Author draws distinctions between being good writer and good person

Jonathan Franzen, a National Book Award-winning author, spoke at Hendricks Chapel on Tuesday night as the first speaker of the spring semester in the University Lecture series.

A bald, middle-aged man looked up from his newspaper with a start, his eyes magnified by lenses that look like portholes.

“Cornel West is also speaking tonight?” he said to the woman beside him. “Shoot, I like him.”

The woman folded her wrinkled hands on her copy of The Corrections. “I like Franzen,” she said.

Photo: Gabriel Shore

"Is it worth it to alienate someone I love in order to become the writer I need to be?"
- Jonathan Franzen

They were at Hendricks Chapel on Tuesday to see a lecture by Jonathan Franzen, the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections and Freedom. Empty seats peppered the wooden pews all around them — inevitable vacancies that occur when two great men speak on the same night.

When Jonathan Franzen walked to the podium, his black leather satchel swung like a pendulum. In his thick glasses and gray dress coat that matches his hair, he looked like a 1950s doctor on a house call.

For the better part of an hour, Franzen discussed the struggle of being a good human versus being a good writer.

“All loyalties are meaningful only when tested," Franzen said.

The author said this especially factors into the age-old conundrum of turning a loved one into a fictional character in a story.

"Is it worth it to alienate someone I love in order to become the writer I need to be?” Franzen asked. “If you love the person you’re writing about, the writing should reflect that.”

In the 1980s, Franzen was married to a writer. He became successful and she didn’t, and he felt guilty. Guilt and shame: these two themes came up repeatedly in the lecture and in Franzen’s writing. He described a character named Chip that he modeled on himself. “Every time I put Chip in a situation like mine, he became repugnant to me.”

Luckily, that self-loathing didn’t ruin him completely. Franzen described one of the last conversations he had with his mother before she died. He told her that he would be OK, even though his life as a writer was not what she wanted for him. She replied in a friendly, albeit dismissive tone, “You’re an eccentric.” For Franzen, this moment was a revelation: it didn’t matter if she approved of him or not. You could love someone you disapproved of.

Much of the night's speech was geared specifically to the writers in the room. Like many writers, Franzen could not help talking about his personal life without mixing in myriad insights about the craft of writing and character development.

“It’s not enough to love your characters, and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters,” he said. “You have to do both.”

At the end of the lecture, SU senior Nate Hopper asked Franzen about his thoughts on Twitter — a hot topic since Franzen’s recent scathing remarks about social media. Franzen explained that he disagrees with the culture of constantly updating, constantly checking news feeds, and asking oneself, “Shit, what am I missing?” Franzen said. “You’re a slave to these narratives that seem vitally urgent, like a cigarette — but they’re not.” This, coming from a recovering nicotine addict.

After the lecture, a line gathered for the chance to exchange words and have a book signed. Chris Dollard, a Syracuse University MFA poetry candidate, waited with three of Franzen’s books under his arm. Dollard, like Franzen, knows what a breakup can do to one’s writing.

“I liked what he said about having to become a new person to become a new writer,” Dollard said.

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