Prominent novelist encourages writers to dig deeper

Jill Brower

For novelist Jonathan Franzen, being “exquisitely uncomfortable” is not such a bad state of mind. In fact, this is precisely the emotion he aims to move his readers to when they read his fiction, which meticulously delves into the emotions that normally lurk just below the surface of human interaction.

He does this through the creation of likeable and sympathetic, yet not entirely good, characters. “There are a number of things I could do with a character, but none of them addresses the things I lie awake at night thinking about or that make me exquisitely comfortable,” he said.

Franzen read excerpts from both his fiction and non-fiction work this Tuesday for the University community as part of the sixth annual Literary Festival. After reading from an upcoming piece for the New Yorker, to which he regularly contributes, and several fictional selections, Franzen fielded questions about his 17 years as a professional author.

Although the media has largely focused on the two year-old controversy between Franzen and Oprah Winfrey, involving his discontent over her naming his 2001 novel “The Corrections” to her book club, Tuesday’s audience concentrated on the thoughts behind the best-selling novel which won him the National Book Award.

Dr. Lucy McDiarmid of the English department, Franzen’s former professor at Swarthmore, introduced the reading. “Behind every celebrity is somebody’s student,” she said.

Franzen spoke about the various emotions involved in the writing process.

“Writing is easy in a sense,” he said. “But it’s harder to write something you will still like the next morning.”

He described the frustration of attempting to contain one’s ideas into a concise novel “that ties together everything you see in the world.”

He said, “The problem is that it’s a very large and complex world. The only way you can get everything you see about the world into a novel is never to write it.”

“The Corrections” examines this complex world through the eyes of the five members of the dysfunctional Lambert family. Franzen chose to tackle these issues, often swept under the rug, as a way of paying his debt to his favorite writers who “make you feel like you have some company and that you’re not all alone.”

“I’m grateful to writers who get at the experiences that I’m sort of ashamed of,” he said.

“When someone finds a way to put that private, shameful experience on a page that doesn’t make me want to take a bath, that’s a gift.”

Franzen was raised in St. Louis, Mo., and graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German. He also studied in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar.

He has published two other novels before “The Corrections,” and his most recent work was 2002’s collection of essays, titled “How to Be Alone.”

He continues to write both fiction and non-fiction. “It never becomes easy. I’m not sure I do it because I like it,” he said. “I do it because I think it’s what I’m probably meant to do.”