“They’ve asked me to give a lecture, I’d rather give you a story,” opened Jonathan Franzen at the beginning of his speaking engagement last Friday at the Mondavi Center.
Jonathan Franzen is a National Book Award-winning author whose latest book, Freedom, came out on paperback on Sept. 27. He is also the author of a number of other popular works including the 2001 bestseller The Corrections.
His talk, often punctuated with deep ruminating silences, primarily addressed the questions novelists are often asked. On the first question, regarding his influences, he mentioned Karl Kraus, Theodor Adorno and Thomas Pynchon, among others. But he also added that his present influences are often his own writing and that other writers were more directly influential when he was growing up.
These days, he instead likened himself as part of a large “virtual community of writers, most of whom are dead,” perhaps not just in referring to the kinship he developed with writers of years past, but also with regard to his deceased friend and famous author David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest fame.
Professor Eric Rauchway, who moderated the question and answer period, had the following to say in an e-mail: “I thought that although he’d written a talk that was prompted by irritation at questions most asked about the author’s craft, Jonathan Franzen’s talk was actually quite revealing about how he approached the craft of writing. It was a graceful way of anticipating and answering those questions while expressing his no doubt genuine aggravation at the way they’re always asked.”
During the question and answer period, Franzen fielded both common and uncommon questions alike. When asked if there was a book that truly deserved its hype, Franzen, after a long pause, selected F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The New York Times bestseller was particularly astonished at how Fitzgerald could so accurately paint a contemporary portrait of the roaring 1920s at so young an age.
During the question and answer period, Franzen also hesitated to describe Freedom as social diorama.
“I don’t think we need novels for social panorama,” Franzen said.
Instead, he preferred novels that were geared toward self-exploration, a common refrain in his own work.
Franzen, an avid bird-watcher, stated that he would donate the proceeds of his Mondavi Center appearance to the American Bird Conservancy.
RAMON SOLIS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.