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Literary Glance: The Corrections by Johnathan Franzen

July 28, 2017

When The Corrections came out in 2001, I didn’t want to read it because I thought the author Jonathan Franzen came across as a prick. He looked like a prick in his publicity photos.  To be fair, a lot of authors look pretentious in their publicity photos, but Franzen came across even worse than most.  Plus, he was going through a literary feud with Oprah Winfrey that didn’t make him look good.  Even people who despised Oprah Winfrey thought Franzen came across like a prick during their feud.

I admit, most of my anti-Franzen attitude was my own bitterness.  Every unsuccessful writer should be allowed to go through a bitter stage, and 2001-2003 was mine.  I had just given up on writing after ten years of several projects, one coming kind of close to getting published (“kind of close to” probably meant “never had a chance of,” but I was at least told I was “kind of close”) and I was bitter that some guy like Franzen who wasn’t much older than me was getting published, getting publicized, and then almost winning a Pulitzer, while I had nothing to show for my own efforts.  I tried reading The Corrections just so that I could be justified in hating it.

Then when I began, I ran into a paragraph like this early in the book.  I don’t remember if this is the exact paragraph (with a really long sentence) that made me pause, but it was something like this:

Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly.  It was the alarm bell of anxiety.  It was like one of those cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills.  By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of “bell ringing” but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for so long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound.  Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood.  Then Enid and Alfred-she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table-each felt near to exploding with anxiety.

I think the author was trying to establish Enid and Alfred’s anxiety.  At least, that’s what I got out of the excerpt.

I still  get baffled by paragraphs (and long sentences) like this.  I call stuff like this literary overkill.  It’s why I struggle with or skim through a lot of literary fiction.  Then again, this passage could have been meant as a parody of literary overkill.  If I were writing a parody of literary overkill, I would write something long-winded and absurd just like this (except maybe with a more basic state-school vocabulary).

Or maybe the author was just writing this to see if the editors and publisher would let him get away with it.  I think successful authors do that sometimes and won’t admit it until it doesn’t matter anymore.  Or maybe it’s just great writing and I really don’t get it, in which case I’m screwed if I want to become an author of literary fiction.

20 years ago, I would have formed my opinion and stuck with it.  Now, if somebody tells me this is great writing, I’m more willing to listen.

Plus, I’ve gotten over my bitterness.  Blogging helps.  I’m not as judgmental about authors’ publicity photos either.  In fact, I used a picture of me on my own book cover, and I just realized that I look like a prick too.

I guess it can happen to anybody.

  1. No, it’s not great writing. And in my lifetime I’ve only ever heard one other person start a sentence with ‘which.’ He was a philosophy professor, if that tells you anything. Nothing against philosophy, or philosophy professors. I’m just saying, those philosophy guys, they’re not known for their great writing.

    • To make it even worse (or more literary), the “Which” sentence was technically a fragment (I think) that could have been attached to the previous overly-long sentence.

      If I had pulled that stunt in school, my writing instructors would have red-marked my paper.

  2. Anonymous permalink

    It needed “it was a dark and stormy night” in that mess of a paragraph. 😂😂

    • That could have worked as the first sentence, but the stormy night might have interfered with the ringing alarm bell that only Alfred and Enid could hear.

  3. However (let me start a sentence with however), the pick-monster will devour us all, if we let it out. At any time, any one of us might make a typo in a Tweet, read it through four times and not notice, then be accused of not knowing how to spell. (Or how to identify those pesky, pesky homophones.) I like to think of writing as akin to composing music (without knowing a lot of the professional vocabulary of composers). You have quiet passages, you have themes and variations, and now and then a big sentence that works like a mathematical equation–complete with brackets and semi-colons. I don’t mind seeing writers do that, but it needs to be the moment for it.

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