from the world's big
The Role of the Novelist: How Jonathan Franzen Won the Book Publicity Game
I can still vividly remember reading, back in 2001, the New York Times Magazine write-up on the release of The Corrections. It began:
Some days, Jonathan Franzen wrote in the dark. He did so in a spartan studio on 125th Street in East Harlem, behind soundproof walls and a window of double-paned glass. The blinds were drawn. The lights were off. And Franzen, hunched over his keyboard in a scavenged swivel chair held together with duct tape, wore earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold. ''You can always find the 'home' keys on your computer,'' he says in an embarrassed whisper, explaining how he managed to type under such constraints. “They have little raised bumps.”
What could drive a man to such madness? Later in the piece, I learned:
''I'm very concerned with providing a maximally enthralling experience,'' Franzen says of his work. ''Another 20 years of boring literary novels, and the thing's dead.''
Even then, this struck me as a wonderful piece of theater. Imagine persuading the Times that you’ve personally saved the novel—blindfolded!
I don’t mean to suggest that Franzen was fibbing about his work habits. Actually, I’d be shocked if the anecdote weren’t true. What I’m suggesting is that it’s possible to inhabit a role so fully that you disappear into it; that’s as true of authors and corporate executives as it is of actors. Yeats thought Oscar Wilde was forever playing the part of Oscar Wilde, and in fact we remember Wilde’s persona better than his brilliant, but spotty, literary output. More to the point, we still view his persona as authentic.
Something similar has happened with Franzen. He is now the literary celebrity of our age: a presidential favorite, a “Great American Novelist” according to the cover of Time magazine. Increasingly he’s called upon by journalists to speak for book culture as a whole. Yet he may be best known for expressing ambivalence about publicity—at least, a certain kind of publicity—in advance of his first appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He told NPR at the time:
So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator...I continue to believe that, and now, I'm actually at the point with this book that I worry...I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores that said, "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking. So, I'm a little confused about the whole thing now.
Was this snobbery? Calculated provocation? Genuine distaste for the way books are marketed? I’d guess primarily the third, but it hardly mattered: the cancellation of his appearance earned him more notoriety than an enthusiastic acceptance ever would have. It didn’t even cost him a chat with Oprah; he ended up appearing on the show in 2010.
It is this tortured relationship with fame that has made Jonathan Franzen so famous. He has won the book publicity game because part of him—but only part—despises it. So great is his anxiety about the role of the novelist in our culture that it has become integral to his literary persona. And as happened with Wilde, Norman Mailer, even Hemingway, his persona now threatens to overshadow his work.
Understanding this persona requires looking back, as the Times Magazine article did, to a well-known essay he published in Harper’s in 1996. In some ways this is the best thing Franzen’s ever written; certainly it’s the most central to his project. It begins a bit preciously, with the title “Perchance to Dream” and the following sentence:
My despair about the American novel began in the winter of 1991, when I fled to Yaddo, the artist’s colony in upstate New York, to write the last two chapters of my second book.
By the end, however, it has transformed into a probing meditation on the connection between art and society, between the American novelist and America itself. Observing that “just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture and landscape painting, television has killed the novel of social reportage,” Franzen confronts the hopelessness of "bringing the news" to his culture. After much soul-searching, he concludes—buoyantly and accurately—that this loss is no loss at all. Great novelists hone their insights into society by observing human character, not cultural ephemera:
I'm amazed, now, that I'd trusted myself so little for so long…as if, in peopling and arranging my own little alternate world, I could ignore the bigger social picture even if I wanted to.
Every literary critic who is also a literary author writes to some degree with the goal of clearing ground for his own work. Franzen is no exception, but his Harper’s essay doesn’t so much shill for his aesthetic as dissect it. He ventures a thoughtful self-critique—or self-correction—framed by a personal narrative of depression and recovery.
Yet the essay tells another story, too. Even as Franzen was pondering his aesthetic, he was also thinking through his book publicity strategy:
The writer for whom nothing matters but the printed word is, ipso facto, an untelevisable personality, and it's instructive to recall how many of our critically esteemed older novelists have chosen, in a country where publicity is otherwise sought like the Grail, to guard their privacy. Roth, McCarthy, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Anne Tyler, J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Cynthia Ozick, and Denis Johnson all give few or no interviews, do little if any teaching or touring, and in some cases decline even to be photographed…for some of these writers, reticence is integral to their artistic creed.
…In 1955, before television had even supplanted radio as the regnant medium, Gaddis recognized that no matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run, the artist who's really serious about resisting a culture of inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of certain obscurity.
For a long time, trying to follow Gaddis's example, I took a hard line on letting my work speak for itself. I refused to teach, to review for the Times, to write about writing, to go to pub-industry parties. To speak extranovelistically in an age of personalities seemed to me a betrayal….I had a cosmology of silent heroes and gregarious traitors.
Silence, however, is a useful statement only if someone, somewhere, expects your voice to be loud. Silence in the Nineties seemed only to guarantee that I would be alone. And eventually it dawned on me that the despair I felt about the novel was less the result of my obsolescence than of my isolation.
A quiet humor runs through this passage, and it’s not clear that the author is in on the joke. Franzen claims that his initial posture—the august silence of a Pynchon or DeLillo—hindered his loftiest goals as an artist: engaging with the culture, making a “useful statement.” An alternative reading would be that he found this posture less marketable than he’d hoped, and decided he’d better try another one. “Certain obscurity” is a steep price to pay over the long haul; besides, self-advertisement had worked for Mailer…
And so with a new book in the works, Franzen took to the pages of Harper’s, opining on the talent in the room, the condition of the novel, the condition of his novel. Nor did he court success through public gestures alone; his private life, too, he shaped ergonomically to the purpose. The very furniture of that tiny Harlem studio—the drawn blinds, the duct-taped chair—set the stage for his coup. Ears plugged, eyes covered, he willed himself to become the figure he’d dreamed of being, a figure he feared might go extinct: the celebrated novelist.
As for the novel he created, it didn’t live up to its grandiose billing, but it hardly flopped. I consider James Wood’s review for The New Republic definitive and won’t try to top it; suffice to say, The Corrections contains passages of great depth and passages (for example, all the sex scenes) that set my teeth on edge. At any rate, it was good enough: Franzen had called his shot and hit, if not a home run, then at least a solid double. He was tapped for the National Book Award and, of course, Oprah's Book Club. As a literary name and a popular favorite, he had arrived.
At the same time he had become, as a social reporter, out of date. In a cruel irony, 9/11 struck a week after the publication of The Corrections, turning the late-'90s culture he had carefully field-researched into an instant fossil. True, some of the book’s topical concerns survived, but the whole scale of its landscape had changed. Wood’s essay, published just six weeks later, pointed out passages that already looked obsolete. More broadly, it traced The Corrections’ internal divide between breezy journalism and authentic character study, suggesting that the book’s fate would depend—sooner than expected—on its commitment to the latter.
Franzen may have disagreed: in fact he’s never quite taken the medicine he prescribed in his Harper’s essay. His fiction remains chock full of social reportage, sometimes to the point of congestion. I have yet to read Freedom, but the excerpts quoted in reviews were not encouraging in this regard. Part of Franzen clearly likes playing social reporter; and not just reporter, but critic; and not just in his fictional worlds, but in the real one. During the past year Franzen has weighed in on everything from Twitter to e-books to Occupy Wall Street, causing more than one stir in the process. The man who once scorned "gregarious" authors is now the only novelist in America more famous for what he says than what he writes.
But he is famous, too, for what he writes, and there’s something admirable in that double achievement. I don’t love Franzen’s fiction and I don’t care for all of his opinions, but I can’t help paying attention to both. He knows that a writer’s first obligation is to his audience (“The reader is a friend,” he has said, “not an adversary, not a spectator”), and he is willing to extend that obligation beyond the page. Even as many of his fellow novelists continue to hide in their sanctuaries, he has taken off his shoes, waded into the culture, and mucked around a little.
At the same time, he hasn’t disguised the wariness of his steps, his occasional disgust with the muck of it all. On paper he can seem brash, on camera, shy; but he has yet to become overly prolific on the one hand, or to give up appearing before cameras on the other. Being interviewed “isn’t my favorite thing,” he told the Onion A.V. Club in 2010, “but I like TV interviews…[even though] I hate seeing myself.”
In short, Franzen is a man as internally divided as any of his characters, an impossible combination of Salinger and Mailer, and as such he compels us. The novel never really needed saving, nor would he have been a likely savior; but the role of the novelist—as suffering artist, as public intellectual—was in its death throes, and he has restored it to an eminence not seen on the American stage in decades.
[Image: Dan Winters, Time. Courtesy time.com.]
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.
- The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
- Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
- Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Real ways you can help stop child trafficking<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21fc2dc85391501eec28c4bf46d7db15"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/AXL0q9jNZGU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Williams is the founder and CEO of <a href="http://www.seenandheard.org/" target="_blank">Seen and Heard</a>, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps foster youth develop character through the performing arts. She's been involved with foster youth for years; I <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/child-sex-trafficking" target="_self">wrote about her work</a> in child trafficking just over a year ago. Tragically, since that time, the situation for these children has only gotten worse, in large part because of QAnon.</p><p>Williams says child trafficking is an easy cause to rally people together. Fear is also a powerful unifying force, one that QAnon believers are already primed for via the news they consume. Almost every parent cares about their children, making them the ideal target to solidify groups. </p><p>The real problem, she says, is that the youth she works with are falling for these conspiracy theories. Trauma is a particularly powerful tool for indoctrination. If you're a teenager that's been abducted or abused, your trust level is already extremely low. Then you read about a global cabal of powerful men (and a few women) secretly abusing children, and the narrative seems ready-made for your personal history.</p><p>When Williams tried to "lovingly and kindly correct" the youth she was working with after learning about the Wayfair conspiracy, the girls' response was, "well, who owns the media?" </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"She goes from this small little thing to a QAnon talking point. I've been thinking about why she would believe such a preposterous idea—and there are others; it's not just one student, and they're in in deep. I think that when something horrific happens to you as a child, it's a lot easier to distance yourself from the immediate reality that it was an uncle or a parent or a sibling that hurt you. By detaching from that immediate person, they project it onto Bill Gates or Chrissy Teigen. Then it's not so personal, it's global." </p>
A man wear a shirt with the words Q Anon as he attends a rally for President Donald Trump at the Make America Great Again Rally being held in the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>As Williams mentions, there are over 30,000 kids in foster care in the Los Angeles area alone. It's easy to fall through the cracks. The systems in place aren't perfect; they're certainly underfunded. When you're in a system trying to support you yet isn't capable of doing so, viewing the world as imperfect, and even harmful, becomes the lens through which you see reality. Again, this makes for a perfect indoctrination tool.</p><p>One popular QAnon talking point is that 800,000 children are missing. As Williams says, child trafficking experts "don't buy this for a minute." The number makes for a good meme but a poor representation of the problem. </p><p>To source better data, Williams turns to the <a href="https://www.missingkids.org/" target="_blank">National Center for Missing and Exploited Children</a> (NCMEC) and the <a href="https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Crime Information Center</a> (NCIC). An important factor when reading data: if a teacher <em>and</em> a caregiver report a missing child to NCIC, that counts as two children, not one, which accounts for some of the fluctuations in numbers. In total, between 25,000 and 29,000 kids go missing every year. Importantly, 94 percent of those children are recovered within four to six weeks. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They're not documenting the recovery rate. It's not like these numbers are perpetually hanging out there. So this 800,000 number is just ludicrous." </p><p>Williams compares what's going on to Black Lives Matter. Blacking out your Instagram profile picture is performative. It signals that you actually care, which is great, but if you're not supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, there are no teeth to your activism. </p><p>Of course, blacking out your profile doesn't cause the real-world harm the QAnon virus does. Sharing misinformation is ultimately harmful to the children in need of help. Williams offers the resources below—ranging from donations to nonprofits to educational trainings to becoming a foster parent—for people that actually want to do something to help victims of sexual and physical abuse. They might not make a great Twitter meme, but in the actual world, this support makes all the difference. </p><p><strong>To report abuse/neglect, call the child abuse hotline: 800.540.4000 (LA county) / 800.422.4453 (National)</strong></p><ul><li>Support anti-trafficking organizations by donating to <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://savinginnocence.org/" target="_blank">Saving Innocence</a>, which runs the continuum of care from rescue to recovery, <a href="http://gozoe.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Zoe</a>, a reputable faith-based organization, and <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="https://withtwowings.org/" target="_blank">Two Wings</a>, which helps to rehabilitate female survivors</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://www.nolabrantleyspeaks.org/" target="_blank">Nola Brantley</a> offers in-person and online trainings to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://instagram.com/imrebeccabender" target="_blank">Rebecca Bender</a> is a trafficking survivor that runs "Myth Busters," which combats conspiracy theory disinformation</li><li>The <a href="https://www.instagram.com/missingkids/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Center</a> of Missing and Exploited Children</li><li>Operation <a href="https://www.instagram.com/ourrescue/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Underground Railroad </a></li><li><a href="https://www.instagram.com/defendinnocence/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Defend Innocence</a> offers tips for parents and caregivers to keep kids safe</li></ul><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>