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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.]
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
New research from the University of Granada found that stress could help determine sex.
Stress in the modern world is generally viewed as a hindrance to a healthy life.
Indeed, excess stress is associated with numerous problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, obesity, and other conditions. While the physiological mechanisms associated with stress can be beneficial, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Upside of Stress, the modern wellness industry is built on the foundation of stress relief.
The effects of stress on pregnant mothers is another longstanding area of research. For example, what potential negative effects do elevated levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have on fetal development?
A new study, published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, investigated a very specific aspect of stress on fetuses: does it affect sex? Their findings reveal that women with elevated stress are twice as likely to give birth to a girl.
For this research, the University of Granada scientists recorded the stress levels of 108 women before, during, and after conception. By testing cortisol concentration in their hair and subjecting the women to a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that stress indeed influences sex. Specifically, stress made women twice as likely to deliver a baby girl.
The team points out that their research is consistent with other research that used saliva to show that stress resulted in a decreased likelihood of delivering a boy.
Maria Isabel Peralta RamírezPhoto courtesy of University of Granada
Lead author María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment, says that prior research focused on stress levels leading up to and after birth. She was interested in stress's impact leading up to conception. She says:
"Specifically, our research group has shown in numerous publications how psychological stress in the mother generates a greater number of psychopathological symptoms during pregnancy: postpartum depression, a greater likelihood of assisted delivery, an increase in the time taken for lactation to commence (lactogenesis), or inferior neurodevelopment of the baby six months after birth."
While no conclusive evidence has been rendered, the research team believes that activation of the mother's endogenous stress system during conception sets the concentration of sex hormones that will be carried throughout development. As the team writes, "there is evidence that testosterone functions as a mechanism when determining the baby's sex, since the greater the prenatal stress levels, the higher the levels of female testosterone." Levels of paternal stress were not factored into this research.
Previous studies show that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions than sperm carrying the Y chromosome. Y fetuses also mature slowly and are more likely to produce complications than X fetuses. Peralta also noted that there might be more aborted male fetuses during times of early maternal stress, which would favor more girls being born under such circumstances.
In the future, Peralta and her team say an investigation into aborted fetuses should be undertaken. Right now, the research was limited to a small sample size that did not factor in a number of elements. Still, the team concludes, "the research presented here is pioneering to the extent that it links prenatal stress to the sex of newborns."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.