cold, dark, silent and bare” place where he can sit down and practise his art. A literary website has listed him among the “10 grumpiest authors alive”, along with VS Naipaul and Doris Lessing.
He abhors Twitter and last year, he moaned that the literary world rewarded “yakkers and braggers”. In one of the takedowns that followed, he was called a “Luddite”. At the Jaipur Literature Festival on Friday, however, he seemed to defy such classifications.
In a lively conversation with writer Chandrahas Choudhury at the inaugural session of the festival, presented by HT and entitled Freedom, also the name of one of his novels, Franzen spoke about the art of novel writing, avoiding the prickly topics that have drawn him into controversies in the past.
In fact, when Choudhury said, “Jonathan, if you find pronouncing my name difficult, you can call me Oprah”, he laughed and responded, “That was cheap!” Choudhury was alluding to the controversy that had erupted when he expressed unease over The Corrections being selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club in 2001.
The session was largely centred on his critically acclaimed novel, The Corrections, about a dysfunctional family. Franzen, though, said an individual, not a family, was at the centre of the novel.
About his own art, he said he had to unlearn the oft-prescribed lesson, “Show, don’t tell”.
“In The Corrections, I realised that it is storytelling, not ‘story showing’ that is important,” he said.
He also warned writers about attempting sociological novels that were in vogue in the nineteenth century at a time when transformations were happening every five minutes or so. He reasoned that the novel at that time was the sole medium of entertainment; the medium in which the middle class educated itself.
“The novel then had no competition, but things are changing fast now,” he said.
Joking about his own novel writing technique, he said, “My method is such a mess that it should be an example of what to avoid.” An audience, that included a large number of foreigners, clapped.
Referring to an old essay in which he had written about the importance of solitude for a writer, he said that those who become writers, or serious readers, favoured another community to live in, that of books.
“During childhood, I never felt alone in the company of CS Lewis and Issac Asimov,” Franzen said. “That is why festivals are dangerous places for writers. They go home sick after attending them,” he added, drawing more applause.