On Jonathan Franzen’s Rules for Novelists

In November, Lithub republished a list of ten rules for novelists by Jonathan Franzen that had originally appeared in the Guardian in 2010. It apparently raised a stink on the Internet. Reading the list now, I see why it was divisive. Some of his rules are obvious. Some are preposterous or pretentious. Overall, it’s just not a helpful list.

All of this is in my humble opinion, of course (this is my blog after all). Franzen has accomplished far more in his writing career than I probably ever will, but I see reflections of some broader issues in the literary community here that I feel the need to comment on.

To be clear, this isn’t really about Franzen’s list. This is about the impetus of some of his ideas. And admittedly, it probably reveals more about my own philosophies than Franzen’s, so take it for what it’s worth

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1. “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.”

The writer-reader relationship is interesting to me, but never have I regarded it as contentious. What strikes me about this rule is that anyone would think of the reader as an adversary or spectator and that Franzen felt the need to point it out. Readers approach a writer’s work voluntarily, so as writers, we should operate under the assumption that the reader grants us their attention because they want to. The idea that the reader could be an adversary is especially galling. Do people hate-read? Life is too short, man.

Regardless, I wholly disagree with Franzen here. The reader isn’t a friend. Yes, the writer and reader are connected, but there is no inherent friendship. The writer and reader are in the same vehicle, and the reader is behind the wheel. The writer is the navigator. There is no need to take this metaphor any further than an Uber ride. Sure, sometimes the two are joined like Thelma and Louise. Sure, often the relationship is amiable and friendly, but it isn’t something writers should take for granted, because most writers, unless they develop fan bases like Franzen has, will never know that luxury.

2. “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”

I would counter that a reader’s inability to appreciate a story that is not the author’s personal adventure into the frightening or unknown is a shortcoming of the reader. On a grander scale, it’s a shortcoming of the literary community.

Good fiction does not have to be autobiographical, and the lack of autobiography in a writer’s work does not mean the writer is doing it for the money. This is absurd.

I don’t feel the need to get into how little money the vast majority of writers make on their writing, but the reality is any writer who does this for the money is insane, and I think the implication here suggests Franzen is out of touch with the world. To be frank, this is pretentious nonsense.

Writers should write what they want to write, and they should use their passion to strive for authenticity and storytelling that moves with heart. Writers should remain humble and earnest. I think, when writers combine these things, they produce fiction that is worthwhile, regardless of the narrative’s personal intimacy.

What a dull world literature would be if writers were only ever able to write about their subjective personal experiences.

3. “Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.”

Nah, it’s fine. Professing rigid mechanical rules and implying they were conceived by an objective authority on literature is pedantic and harmful to new writers who struggle to find themselves and are distracted by people like Franzen who get them to focus on things that ultimately don’t matter.

That said, I’m a firm believer in pedantry if its practice leads a writer to a strengthening of their craft.

That is to say, while Franzen’s presentation of this rule is careless, it may be a point worth considering. “Do I have too many ands, and am I compensating with the use of then?” That is worthwhile.

Saying a writer should never use then as a conjunction is lazy and tone-deaf instruction. We shouldn’t build walls and construct a maze for a writer’s development. We should put up signage and beacons in an open landscape and enable writers to find their own way to these places.

Man, I’m only on number three, and Franzen already makes literature seem like a world in grayscale.

4. “Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.”

No. Choose the perspective that best suits your story. Writers should never default or standardize. Rules like this put horse blinders on writers for no good reason.

If nothing else, write in the perspective you feel like writing in. Always ask yourself why you’ve made a creative decision, and always make your choices deliberately. The idea that a writer should always write in third person unless some arbitrary sense is appealed to is bologna.

5. “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.”

This isn’t a rule, and it’s not the only non-rule on Franzen’s list of rules.

I’m not really sure what Franzen is getting at here other than to suggest, if the reader has access to the research, the writer is released from the burden of having to do the research.

If I understand that as he meant it, that is contrary to a fundamental principle of a writer’s job. The whole point of a writer is to communicate something for the reader to understand. It’s up to the writer’s discretion how accessible he or she would like to make the text for their reader, but in my humble opinion (again, my blog), writers often use inaccessibility as a veil for a lack of artistry.

If your work is difficult to understand or challenging, that doesn’t mean it’s good. It simply means it’s difficult to understand or challenging. The assumption that inaccessibility is synonymous or congruent with depth is pretentious nonsense.

6. “The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.”

This rule seems to conflict with Franzen’s rule No. 2 on this list. It’s also not a rule.

I’ll forgive his absolutism here about The Metamorphosis. The point I think Franzen is getting at is that metaphor is a powerful thing and can be a literal representation of an idea that readers interpret figuratively. It is the basis of the artistry underpinning all of speculative fiction.

On this, I wholeheartedly agree. It’s odd to me that Franzen seems to understand this yet disregards it earlier.

One thing about this rule, though: purely autobiographical fiction doesn’t require pure invention. Tim O’Brien discusses this idea in The Things They Carried, which contains a chapter about the difference between the truth of events and the truth of conveying reality’s power on the page.

The point is writers have to embellish, extrapolate, invent, recreate, revise, edit, etc. life to make compelling storytelling. Once again, however, the measure to which writers lie to readers in fiction is up to the writer’s discretion.

I’ve changed my mind. Absolutism is one of the things killing literature instruction. It restricts young writers and gives them the wrong impressions. It is worse than not helpful. It is harmful.

7. “You see more sitting still than chasing after.”

This is both convoluted and obvious. The idea is writers spend most of their time not writing, usually in a state of self-loathing and existential contemplation. I often express this sentiment by ganking something my good friend and fellow writer Nick DeWolf once said, which is writing is like sitting in traffic.

Really, Franzen. You didn’t have to make this so abstract and inaccessible. That doesn’t add to your mystique. It didn’t make your list artful. It’s just more pretentiousness.

8. “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

My guess is this statement implies a few other ideas Franzen holds, such as the Internet is a great distractor and that, if you’re not writing about things you already know, you’re failing.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Writers should write about the ideas that move them and evoke passion. If they don’t know the subject they want to write about, they should research it, and humanity has no greater tool for research than the Internet.

I suspect this is more a cynical statement about human nature and an expression of the fear that the Internet is humanity’s downfall than a rule. It’s more pretentiousness and should be disregarded.

9. “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.”

On first blush, what? On further consideration, I suspect Franzen is trying to be artsy again. I suspect this is a comment on writers and thesauruses and trying to be clever. Why not write, “Don’t obsess over your verb choices. Close the thesaurus. Write naturally.”?

Ironically, this rule, in a sense, violates itself, and it condemns the rest of this list.

10. “You have to love before you can be relentless.”

Look, it’s a fairly obvious thing to suggest writing a novel is a labor of love. It’s incredibly difficult, and you have to regulate yourself to create something good. To do that, you have to love the novel you’re writing, and if you love it, you’re going to do your best to relentlessly ensure the work is good.

This isn’t all that interesting. What is interesting to me is Franzen’s choice to write this as obnoxiously as possible. He was almost there, too, but I presume his desire to be cryptic and artsy defeated his desire to be useful and practical.

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After working through these rules, I can see why they caused such a hullabaloo. Franzen was needlessly evasive to himself, and when breaking these rules down, most of them just aren’t that helpful. It makes me wonder, if he’d really considered the substance of his rules here instead of the presentation of them, would he have created a better list?

My biggest takeaway from Franzen’s list is not to let your pursuit of artistry get in the way of your art. Art can’t be conjured or contrived. It lives or dies in the substance of your writing, and nothing kills it faster than an imposed drive for perfection in the things that don’t matter in spite and to the detriment of the things that do.

I’ve never read any of Franzen’s fiction, but at this point I would guess that is as good a summation of his work as any.

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