Novelist Jonathan Franzen '81 on "How You Become the Person Who Can Write the Book You Need to Write"

By Alisa Giardinelli

 jonathan franzen '81Last month, author Jonathan Franzen '81 became one of 10 new people inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters' at the the 250-person organization's annual induction and award ceremony in New York City. He published his second collection of essays, Farther Away, earlier this spring.

Before the success of the National Book Award-winning The Corrections, Franzen describes being broke and depressed. In The Path to Freedom, on autobiography and fiction recently published in The Guardian (U.K.), he explains how he overcame a sense of shame, guilt, and disloyalty. He begins:

"I'm going to begin by addressing four unpleasant questions that novelists often get asked. These questions are apparently the price we have to pay for the pleasure of appearing in public. They're maddening not just because we hear them so often but also because, with one exception, they're difficult to answer and, therefore, very much worth asking.

"The first of these perennial questions is: Who are your influences?..." 

Later, he continues:

"So how do you become the person who can write the book you need to write? I recognize that by talking about my own work, and telling a story of my progress from failure to success, I run the risk of seeming to congratulate myself or of seeming inordinately fascinated with myself. Not that it's so strange or damning if a writer feels proud of his best work and spends a lot of time examining his own life. But does he also have to talk about it? For a long time, I would have answered no, and it may very well say something bad about my character that I'm now answering yes. But I'm going to talk about The Corrections anyway, and describe a few of the struggles I had to become its author. I will note in advance that much of the struggle consisted - as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel - in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression. I'll also note that I'll be experiencing some fresh shame as I do this...." more

Franzen, the subject of a recent Bulletin cover story, "Six Degrees of Jonathan Franzen," returned to Swarthmore in 2007 for the Theater Department's production of his translation of Spring Awakening. He led a discussion with students afterwards. Franzen, who graduated with high honors and a major in German, originally translated the play for the department approximately 25 years prior.

In 2005, Franzen received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the College. In his remarks, he advised the graduates that "you may be wrong about a lot of stuff now, wrong about almost everything, ... but you might as well get used to kind of person you are right now, because that person isn't going anywhere."