Last week, the renowned author, birdwatcher, and Oprah antagonist Jonathan Franzen offered his “10 Rules for Novelists,” which primarily served as an occasion for everyone on Twitter to talk about how much they hate him.
I have to admit I read people’s opinions about the rules before I actually read the rules themselves. And I’m a person who likes reading other writers’ rules about writing, although not as much as I like reading about their routines for writing, which is pretty much catnip for me. So I decided to check them out.
Of the 10 rules, some of them seem calculated to reinforce Franzen’s reputation as the ultimate example of literary elitism and white male privilege (e.g. “5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it” and “8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”).
Others seem to me relatively useful and practical (e.g. “5. Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly”) while others just seem vague and existential (e.g. “10. You have to love before you can be relentless”).
I’ve read The Corrections and Freedom and enjoyed them—well, I enjoyed Freedom, especially the first half, before it gets into the strip-mining and bird preservation stuff. I think I enjoyed The Corrections, although I honestly don’t remember it at this point. But I tried reading one of his later books, Purity, and couldn’t finish it. I just didn’t care about the characters, and I didn’t buy him writing as a young female college student (in contrast, I remember being impressed by his writing from Patty’s POV in Freedom).
But every time Franzen has a new novel, or pops up in the news for something like this, I think about the fact that my favorite Franzen-related work isn’t something he wrote, but “Envy,” the 2003 essay by Kathryn Chetkovich about being in a relationship with Franzen (they met at a writer’s colony) when The Corrections was published. It’s brutally honest and unflattering and essential.
In case anyone wonders (I know I did), Franzen and Chetkovich are still together, as of August 2018. In totally unsurprising news, he calls her his “spouse equivalent,” because he hates the word “partner” so much.