Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Trying to figure the world out, trying to figure my life out ... It's that lame."

It would be hard to find a better occasion to emphasize the difference between academic writing and literary writing than this Meet the Writers segment from Barnes and Noble. I'm not questioning Franzen's sincerity. In fact, I think that he cuts a somewhat admirable figure as a novelist, both serious and self-deprecating about that seriousness.

He spent ten years writing his recent novel, which, by the look of things, was a good investment of his time. (I still haven't read the Corrections and won't read Freedom until I have, so I'm just talking about the reception of his book here.) But academic writers don't have ten years to spend the way he did. They can't wait until the very end to decide whether they "have something"; they can't see the whole process as an "adventure for the writer".

Also, they can't let their work emerge from the intersection of their dreams and what they read in the newspapers. It may be a novelists job to do so, but an academic writer is not trying to reach back behind the distraction of our "gadgets", into some fundamental human "loneliness", and give us 20 hours of solitude in the company of a book. The academic writer starts with a shared body of knowledge that is already very stable—growing, but slowly enough to keep track of. The academic writer does not "start not knowing anything". It is our job to make a contribution to what is already known. Sometimes, indeed, a correction.

This distinction between an academic and literary ethos in writing is important. If you watch this clip and identify strongly with Franzen, you are not a bad person, but you may not be suited for academic work. "Yes, yes," you might exclaim, "that's how I feel! When I'm writing a paper I always begin by trying to figure the world out, and trying to figure my life out." A novelist can say that sort of thing with dignity, and chide himself for it with irony, but in academia it really just is lame.


Jonathan said...

Lame indeed. He really comes off as rather unimpressive and uninteresting. I'd prefer him to be a bit more arrogant but with something to say. Maybe like Norman Mailer.

Thomas said...

I'm going to defend him actually. Given what he's saying (novels are fundamentally about loneliness and anger about the bad behaviour of people who don't understand loneliness) he has remarkable poise. He's articulate about something that isn't easy to say (and may be wholly wrong, but anyway ...). He doesn't say very much here, but I think he's measured and, like I say, articulate.

As for Mailer, whose writing I totally admire, his television performances are "uneven" at best, and sometimes totally embarrassing.

I really mean it when I say this isn't actually lame (just ironically lame) for a novelist. It's just that when academics try to pull this shit it's really lame.