This Guardian piece by Jonathan Franzen seems to annoy everybody who reads it. Most of what Franzen writes that isn’t fiction tends to do that. That’s because his usual theme is “I am an unhappy, difficult to please character, who finds what other people do for fun a sign that human beings are contemptible creatures it’s best to avoid as much as possible.” This one is more of the same with a few cheap shots at his ex-wife thrown in as he explains how it was better for both of them that he went on to be rich and famous without her.
Fiction writers rarely come off well when they write about themselves. Twain got away with it because he treated himself as a comic character. But generally whenever they make themselves their subject whatever they write turns into advertisements for theirselves. Norman Mailer was only the loudest and most egregious and honest offender. One way or another they all manage to tell readers, “In real life I am a colossal bore and a world-class jerk and that’s what makes me such a great writer.”
Ernest Hemingway was particularly enthusiastic about tackling this theme and very persuasive when he did it. The difference between him and Franzen is that Hemingway usually wrote about what excited him---hunting, fishing, Africa, Cuba, the fun he had being famous, writing---and Franzen writes about what bores him, annoys him, depresses him, or distracts him when he’s trying to concentrate on the important business of being Jonathan Franzen.
He treats readers as if they’ve shown up on his doorstep uninvited to ask him impertinent questions he feels obligated to answer in exhausting detail. Hemingway wrote as if he was having the time of his life and had just sat down next to you at a bar to tell you all about it, certain you’ll be happy to hear what fun he’s been having because it’s the kind of fun you wish you were having yourself. Oh, and he’s buying.
The truly annoying thing about Hemingway when he started gassing on about this was that, as far as a lot of academic and intellectual types were concerned, he was right. It was the kind of fun they wished they were having and they felt bad about themselves because they weren’t out having it. Reading him go on and on about this good fish, that good light, this fine boat, that fine bull made their tweed suits itch. They felt the stuffiness of their offices, the flabbiness of their middles, the weakness of their characters, the oppressiveness of their marriages, and, most galling of all, the absolute, irredeemable, and unforgiveable mediocrity of their own writing.
He was still having this effect on the academic and intellectual types I looked to for insight and advice when I was setting out to be a writer and they passed along their resentments and self-loathing in the form of lofty and sneering dismissals of his writing that, never subtly, made a point of how his mother made him wear dresses until he was five.
Also, it was important to note that, yeah, he was famous in his day, but fame spoiled him and ultimately led to him killing himself because it killed his ability to write. Served him right for being such a show-off.
I might’ve learned a few good and fine things about how to be a writer from Hemingway if I hadn’t been so busy learning how not to be a famous writer like Hemingway, a lesson that was a tad premature.
Of course, the other difference between Hemingway and Franzen is the the big one.
Hemingway was a great writer.
Franzen is a middler.
He’s an unoriginal thinker who writes the prose of equivalent of Academy-approved painting after the Impressionists have shown up. He’s a prominent feature of the contemporary American literary landscape, but he looms over it more impressively than he ought to because the New York Times Book Review draws the map and they’ve centered it around him while being careful not to place him too close to women writers who are in fact his chief rivals and they’ve left genre writers off the map entirely.
So reading about how Franzen freed himself up to write Freedom by ditching his unappreciative wife doesn’t offer quite the same thrill as reading about how Hemingway came to write Big Two-Hearted River.
This is shaping up to be Hemingway Week in Mannionville. Tonight or tomorrow I’ll be posting my review of William Kennedy’s new novel Chango’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes which features Hemingway as an important character. Tomorrow night Hemingway & Gelhorn premieres on HBO. And I’ve been reading Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson, a fine book, a good book that will be the subject of at least one post (on depression) leading up to a review.
The book is stirring up all kinds of feelings in me. Some of those feelings are uncomfortably close to the ones I accused those academic and intellectual types of harboring when they read Hemingway boasting about all the fun and drama and adventure in his life.
One thing, it’s made me glad of. I don’t have a friend like Scott Fitzgerald in his decline.
I go back and forth on whether or not I’d like having a friend like Hemingway himself.
He really could be a world-class jerk.
Oddly, although Hendrickson is terrific when writing about Hemingway’s short stories, he’s not making me want to go back and re-read those stories.
He’s just making me want to keep reading Hemingway’s Boat.
But the book has definitely made me want two things.
I want a boat like the Pilar and I want Ava Gardner swimming naked in my swimming pool.
Actually, since I’d have to get a swimming pool before Ava could swim naked in it, I guess it’s making me want three things.
Photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.