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Short Fiction and Interviews

Short Fiction

"Agreeable," The New Yorker, May 31, 2010 

"Good Neighbors," The New Yorker, June 8, 2009 

Interviews and Readings

Goodreads, Sept. 2010 

The A.V. Club, Sept. 1, 2010 

Barnes and Noble Dialogue, July 7, 2008 

On BigThink.com, April 14, 2008 

Minnesota Public Radio "All Things Considered" - Sept. 20, 2007 

Minnesota Public Radio "Midday" - Sept. 25, 2007 

KETC's "Living St. Louis" 

Miami Book Fair International 2006 "Discomfort Zone" Reading 


An Interview in boundary 2

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motions, The Corrections, How to Be Alone, and The Discomfort Zone, as well as translations, reviews, essays, journalism, and short stories, lives for a few months of the year in Santa Cruz, California. We recorded this interview over a couple of hours in the afternoons of August 27th and 28th, after he had finished his work for the day on his new novel. The interview was transcribed by Johanna Isaacson, to whom we owe many thanks, and was edited for clarity by interviewer and interviewee.

Day 1

Chris Connery: This interview will published in a special issue of boundary 2 devoted to the contemporary novel, particularly the American novel. The journal has invited reflections on where the American Novel’s ambitions now stand and how those ambitions answer to the present conjuncture of American power. The call for papers asks a number of questions are similar to questions you’ve raised such as "given the instability of the public/private distinction how do big or inclusive projects relate to the ambitions of the novel of ‘small’ or ‘ugly’ emotions." You’re one of the few novelists writing whose work and project are closest to the issue’s concerns. In addition to three novels, you have published a number of important essays, including two versions of a major essay on your ambitions as a novelist and your relation to what has been called the social novel. This essay, originally titled "Perchance to Dream" when published in Harper’s, appeared in revised form under the title "Why Bother" in the collection How to be Alone. I know I’m not alone in finding that book one of the finest collections in decades from a fiction writer on fiction. Among the collection’s distinctions was the concern for and reflections on readers and the reading life. The end of the first introductory essay of the collection states your central concern over "the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture, the question of how to be alone." The essay "Imperial Bedroom"--on privacy-- reflects your abiding concern with existential loneliness, that fundamental fact of life that provides so much material for novel writing. It makes the point that the oft described threats to privacy are by the more significant deterioration of the private sphere; that what’s happening in contemporary culture is the blurring -- the bad crossing-- of the public/private divide. Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude and their pursuit of substance in a time of ever increasing evanescence in "their reach via print for a way out of loneliness," –that line from the "Perchance to Dream" essay which was …

Jonathan Franzen: With a better title, I hope.

Chris Connery: Well, I like "Perhchance to Dream. " Anyway, in that essay you confessed an inability to affect that public sphere, to be not simply heard by the mass of private readers but to have your work register in some direct way on the public itself. I wondered if you could say something about your ambitions for your fiction these days and its relation to – the "audacity of hope" that some are feeling notwithstanding -- the ghastly character of US political and social life—"the rabid thing from which we all would like to hide;" a decline traceable through the length of your life as a writer, The great and classic realist novels were products of an age of transition, with the birth and emergence of new forms, new classes, new kinds of people. One senses little parallel to that kind of newness today. So given our particular historical moment, how are you thinking about the novel, your own novel in particular?

Jonathan Franzen: One of the things I talk about in the essay that I prefer to call "Why Bother?" is the relation between the supremacy of the novel in the 19th century and the fact that it had no major competitors. It’s not necessarily fair to measure our culture’s engagement with political reality by the health of the social novel, now that we have shows like The Wire and now that we have CNN. One thing the Obama candidacy has certainly made clear is that a lot of people are still engaged with electoral politics. And yet it’s hard for me not to let my sadness about the decline of the social novel affect my judgments of the culture as a whole. There’s no question that the ambitious program of Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy, Trollop is simply not present in the same way anymore. It’s been transferred to a non-literary realm, and this is a big loss, because the novel is the greatest art form when it comes to forging a connection between the intensely interior and personal and the larger social reality.

As for my own ambitions for the novel nowadays, I make fun of the ambitions I had when I was 22 and thinking, "I will write the book that unmasks the terrible world, I will cause the scales to fall from the public’s eyes, and they will see how stupid the local news at 11 is, and they will realize how cliche-riddled the pages of their local newspaper are and how corrupt their elected officials are. And they won’t stand for it any more." Exactly what kind of utopia I thought would ensue was never clear.

Chris Connery: Well there’s certainly something utopian in just capturing the social form itself

Jonathan Franzen: Even then, though, in the 1980s, I think what I was really reacting to was my sense of isolation and loneliness and having this body of perceptions that I didn’t feel was widely shared. I was so young that I actually thought I was the only one with this particular body of perceptions. My enemy was everybody and my allies were nobody. I think the difference now is that I recognize that there’s a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways, and that my task is to reach them and to participate in the life of that segment of the population. This is what I’m writing for— for the people who want a literary experience. I’m no longer worried that nobody besides me can have that kind of experience, but I’m also not imagining that, in any conceivable twist of history, everybody will want that kind of experience. So it’s a weird and possibly selfish-seeming form of communitarianism: I’ve ceased to care much, as a writer, about people who don’t care about books. And the world of readers is thankfully still not tiny. We may lose a little more ground each year, but we’re still creating new readers who are excited about good stuff.

My ambition is to explore the outer limits of that subgroup without losing the core. The core tends to have a taste for the harder stuff. These are the people I feel the deepest kinship with, but I have an optimistic Midwestern side that doesn’t want to exclude anyone who might have even a passing interest in trying to read a good book. For me, part of the stress of being a writer is living in fear of losing one side or the other of that dichotomy. Of becoming, on the one hand, too obvious or commercial for the core group, or, on the other hand, too difficult or dark for the open-minded but essentially untrained fiction reader. To invent things that are both true and fun is my ambition. And it happens that, for me, it’s seldom either true or fun to write purely inward fiction. Placing an intensely individual character in dramatic and symbolic relation to large structures and large themes in the country I live in: this where things start happening for me. This is what’s fun. It’s probably because, as a person, in real life, I can never check my own analytical and political side at the door. No matter how much steam is coming out of my ears as I’m stuck in traffic between Santa Cruz and Boulder Creek, no matter how ridiculous and sick my rage against the slow driver ahead of me might be, I can’t help putting my rage in the context of gasoline prices, exurbanization, sprawl, consumer-based individuality, consumer "freedom"— all those things that being stuck in an automobile now brings to mind. I don’t write about these things because I want to be a "social novelist." I do it because I can’t ignore them as a person. Simply to do work that excites me and seems true to reality, I have to take the big picture into account. It’s happened three times and is happening a fourth time in the book I’m working on now.

Chris Connery: I’ve followed your work since The Twenty-Seventh City. I got it as soon as had I read the first review of it... 

Jonathan Franzen: I see you have this amazing old Avon paperback edition.

Chris Connery: And even though I’m a professor in a literature department, I don’t do much scholarly work on contemporary U.S. fiction. I didn’t read the book because I felt a professional responsibility to go out and read this book and track this element of literary culture. I read it because it looked like something I would like, and it did what I like in a contemporary novel. It has a lot of great writing; it has a protean narrative imagination, and I value narrative for that sculpting of time and conveying of temporal existence, which are among what the novel does best. Sustained imagination—real world making-- is not so easy, not so common, and I read novels for that world-making capacity. Novels are also a great source of enjoyment. You said in some interview that you wanted to make your friends laugh when you wrote. And that happened too. And though they usually don’t work, I like private visions, auto-mythologies, when they do. Like many of your critics, I thought you had reached in the beginning with The Twenty-Seventh City and then in the next two novels was a distinctive mix of the personal and the social. Social in the sense that the work reached to the world, had an associative imagination that extended , with Strong Motion, into the physical and biological worlds, into the "smell of infrastructure" to quote a line taken from your novel that was the title of an essay that a friend wrote, a sense of the continuities and imbrications of your characters with the world in its nearness and its distance. I thought the scene in Strong Motion where RenÈe doesn’t want to make love because of the raccoon out the window was great and typical of you, and not superfluous. Sometimes touches like that can be just weird and cute, but in your case I found a democratic social concern that is reflected in this movement out into the world. But one can’t say that The Wire, with its huge production engine, has much in common with the mode of thought that is the novel…

Jonathan Franzen: It sort of comes from David Simon’s brain but…

CC: So, what about the particular kind of thinking that the novel facilitates or that the novel is. I don’t mean the novel of ideas but the novel as a thinking of the world. What would you say the novel still has to do or still can do? 

JF: Well, I think you more or less just said it. We may just be little specks. As a percentage of the total world population, we’re ever smaller specks, and what we are is ever more mediated by the structures we’ve created for ourselves to live in. And yet, as you go through life, you still hit these points of crisis where something genuine is happening. A choice is being made, or a life is being destroyed, or hope is being regained, or control is being relinquished, or control is being achieved. These moments may be utterly insignificant historically, but they’re still hugely meaningful to the person experiencing them— as meaningful as everything else in the world put together. To try to connect with what might formerly have been called the soul, and what I might now describe as some interior locus of privacy and reflection where moments of personal significance are experienced: this, I think, is the job of the fiction writer. As great as our various glowing screens may be at capturing vividness and complexity, you’re still always on the outside and just looking at them. You’re never within. Even if you were to construct a very fine virtual reality device, you would be literally insane if you mistook a manufactured and mass-produced experience for a moment of genuine human importance. If you could believed in the simulacrum enough to think you were having a moment of genuine personal meaning, it would mean you were insane.

Only written media, and maybe to some extent live theater, can break down the wall between in and out. You’re not looking at— you’re feeling from within. An Alice Munro story rushes you along in about 25 minutes to a point where you’re imaginatively going through a moment of deep crisis and significance in another person’s life. I know I’m expressing this in very vague terms, but I think these epiphanic moments have a social and political valence as well, because they’re what we mean when we talk about being a person— about being an individual, about having an identity. Identity is precisely not what consumer culture says it is. It’s not the playlist on your iPod. It’s not your personal preference in denim washes. The moment you become an individual is the moment when all that consumer stuff falls away and you’re left with the narrativity of your own life. All the things that would become impossible—politically, emotionally , culturally, psychologically—if people ever were to become simply the sum of their consumer choices: this is, indirectly, what the novel is trying to preserve and fight in favor of.

CC I think that’s really right. But I wanted to follow up on one thing you said. You referred just now to Alice Munro and you’ve written and spoken very interestingly about a number of short story writers. Alice Munro…

JF: …being the world’s leading practitioner at the moment…

CC Yes, Alice Munro’s capacity to penetrate straight down into one of these moments that you’ve just described, the stillness of a short story, as Andre Dubus has written. Paula Fox, whose work you have praised, writes very short novels, a sort of novellist really. I’ve only read Desperate Characters, but it’s quite short; it takes place in a weekend. You’ve written a few short stories, but you’re not a short story writer. And you clearly have a commitment to the long novel. Your novels contain many of these epiphanic moments and some of them have been published as short stories. But what do you want out of the novel? You can do those moments, but your commitment is elsewhere. 

JF: Short stories are very hard, actually harder than the novel. Occasionally I hit one right and it works, a little more frequently now than in the past, when they were always failures. Novel vs. short story is the question?

CC: Yes, this is following up the initial question about literary ambition, what you want. I think you’ve spoken about one dimension of that. You write big novels. You don’t write Paula Fox novels. Maybe you’ll tell me that the current project is different, but they tend to go big.

JF My experience of daily life, even hourly life, is one of constant conflict and division. Of simultaneously being never fewer than two and often as many as four or five different people. And I very much suspect that I will never succeed in writing a book with a single point of view, a single character who carries the whole thing. I consider this a technical failure of mine, and I’ve wasted many years of my writing life trying, in a macho way, to write novels that have a strong, single, Philip Roth-like coordinating subjectivity. It never works. The novel to me is the venue for sympathy. In terms of leading my actual life, being a divided and conflict-riddled person is unpleasant. "Disaster" would be too strong a word, but it’s definitely no fun. At the same time, my psychic splinteredness does mean that there are few impulses in human beings that I don’t have some way of connecting with. The novel to me is the art form that allows scope for my impulse to turn things around and look at them from another perspective. So that’s part of it.

Another thing is I have a fairly sticky ear. I’m a pretty good mimic, and the mimicry is not just at the level of dialog and voice but also what I hear on the radio and read in the newspaper. I can pick it up pretty quickly and, almost without understanding it, reproduce cartoon versions of it. The Twenty-seventh City, it’s not an exaggeration to say, grew out of my listening to KMOX radio in my mom’s kitchen as a kid and teenager. It was quite news-oriented back then, and all of these phrases like "East-West Gateway Coordinating Council," "Police Benevolent Association," "City Comptroller" (which they always mispronounced as "comp-troller") got stuck in my head, and by the time I got to college, even though I took essentially no poli-sci there, I felt as if I knew how cities worked just from listening to the radio. So there’s a wish to have fun, often satirically, with a civic reality that I get bathed in simply by moving through the world, and you can’t do that in a short story. It doesn’t work. It really is like the difference between painting on a 12 foot by 12 foot canvas versus painting on a 12 inch by 12 inch one. Certain things become possible simply because of scale. You can create enough distance between Point A and Point B to make Point B feel new and strange and foreign simply because so many pages went by before you got there. The excitement of this is like the excitement of following the story of a life. It’s still enormously far from the experience of life in real time, and yet it’s closer than with a story or a movie. You spend 18 hours reading a long novel, spread out over at least a couple of days, if not a month or even more if you’re busy. This creates possibilities of really losing yourself.

CC: You also have America, the US as your object. I was looking today at the Chinese translation of The Corrections. 

JF: I shudder to think.

CC: I don’t know if this is publicity material that your publisher them or something the Chinese translators or publishers wrote themselves but the cover explains the book as " a reflection not only on the American family, but on America itself: American capitalism, American materialism, optimism and materialism". It appears in a series of award winning contemporary fiction, not just from America but from all over the world. It seems to me to be aimed at the Chinese reader who wants to understand the world now that China is in that world in a different way, and that your work is presented as giving a particular kind of knowledge about America-- which I think it does do. But many of your reviewers and critics pointed out that what distinguishes you in the small ranks of the big novelists is this, let’s just say in shorthand, Paula Fox or Alice Munroe-like focus on characters. Your version of the character is very distinctive from that of David Foster Wallace DeLillo, or Pynchon, but the characters exist along with this bigger vision of America. And that obviously can’t go into a short story.

JF: Your question reminds me of another answer to the previous question, which is that it takes me a very long time to develop a character. I’m usually frustrated with what I can do in 30 pages. Characters need space in which to reveal their complexity. Even though they’re always simplified and cartoonish in comparison to a real person’s character, they still have their own complexity. You need to give them time to really be themselves, and maybe also to be some other kind of self as their life starts closing in on them. This, again, takes space. Plus I don’t develop a really good character every day or every month or even every year. It’s like making strudel dough. You stretch it out, you fold it over, you stretch it out, you fold it over. You do that about thirty times. It’s a long process, and a character who’s developed in this way doesn’t really fit into a story. And then, having taken the time to develop four or five characters like that, you don’t want to just burn them up in 20 pages. And, beyond that, I can’t seem to write well about characters I don’t love. Sometimes it seems to me my defect as an American fiction writer that I tend to be monogamous and form strong, loyal attachments. I don’t want just a two-week quickie with the character. I want to get into a five-year relationship.

But, to go back to the question following. I’m reluctant to admit to trying to take on American reality because it is such a pompous thing to do and an even more pompous thing to say about oneself as a writer. One of the problems with Philip Roth’s later work is that it is so pompously preoccupied with Important American Themes. Capital I, A and T. I don’t even think in terms of a unitary America anyway, or a unitary contemporary reality. This is partly because my own experience of the country is so divided and splintered between the 19th century Midwestern childhood I had and the ongoing 19th century vestiges of a protestant ethic that I inherited from my parents and grandparents, and the faster-moving and more jaded, sophisticated coastal world I now spend most of my time in. The primary fact about the country as I see it as that it is multi-partite and eclectic and pluralistic. It tends to make a fool of anyone who tries to write about Important American Themes.

That’s why I worry about the Chinese translation. I feel that the best work contemporary writers do on America has to do with the way it sounds. Even in Germany, where I love to go because people take books so seriously, I often have to stop and say, "Do you really get American irony?" Just the tone of voice that pervades pretty much all speech by Americans between the ages of 14 and 28 and much of the speech of everybody else nowadays. This tone began, I guess, in the seventies. Who knows exactly when. It would be interesting to do a genealogy of that ironic tone. I don’t see it in cultural artifacts of the sixties, so I think it came out of the seventies, the hangover after the sixties. And that tone alone, the tone of Letterman, the tone of good, sophisticated advertising— there’s plenty of it in England, too, but it’s always a little smartypants in England. English irony is ironic even about its own irony. American irony is sincere irony, as opposed to the truly ironic English irony. All of that, when I’m away from the country for more than a month, I begin to hunger for. I think irony is the cultural flip side of American supremacy. It’s perhaps not a good thing, but it does come out of the moral sense of a person. It’s a fundamentally moral response to being a citizen of the crushing, hegemonic US. Like, how can you look in the mirror with all the privilege you have and all the power that is wielded around the world to sustain that privilege? Everyone’s always laughing about stuff here. Everything’s real flip, real ironic. I worry that things like this are not captured well in a translation to Mandarin Chinese.

CC: From my brief reading of the translation, I imagine that the Chinese get a strong version of the social novel—in content anyway. But they probably would be heartened to know that that tone is there. Maybe it would be some leavening of the whole oppressiveness of living in the American world.

Day 2

CC: I don’t think anyone would describe you as a regional fiction writer –a Midwestern writer—and though the Midwest doesn’t play the role in your work that it plays in the work of Tom Drury and others, the Midwest is important in all of your novels – The Twenty-seventh City is set there, and the other two center on Midwestern families. I wonder if you could speak about what the Midwest—or place in general- means to you. Place was very important in The Twenty-seventh City, not only in terms of local history and texture, but one was also getting a kind of Midwesternness placed in conflict with something else, and the novel played with the consequences of that. And your attachment to the Midwest gives you a cast of distinctive and unlikely heros, such as Martin Probst. It’s hard to say that regionalism has much purchase on the general literary imagination these days. But what does regionalism mean for you in the work? 

JF: I can never find a satisfactory answer to this question. I might lead with my theory about the Midwest and why so many interesting writers come out of it, from Twain and Fitzgerald and Cather to Saunders and Vonnegut and Wallace. I think it has to do with a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world. Historically, there’s been no immediate point of contact with foreignness, and also no immediate contact with the true centers of power: New York and Washington, increasingly Hollywood as well. When I was young, styles that took over on the coasts would get to the Midwest about two years later. It was a shock for Midwesterners to find, when they get to college, that clothes they thought were cool everyone else has stopped wearing. Something about having been a victim of a time lag— something about not having had a clue when other people the same age were already getting a clue—produces both a sense of optimism and a kind of reactive curdled cynicism. You become more worldly in response to not having been worldly enough for a little too long.

That’s my personal myth, at any rate. If you ask what the Midwest means to me, it’s that myth of an innocence prolonged and then abruptly lost. You can see how this plays out in Fitzgerald’s tragic sense and maybe even more so in Hemingway’s toughness. He came from the nice Chicago suburbs, he wore a little girl’s dress. In his case, the disillusionment was so extreme that he was really deformed by it. And terminally tough. But still there was something soft and mushy underneath that made him good when he was good. He repudiated that softness but he was also fascinated by it. He was at such trenchant war with it, in the person of Fitzgerald, that you could see how much it mattered to him— how much he was repressing that softness in himself. And somehow this dynamic seems more like a Midwestern thing than a Lower East Side thing or a South Boston thing. I’m not enough of a social historian to have a good theory of why exactly this is true. I do know that, for a long time, you really were isolated in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, or Webster Groves, Missouri, or Oak Park, Illinois— it really was a long way from the Lower East Side. This is all rapidly changing with our new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs, but some of the social and mental habits that grew out isolation may persist in succeeding generations, leaving vestiges of a "Midwestern" character.

CC: But also red states, Ku Klux Klan

JF: That’s the South.

CC: Well, the KKK was pretty popular in Indiana, for example...

JF: Indiana is a special case. Evansville is the South. Fort Wayne is still Rust Belt, Valparaiso is definitely Midwest. That’s actually an interesting way to approach it— to define where my boundaries of the Midwest run. I think it begins around Columbus, Ohio— Thurberville— and stretches west. Anything below I-70 is basically southern. And that’s true right across Missouri. My Midwest is bounded on the south by I-70. It stretches all the way to about an hour east of Denver and includes pretty much all of the Great Plains states north of I-70.

CC: So where is Kansas?

JF: You can take all of Kansas, some of Oklahoma too. But not, for example, downstate Illinois. You start hearing the South in people’s voices. They don’t sound like Tom Brokaw anymore.

CC: Do you think with the media, is this two-year lag not happening any more? Do these things still obtain?

JF: Probably not so much. A couple of years ago I was somewhere with some kids who were about twelve, and they were shocked that little kids were still using those tennis shoes with the roller wheel. It might have been David Mean’s kids. They were, like, "Haven’t they gotten the word? Nobody has those anymore."

CC: The wheeled shoes have come back.

JF: That was what I was saying to these kids. That, in fact, they were behind. They were too old to know that these things have come back.

CC: One of the charming things about the Northeast is its provincialism of which it is completely unaware. Well, I wanted to go back to the Harper’s essay. I read it first as "Perchance to Dream," and it worried me. I didn’t know you, but I liked you as a writer. And it was the line about going to or having started going to parties. I had this vision of some Christopher Buckley-like absorption into the social whirl, and I thought, this is going to be terrible. So I was glad to like The Corrections, which didn’t actually seem to mark so much of a break from the earlier novels. The essay seemed to have been written during a transition where what you referred to as the social novel got dropped and became The Corrections. Could you say something about the social novel that was then abandoned? Because I think many readers would think of The Corrections as a social novel. And of a course a critic like James Wood sees any remnant of the social novel as defects. 

JF: Right, that review of Wood’s was unbelievably dumb. But the thing I abandoned, the 200 pages of The Corrections that I abandoned, was essentially an illustrative work. And I couldn’t smoke enough cigarettes in a day to interest myself in using a novel to illustrate points I already understood very well. I think, although he is extremely kind and erudite and a lovely person, Richard Powers’s books are good examples of what happens when you try to illustrate a social reality that’s already known to you. Powers can still sometimes make it exciting because he’s so bright. He’s brighter than almost anyone who’ll read him, so you can always learn something from him. But I’m not sure he’s learning much himself, and that’s the big danger of trying to use a novel to mirror the social reality. Sure, when there were no other media to do the job, it was useful for Zola and Sinclair to broadcast important social info and dramatize it and make it accessible to a bourgeois readership. But TV can do all that now, and so the purely social novel has pretty much shriveled up and died.

What I was trying to do after Strong Motion was preposterously ambitious. Every story that had upset me in the New York Times in the previous five years had engendered yet another strand of plot, until it just became absurd. It was a literal reductio ad absurdum. If you really are going to mirror social reality, well, then, as Borges might ask, what better mirror could there be than the thing itself? It became clear that what I needed was not an encyclopedia of the world’s ills but a story that was an adventure and a mystery and an anguish to me personally. Maybe you don’t see that much of a difference in The Corrections, but that was the book where I began to feel really entitled to write. Before, I’d always felt this lingering responsibility to something else.

CC: Well let’s take the example the abortion politics in Strong Motion, to which there is no comparison in The Corrections. With the character Reverend Stites, you wanted to get into the anti-abortion head and put some of that thinking in the world. That seemed to be driving that part of the book in a way that parallel issues weren’t driving The Corrections. You weren’t trying to get an issue into the book; it was something else that was leading you into the book.

JF: One thing I wanted in Strong Motion was to get into arguments more complex than those on either the pro-choice or the pro-life side were imagining. I don’t remember what led me to build that element into the book. I was marvelously unconscious of how I was building novels back then. I have no notes from that time— it’s crazy, I have no idea where that stuff came from. But I do remember having a vague conviction, despite the reception of the The Twenty-Seventh City, that if I could only get enough live-wire contemporary issues in play dramatically, then I could really get people’s attention. To that extent, I really was pursuing the issues for their own sake. I thought that this was the way to be ambitious. And that’s what I’ve now very substantially given up.

CC: You’re doing this at a time historically when, as we’ve discussed, and as you’ve written about, I think you can see there have been some serious permutations in the public private divide and in the intelligibility of the social and also the constitution of the social. The critic Lauren Berlant has written of the "intimate public sphere," where the content of public discourse, rather than being about public or social life, is dominated by concerns, categories, and subjects from family or personal life. And I think you recognize that world.

JF That’s what I was writing about in my own essay on privacy ["Imperial Bedroom"].

CC: Yes, but as you mentioned above, it is these personal matters—life crises, etc.-- that actually loom in the individual life as more cataclysmic than social developments that are often, but not always, unconnected to them. Books like Berlant’s, andsome of your own essays, suggest that there is a political valence to both sides of the divide, that there is a changed relationship between the social and the private that is historically specific. When you are shifting the focus to the intimate side of this equation—to the character-- what does that reflect about the times? I don’t know if you can stand back and think about yourself historically, or as conditioned by the historical moment. What does it mean to take this strategy of writing in this kind of world? You seem to want to interfere with the way this boundary is drawn.

JF: To me the problem everywhere is cultural entropy— Levi-Strauss’s notion of the disappearance of difference, the rise of global homogenization. A world in which people’s public lives were very different from their private lives has been replaced by public spaces filled with intimate things and by intimate private realms filled with the generic and the public. This is a disaster for the fiction writer and needs to be opposed on that basis alone. Fiction writers spend a lot of time trying to track down that fugitive sense of difference. Things are neither Midwestern nor American anymore, its all sort of mush. Things are neither urban nor rural, it’s all exurban mush. Things are neither high art nor pop, it’s all middle-brow pomo mush. And so on down the line.

And the thing is, some of this entropy is politically healthy and good. If you’re too pro-difference, you can end up sounding anti-miscegenist. Or sexist, or classist— the poor should know their place and the wealthy should know their place, et cetera. Suddenly, if you’re not careful, you’re back in a Shakespearean world order. And yet, part of the nostalgia that the artist feels is "Wow, look what Shakespeare was able to accomplish back when all those distinctions were really hard and firm!" There’s something very unattractive in the artist, who wants to break all those boundaries and fluidly pass between them, but wants the boundaries to keep existing for everyone else, so that it’s only the artist who gets to play with them, excitingly. If I take a close look at my reasons for rejecting the unwholesome mixing of public and private, I see things that may be politically rather unattractive in me. It’s interesting that critics on both the right and the left decry the same cultural entropy. You know, "It was Madonna Studies that broke down blah blah blah," say the people on the right. And, "No it’s Fox News and Rupert Murdoch that are breaking down the blah blah blah," say the people on the left. We always locate the problem on the other side. But in fact everyone is conspiring in it. This is why the term "cultural entropy" is such a brilliant formulation— because the process has an inevitable, thermodynamic feel to it. As we globalize and as communication systems and transportation and population all expand, how could it not happen?

The fact that I myself think in thermodynamic terms, as if the process is autonomous and unstoppable, is an example of the difficulty of bringing politics into the discussion. Politics itself has been excluded, because the whole notion of the political, in contrast to the eternal or the apolitical, is another one of those distinctions that have been muddified. What serious political thinkers have in mind when they say the word politics is one of those pure quantities that, like all the other pure quantities, is under increasing assault. And as I say this I can hear myself proving to myself that I am not Marxist in my bones, because I’m proposing that politics is not the last instance. It itself is a phenomenon; it’s not the driving force.

CC: Well I think that a Marxist might agree with you, and might anticipate and hope for a world without politics.

JF: Well there are all kinds of Marxists.

CC: But you suggest one aspect of the situation to which you are responding: the difficulty of imagining change, or life otherwise, that the direction of the world leaves little that humans can do about it at a certain level.

JF: Yes, but if you pour enough energy into a closed system, you can separate those things back out. You can make it hot on one side and cold on the other. It takes a lot of energy to do this, but room air-conditioners are doing it all the time. This gets us back to the very beginning, when I was talking about writing only for the people who care about reading in some fashion. You can’t turn back cultural entropy in society as a whole, but when the project is more local— in other words, for a smaller audience— I’m by no means despairing about the possibility of sorting hot from cold, and apple from orange, if I pour enough of my own energy into the project.

CC: And what would be the political import of that? Would this be a matter of honing our weapons until the time is write for this entering the world?

JF: Well, I’m a fiction writer. I’m political only as a citizen, not as a novelist. I do what I can as a citizen, and also, in a small way, as a published writer helping to raise money. But once you start asking your question as a novelist, your art’s in danger of becoming illustrative or didactic— in some sense, an act of bad faith. The contract with the reader is that you’re both in the adventure together, that there’s no bait and switch going on, no instruction masquerading as entertainment.

Not that there can’t be legitimate political and social byproducts to good fiction. It’s hard not to read Lolita and have a little sympathy for child molesters. If you like that book, you might rethink the most draconian criminal punishments for child molesters. You might have a little more compassion in general. That’s the way fiction is supposed to work. It’s a liberal project. When Jane Smiley uses the phrase "the liberal novel," she basically means "the novel, period." The form is well suited to expanding sympathy, to seeing both sides. Good novels have a lot of the same attributes as good liberal politics. But I’m not sure it goes much further than liberalism. Once you go over into the radical, a line has been crossed, and the writer begins to serve a different master.

CC: Well, Marxist critics….Lukacs understood Balzac’s politics, but also understood that realist fiction, at that time in any case, had a social capacity that was important for a radical politics. 

JF: I think that anything that is human has the power to remind us of our humanity and beat back some of the despair that the increasing inhumanity of the world is liable to induce: the inhumanity of genocide, the inhumanity of technology, climate change, all these things. I’m not saying that there’s no potential value, socially or politically, in fiction. It’s just hard to keep those goals in mind when you’re producing it. It’s not a useful category for me when I’m working.

CC: Do you know of any novelistic projects in the US that conceive intervention in this other way? Do you think Don DeLillo, for example, is conceiving of his fictional project, in an instrumentalist and interventionist way? 

JF: No I don’t think he is. Pynchon at times seems to be the scourge of Enlightenment and cultural entropy, but his form is postmodern and, increasingly of late, highly entropic. This is not to say that other people aren’t working on interventionist projects. It’s just that, because a different aesthetic tends to attach to them, I personally may be less likely to come in contact with them. I occasionally get environmentally-themed novels sent to me, and I’m very particularly unable to get into them, because I’m already so much the converted. The only way you can interest me in an environmental novel is to say, on page one, something like "Fuck trees, fuck the little animals." Then I’m interested. Then I’ll start reading about it. But if there’s any hint that the text is well-meaning, I run screaming from the room.

CC: Yeah, we certainly don’t need novels to tell us about that.

JF: Some of the more identity-based fiction may be more usefully and expressly instrumentalist. Certainly there is gay and lesbian fiction that feels like it’s about engaging with various conversations within those communities about identity and how it relates to the mainstream, and is committed in that sense.

CC: And then there’s science fiction, imagination of another world, another way of being

JF: Very much. But because so much of the stuff is so concept-heavy and has so few of the values I look for in fiction, I tend not to see the stuff that’s genuinely good in that realm.

I was just thinking of Russell Banks, who strikes me as a relatively political strong novelist, simply by his choice of subject matter, and the way he is at pains, in several books, to forge connections between poor people of color in the Caribbean and poor whites in New England. Some of that’s really interesting, and he’s obviously highly conscious of what he’s doing. And then there’s a large body of self consciously feminist work— probably the biggest example of identity politics. But what kind of thing would you even be looking for when you ask that question? What novels of the past would that look like?

CC: Well, I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one. And we can’t imagine an Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

JF: Upton Sinclair, Germinal.

CC: Not available at this time. 

JF: If you’ve got a video camera, why are you wasting your time writing novels?

CC: You mentioned before that you were working on a political novel and that you have abandoned that project. Here I don’t mean political in the sense of a novel designed to have a political effect but a novel in the world of politics… practitioners you mention include Christina Stead, Robert Coover, Robert Stone, Gore Vidal...

JF: Henry Adams.

CC: Of course, Henry Adams—Democracy-- from an earlier period. But, it’s a hard one to write and I thought about that as I looked back at your essay from 2003 on Dennis Hastert. That was real belly of the beast stuff. You talked to Tom Delay and Cheney and Gingrich.

JF: I had an opportunity to fail to return about six phone calls from Dick Cheney’s office. They just kept calling. Cheney wanted to be quoted.

CC: Well, as far as I know, I might be wrong, this piece on Hastert is your only piece of political reportage, political journalism.

JF: I tried out the job of Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, and they gave me such a dismally dull subject in Dennis Hastert that, even though I think I did a fine piece, I was discouraged from going back. I mean, I discouraged myself. The magazine was happy with what I’d done, I just couldn’t bear to go back to another one of those Mark Penn dinners.

CC: Was this trip to interview Hastert and company at all part of the political novel project? Did you see it as serving that project?

JF: Yes, I took on that job not long after reading The Charterhouse of Parma for the first time. I was so blown away by that novel that I thought maybe I should try to be like Stendhal and not even attempt to write a novel until I’m really ready, and then dictate the whole thing in 51 days, just like he did. It worked for him! And meanwhile I can be off doing these cool things. I mean, in some respects the Washington gig was a dream job. It was incredibly generous of David Remnick to offer that to me and…

CC: He offered you Washington correspondent?

JF: Yes. It had been Elizabeth Drew forever and ever. Then they had a bunch of different people, and then Nick Lemann did a fine job with it. He was the right man for it, but he stepped down to be dean of Columbia Journalism. And it’s a great job, I mean, you get amazing entree. People call you back. Even Tom Delay called me back. I’ve had a lot of second and third thoughts since I decided not to pursue it, because it was such a great job. But I just found myself so bored by the process of Washington. That was what was marvelous about Lemann— he could, day after day, wade through unbelievably boring stuff until he got to the five minutes of great stuff. If you have the patience to do that, day after day, you will come up with really good Washington journalism. That’s how it’s done. And I’m too lazy and goofy and self-indulgent a person, have been a fiction writer for too long, to have the discipline to do that. Plus the suppression of ego that was necessary, the suppression of writerly subjectivity, I couldn’t bear it. I felt like a bit of a moral failure for not having been able to make more of the opportunity, but the only way I even got the Hastert piece written was by starting cigarettes again, after years away from them, and basically chain smoking and pounding out raw draft for six hours and then drinking myself into oblivion with vodka from the freezer, starting at 4:01 pm. Those were the days when Dick Cheney’s office was calling and I wasn’t checking my cell phone because I just couldn’t bear it. It was all just excruciating. Thanks to my wonderful editor, it turned out to be a fine piece, but I never wanted to do it again. And yet, as my editor said, that’s okay, something will remain of the experience and you will use it. I’m only sorry I didn’t do it a couple more times, because I would have gotten more that I could use…

Anyway, the political novel. The problem is that politics itself, like baseball and rock and roll, has such a powerful narrative force in America that you feel like Flannery O’Connor paddling in her rowboat next to the ocean liner of Faulkner. It’s all but impossible for any novelist nowadays to compete with the omnipresent narrative that we get now, where the election cycle consists of two years of nonstop campaigning followed by two years of nationwide exhaustion and revulsion in order to work up an appetite for the next two years of campaigning. To try to invent into that cultural climate system is like going out in a rowboat in a hurricane. Forget about it. Party politics, Washington politics: there’s very little there for the fiction writer.

CC: I’m curious about that, and wondered if you could say more Because that lack of material speaks to something important about U.S. politics-- there is so much opacity to politics in this country. To explain voting patterns, political passions and behavior-- fiction wouldn’t necessarily get us there. To really get at American politics might need something else --or maybe it’s just elusive. How would you as a fiction writer characterize the resistance of the political to the novelistic imagination? To put it in terms you’ve suggested earlier, given television, journalism, and proliferating analyses of the political scene, what new could be told? And to return to the Hastert essay—these people—Hastert, Cheney, Armey—they did terrible things. But that part of their work is not clear; it is not illuminated in that essay. Of course we all know that terribleness, so perhaps it doesn’t have to be illuminated. But there seems to be something inaccessible at a certain level. 

JF: It’s because it matters so much. It’s as if I’m sitting down to read a great book, to reread The Brothers Karamazov or something, and I’m about forty pages in when there’s a knock on the door and this unbelievably sexy and available woman walks in and sits down in the chair next to me. I’m not going to keep reading. I’m going to set the book down and pay attention to this development that, in an immediate way, matters so much more to me than Dostoevsky. Long term: Dostoevsky-- big. Possibility of sex with stranger— small. But in the short term.... It’s the same deal with politics. I get so upset. I care so much about the electoral outcome that I can’t even read the newspaper, I can’t even watch political news on TV. We’re doing this interview on the day that Obama is going to give his acceptance speech in Denver, and I don’t think I’ll be able to bear to watch him, because I care so much about getting him elected. I care so much that I can’t even stand to look at him. And this is a problem, because the novelist should be looking very carefully and reveling in all the details. Which, if you’re a jaded political journalist, you can do. You will do that. But I am not jaded. I’m like a twelve-year old with a raw heart when it comes to what’s happened politically in this country in my lifetime. It’s so upsetting I can’t think straight and I can’t write straight. My interest in the outcome, my stake in the party-political struggle is so great, that the much more subtle concentration required to produce real fiction is simply not possible.

A better way to go about it— and I still have some wish to do this, in the new book— is to track political passions within a family. My own father’s family is an interesting study in shades of conservatism, from my John Bircher uncle Erv to my unexpectedly tolerant dad and his brother-in-law Walt, an Air Force colonel and a lifelong Democrat. They would have these huge fights at family dinners, just blazing political fights. And then the subtle interactions between political convictions and the texture of our daily lives. When I drive down the street and I’m making stereotyped observations about the person driving the humongous SUV with three yellow ribbons on the bumper, that’s just my politics at work. Maybe some minor cultural things, too, but it’s mostly a political rage. "This person probably voted for George Bush twice." That’s what I’m thinking. And how these passions are formed and handed down, and why they’re so important to us, these are still very interesting questions. But it’s not a Washington novel.

CC: What were you trying to do, given that this project came after the conversion moment you describe in "Why Bother"?

JF: I keep making the same mistake, which is that I keep trying to go top-down. I keep trying to take a short cut. Because I know I can identify those things out in the world that are important to me, and certainly politics has become increasingly important to me. I know these things are going to have a place in the book, so why don’t I just try to write a political novel or a novel with a very substantial political element? And then you go from there to, "Let’s therefore set it in Washington. And who are my characters? Well, we’ve got to get the lobbyists, of course, and we need some military contractors..." And suddenly you’re planning a novel where you already know all the answers. You’re doing an instructive novel. But it takes a while to see that.

The only way to keep on doing decent writing is to approach every book as if you’ve never written one before. I find this very easy, because each time I try to write a new novel I feel just as baffled, just as mute and clumsy, as I did in 1981. And this means you keep making the same mistakes again, too. Obviously, the hope is that you make fewer of those same mistakes and that you don’t persist in them for quite as long. Still, it’s painful to feel so stupid after so many years of practice, and so it’s comforting, when you’re facing the blank page and the blankness of invention, to be able to arrange all the things you already know into something that can be mistaken for an actual outline or a plot. It’s only when you sit down and try to write a sentence that you realize how unwritably well-known it already is to you. There are plenty of writers who don’t seem too bothered by that, but I’m easily bored and I find it intolerable.

CC: Well, what about political passion? Many commentators have remarked on the disconnect between passion and rage and what we might call content. I remember during the Gary Hart presidential campaign--the first one about" special interests" and "new ideas"-- a radio reporter asked a passionate Hart supporter, why do you support Gary Hart and the supporter said, "because of the new ideas". He asked what the new ideas were, and she said, "well that’s not really a fair question". And in a recent Time interview, McCain was aked to define honor—a buzzword of his campaign—and he got really annoyed. So the passions are hot but also there’s also a sense, and this is statistically observable, that the sense of politics being about affecting something in the world is a little more occluded—the passion of one’s political affiliation can often be matched a decrease in the content of the politics.

JF: Yes, it’s become more a matter of cultural signs. I don’t identify myself as a Democrat so much as someone for whom it is torture to hear George Bush speak. And there are tens of millions of people on the other side who found Bill Clinton unlistenable. He just made them want to run and chop their heads off, it caused them so much distress to hear him speak, because he symbolized so much of what they hated. What does that mean? I think these feelings have always been there, they’ve just become more prominent because we have so much more access to those subtle semiologies. A hundred years ago, you might have caught a glimpse of the presidential candidate at the back of a train, and that’s all you knew about how he spoke. Now it’s 24-7. You have access to all those subtle signals of language, whether the guy says "nucular" or "nuclear"...

CC: Who would you want to have a beer with…

JF: Right. And there must have been a time, socially, when governmental entities were small enough that signals like that really mattered. I was thinking of Jane Smiley’s fabulous novel The Greenlanders. About two thirds of the way through, a politician figure emerges in this dying colony of Europeans in a freezing-over Greenland, and he behaves just like politicians today. He’s a great character, compromised as can be, but it’s very plausible that someone could come along and people would instinctively like him and trust him. He’s doing these deals, and people are very disgruntled, and some percentage attach their loyalty to him and the rest find him just the worst. Some of these things really are primal.

I wonder if a certain kind of idea-based politics might not have come into being around the same time the novel came into being, and had a lifespan about the same as the social novel. It was all happening at the point where society had become mechanized and organized enough, and nations populous and interconnected enough, that there could be powerful political movements, but communication technology was lagging far behind, so the politics had to be depersonalized. Instead of the traditional tribal leader, you had the abstract leader off in Washington, or London, or Berlin, and everything had to be mediated through a broader and simpler set of signs. Which would tend to favor content over form. And now we’ve gone back to a more tribal kind of politics, because of the weird public intimacy that technology fosters.

CC: There was a piece during one of the Bush elections that mentioned a family in Louisiana who would disown a daughter if she thought of voting democratic. And I was struck by this identitarian character of the passion.

So you had political figures in the novel and now you don’t.

JF: I don’t like to say too much about it. It’s still substantially set in Washington. That’s all I’ll say.


JF: Trying to compete head-on with the national political narrative was a dead end. You know, the novel is a bourgeois liberal form, and it succeeds to the extent that it confers importance on relatively Everyman figures— on the non-famous, on the non-consequential. It’s not a tragic form. It works just the opposite of Macbeth. It’s a matter of what you’re able to experience as you read. What a president is able to experience is so far beyond most readers’ ken as to not produce a recognizable texture. There are obviously exceptions to this, but I think the broad majority of novelistic production is based on forging some kind of connection between the texture of a fictional character’s life and the ordinary reader’s life. Somehow it’s a lot easier to do with a child soldier in Africa than with Idi Amin. The child-soldier character gets to live as a character, whereas the Idi Amin character walks around in the chains of being Idi Amin. There is a large body of historical fiction about these great figures and about the specialness of them, and I find it unreadable, pretty much to a book. There are a very few exceptions, like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and a few others. By and large, though, fiction thrives on the anonymous. The anonymous life can be inhabited, the public life is closed to you. Historical fiction works more like a kind of non-fiction. It’s non-fiction in all but name to write about the king, the president, the great one. I prefer straight biography and imagination.

CC: Non-fiction, or weirdly formal and not really political in any sense. Well, I want to wish you good luck with this new project—well, I guess it’s not new—with the project, however it turns out, because I think that what every reader senses in your work is a democratic commitment that isn’t so common in our major novelists. And we’ve talked a bit today and you’ve written revealingly about some of the sources of that democratic commitment. It has produced some great fiction and I’m sure it will continue to.

JF: Thank you. It’s been fun to try to articulate some of these things.