Why does everyone hate Jonathan Franzen and his rules for writing?

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.

The Inciting Incident

This article from Writing Cooperative defines the inciting incident as “the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way,” and it does a good job of placing the inciting incident in the context of the classic story arc.

My current revision task: moving the inciting incident in my novel from page 64, where it used to be, to somewhere within the first 50 pages.

Basically, my goal right now is to get the beginning of my manuscript in the best possible shape, and to keep the action moving forward as much as possible, so that a prospective agent will want to keep reading (and request more pages!).

How I did this:

1) Cut an entire character, the chaperone who escorts my protagonist and her sister aboard a train voyage from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C. (with a stop in New York) in January 1865. She’s completely fictional (as opposed to many of my other characters) and I really liked her, but after the first chapter or so I couldn’t really think of a way to keep her in the action, and she drops out of sight completely. So it feels odd to have her play such a central role in the first part. Cutting her created other problems, though: would the sisters have been allowed to travel alone? Maybe the mother should go with them? But if the mother’s with them, can they have such a candid conversation in the carriage on the way to the hotel, which lays out crucial back story/characterization that I need to be right up front? Hmm…that still needs work.

2) Cut a bunch of back story about the political machinations in Washington circa 1865 and the reasons why my protagonist’s father is out of a job.

3) Cut about 2/3 of a chapter where my heroine and her sister talk about how they never expected to be unmarried at 26 and 30, respectively, and my heroine reminisces about her sister’s teenage sweetheart and their outing to the Crystal Palace exhibition in New York City in 1853 (from a much longer section of backstory I loved writing, but ended up cutting a few years ago—yes, I have been working on this novel for the better part of a decade at this point!). This may show up later in the novel but does not help move the story forward, which is goal #1 for this first section.

Just making these cuts moved the entrance of my notorious love interest/super-villain from page 64 to roughly page 40, which I would say is a big improvement.

The last 45 days of 2018

I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions anymore, as I try to think of every day as an opportunity to start fresh. There’s always something I’m working on getting better at, and at least one habit—oh, who am I kidding?—many habits I’m trying to form. But I do feel like the end of the year, post-Halloween momentum tends to turn the last two months of the year into a desperate blur of best-laid plans rushing past me as I hurtle toward the inevitable New Year’s Eve reckoning—how can another year possibly have gone by already?

So in an attempt to slow down, and make my way through the last 45 days of this particular year a little more consciously, I’m going to quit procrastinating and start at least one long-delayed project: this blog. To record the process of revising my novel manuscript, for one thing. To share interesting things I read, stuff I’m writing, random yet fascinating facts I uncover in my research on this or that topic. Who knows? That’s the point—if I keep waiting to get clear on what exactly I’m going to write, I’ll never start. So here goes…