Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

"Farther Away" by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, 2013)

Essays, addresses, rants, and articles about books he likes that are out of print.

In "I Just called to say I loved you", he writes that "The technological development that has done lasting harm of real significance - the development that, despite the continuing harm it does, you risk ridicule if you publicly complain about today - is the cell phone", largely because "it enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal". He continues "I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that's being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being's home life" (p.148). I'm warming to this guy. I didn't realise that he'd become a bird-watcher -

since I'd been fired by by critical theory, and was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reasons to hate the people who ram it, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism ... around the time my marriage was breaking up ... I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment ... But then a funny thing happened to me. It's a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds ... And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I'd seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species p.12

He makes some points about novels that I was unaware of -

  • "So what exactly is a novel, and why did the genre appear when it did? The most persuasive account remains the political-economic one that Ian Watt advanced fifty years ago. The birthplace of the novel, in its modern form, happens also to have been Europe's most economically dominant and sophisticated nation, and Watt's analysis of this coincidence is blunt but powerful, tying together the glorification of the enterprising individual, the expansion of a literate bourgeoisie eager to read about itself, the rise in social mobility (interesting writers to exploit its anxieties) ... the disintegration of the old social order into a collection of individual isolates, and ... the dramatic increase in leisure for reading. At the same time, England was rapidly becoming more secular ... To read the story of Robinson's vacillations and forgetfulness is to see the genre of spiritual autobiography unraveling into realist fiction" p.30
  • "A number of recent scholarly studies have undermined the old notion that the epic is a central feature of all cultures, including oral cultures. Fiction, whether fairy tale or fable, seems mainly to have been a thing for children" p.32

I especially liked the long "On Autobiographical Fiction" essay -

  • "Reading and writing fiction is a form of active social engagement, of conversation and competition. It's a way of being and becoming. Somehow, at the right moment, when I'm feeling particularly lost and forlorn, there's always a new friend to be made, an old friend to distance myself from, and old enemy to be forgiven, a new enemy to be identified. Indeed - and I'll say more about this later - it's impossible for me to write a new novel without first finding new friends and enemies" p.124
  • "My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author's story of his or her own life. This conception, again, I take from Kafka" p.128
  • "The point at which fiction seems to become easy for a writer ... is usually the point at which it's no longer necessary to read that writer" p.129
  • "you have to become a different person to write the next book ... There's no way to move forward without changing yourself" p.130

The section where he writes about how the earlier drafts of "The Corrections" were reshaped by circumstances is the best part of the book.

In "Comma-then" he writes

I walked to the door and opened it, then turned back to her

If you use comma-then like this frequently in the early pages of your book, I won't read any farther

He think you should write "When I got to the door, I turned back to her" or "I walked to the door and opened it. Then I turned back to her" or even something like "I walked to the door, opened it, and I turned back to her" on the grounds that the "Comma-then" is only seen in literature.

I didn't know that he was friends with David Foster Wallace. He writes "Like a lot of writers, but even more than most, Dave [Foster Wallace] loved to be in control of things. He was easily stressed by chaotic social situations", p.163

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