So Jonathan Franzen, an author who has made more money than I will ever see, has decided to parlay his fame and fortune into a list of advice for writers, his 10 Rules For Novelists. It was published on LitHub, complete with a picture of Franzen in a blazer, manspreading on a big chair, with a bookcase behind him. Said bookcase looks like one of those ones full of encyclopedias that people put in their homes to make it look like they’re intellectuals. One of Franzen’s hands is on his head, which beautifully symbolizes the headache that his dumbshit list gave me when I read it.
Chuck Wendig on Twitter and John Hartness on Facebook have already taken their shots at Franzen, and I’m sure others have too that I haven’t seen. I am on vacation in Italy, so my Internet reading has been sporadic, but Franzen’s outpouring of stupidity was so vacuous, so offensive that I needed to provide a riposte of my own.
Franzen’s first rule is “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” Um, okay. Seems to me that most readers fall a lot more on the spectator side of things, and I’ve had a share that I would consider adversaries, but whatever. I certainly prefer to approach my readers in as friendly a manner as possible, so I’ll give him that one.
#2 is where we start getting my blood pressure up. “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” Y’know, I’ve never had any patience with the belief that art should be for art’s sake, and that writing for money is somehow low and base and beneath the consideration of a real artist. I just last week stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo didn’t do that for the sake of making great art, he did it because the Pope paid him a fuckton of cash for it. Hell, he hated doing frescoes, preferring to sculpt — but he hated starving to death more, so he took the commission. William Shakespeare wanted to be a poet. Instead, he wrote plays because he was paid for that. Artists make their living by selling their art. Always have, always will, and unless Franzen is donating all the money he’s made writing his fictional output to charity, this rule can go fuck itself in the face.
After giving us a couple of demi-profound bits of gobbledygook, Franzen suddenly veers with #3 into actual writing advice: “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.” Any writing advice that starts with the word never is bad advice. There are no hard and fast rules with writing and there is nothing you should never do. Also, then isn’t always a substitute for and, because the two words actually mean two different things — and simply links two clauses, while then provides a more specific progression of one thing to the next thing. Then can absolutely be overused. But this rule is too extreme in the other direction.
“Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.” Rule #4 can also fuck itself in the face, says the guy who has three separate ongoing original narratives that are first person (the Cassie Zukav stories, the Shirley Holmes/Jack Watson stories, and the upcoming Bram Gold adventures). Again, no hard and fast rules, and this is one of those bits of currently trendy wisdom (like “never have a prologue”) that are utter horseshit. Write in whichever person makes your story work the best. Period.
#5 is total elitist nonsense, so I’m’na enjoy trashing it: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” No, shit-for-brains, free accessible information means voluminous research is available to everyone. The fact that only intellectuals in their ivory towers with their large libraries like that fake one you’re sitting in front of no longer have the exclusive ability to research shit doesn’t make it devalued, it makes it much more awesome. What this rule should be, and is for writers whose heads aren’t lodged in their rectums, is “When information becomes free and universally accessible, you have no excuse not to do voluminous research, especially since your readers will call you on your bullshit.”
According to #6, “The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.” First off, I’ve never bought the notion that Die Verwandlung is autobiographical, though plenty of literary scholars disagree with me. Second, lots of stories are more autobiographical than Franz Kafka’s work. By the way, you should hire a copy editor for your rules, as you use pure twice in one sentence. Maybe use then somewhere in there?
With #7 we go back to sub-fortune-cookie-level nonsense: “You see more sitting still than chasing after.” In bed.
And then we come to our “hey you kids, get off my lawn” moment with rule #8: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” These kids today, with their music and their hair…. Seriously, this is the sort of railing against modern times that always makes me shake my head and wonder what the fuck is wrong with people. Also, having the Internet connection on the same laptop you’re writing on makes it way easier to do research — and answer dumb questions quickly. (“Shit, what kind of clothes would they be wearing in 1874?” “Dammit, what’s that thing at the front of the boat called?” “Who threw that perfect game in the 1956 World Series?”) The Internet is a tool like any other, and smart writers use all the tools at their disposal.
“Interesting verbs,” quoth rule #9, “are seldom very interesting.” Righteo. Let’s just use “to be” all the time. That won’t be boring at all. And hey, who defines what “interesting” is? What’s the solution to uninteresting interesting verbs? (Or is it interesting uninteresting verbs?) Or did Franzen realize that he only had nine rules and so made up some piece of bullshit on the spot to fill it out?
Finally, we close with something that I’m sure sounded profound when it fell, unformed, into Franzen’s gray matter, but I have no idea what it has to do with writing. Or, y’know, the English language: “You have to love before you can be relentless.” Remember, kids, even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.