14 Nuggets From Jonathan Franzen’s Book Expo Q&A

Jonathan Franzen - 22nd Budapest Book Festival
Jonathan Franzen. Photo: Attila Kovacs/Corbis

Book Expo America, the publishing industry’s largest trade show, tends to kick off with keynote speeches by nonfiction celebrities (your Alan Greenspans and Barbra Streisands). But this year, with pop stars channeled toward consumer-facing BookCon — which runs at the Javits this coming weekend on the heels of BEA — the focus has turned literary. Critic Laura Miller launched the fair a couple of hours ago by interviewing Jonathan Franzen, whose new novel Purity is out in September. A few astute questions followed from the audience. He isn’t planning too much press in advance of the book’s arrival, so the hour-long talk might be the most we hear from him for a while. Here he was on various subjects of the day, himself included.

1. On his recent bird-watching trip to Kenya: “It’s a very strange contrast, coming from Nairobi and suddenly needing to figure out cogent ways to talk about the book.”

2. On the long gestation of Purity, and writing from a woman’s point of view: “I’ve long had this idea of a young East German dissident. To be really frank, I actually had some pages about a young man who flees East Germany in the ‘50s and becomes an American. That’s really where I started. I don’t know where the girl [the character named Purity] came from. But I see her as one of four main characters. I would find it a little creepy if I’d written an entire book from the point of view of a young woman.”

3. On who is his readership is: “I don’t think any novelist, even Stephen King or James Patterson — they’re not writing for all Americans, but just the segment of Americans who read books. And then there’s a smaller segment that reads trade paperback fiction as opposed to mass-market paperback fiction — which is no longer a distinction, I realize … and readers are to some extent ipso facto estranged from American culture because reading is slow and requires a long attention span, and to check all the electronic distractions while you’re engaged with it.”

4. On how he got into the mind of a woman of the millennial generation: “You don’t need to know an entire generation; you just have to know people from it. The young person is plausible to me because I know kids like that. I know some incredibly smart, well-read, emotionally sophisticated people in their 20s, and I love them, and that’s all you need. Like, three.”

5. On how “plotty” Purity is, in comparison with his last few novels: “In some of the scenes and situations, I found it disturbing and anxious-making. And I thought, All I want is to make sure the reader keeps reading, gives it a chance, and then at the end at least they’ll have read the whole thing and have had the sensation of wanting to turn the pages. And frankly, I took money from people for the book, and because there’s strange stuff in it, I thought, I at least don’t want publishers to be mad at me for not writing a readable book.

6. On whether he’s “misanthropic”: “No, not at all. What makes you say that? What have I ever said to you?”

7. On why people might think he’s misanthropic: “I think the tension is between two imperatives. There is the imperative I think to make a book that can matter to someone. At the same time, the writer’s job is to tell the truth, and we live in a world of cant, of received opinion and widely shared ideologies, and the writer who is not satisfied with those sometimes-simplistic ideologies is going to end up seeming to be in opposition to the vast majority of people who hold those opinions. ‘Most people believe this; he attacks this; he must not like people.’”

8. On his title character being difficult: “She does have outbursts, and people think she’s a hostile person. I have a lot of sympathy with hostile people. And they’re quite funny, often.”

9. On Purity, the title: “I don’t know why I chose to put that title on the book. There’s something vaguely icky about purity, and it shouldn’t be that way. Just the letters, P, U, R, there’s something about them. I consider it an act of courage to say the name of my novel is Purity. I couldn’t have done it a year ago … They can’t even call the book Purity in Germany. They have to call it something else.”

10. On journalists, and why Purity celebrates them: “I think there is a significant crisis for journalists — that it’s become so hard for them to get paid. I have various agons with the internet, and one of the chief ones … is that it’s really kind of vulture-y. Someone gathers the facts, but they’re picked up and linked and relinked, and the person who gathered the facts is not being properly compensated for the number of times those facts are being consumed by somebody else. I wanted to remind people that there’s something exciting about journalism and something worthy. There was a public-service aspect to the book.”

11. On leakers like Julian Assange (the basis for a character in the book): “I’m troubled by people who take it to the extreme and say we don’t need journalists because we have leaking and crowdsourcing and citizen journalists and citizen photographers, and I think that’s just wrong. I think it’s a path to an uninformed and oppressed electorate … If it’s all just undigested leaks and one person saying this and one person saying the opposite and whoever has more followers knows the truth, that’s a bad situation.”

12. On what he has to say about a student-questioner’s paper subject, “the depressed white male in post-9/11 literature”: “Unfortunately, white male power is alive and well right now, and it takes a particularly anxious and damaged white male to embrace how problematic that makes it for a white male.”

13. More on the internet: “Some things should be shamed and decried, but there is something about the new technologies that really, really fosters conformism, and people become afraid to speak up with contrary views because the shaming is so intense in the new media. And even though it’s all supposedly free speech, I think a lot of self-censoring happens under the guise of this liberating technology.”

14. On how he avoids “going the way of Hemingway,” in response to an audience member: “Well, in my heart of hearts, of course I am deeply miserable. [Shrugs and smiles.] I feel like I have some advantages, having come from a close family that placed a lot of emphasis on loyalty. I’m loyal to FSG, and it turned out that that was a very good company to be loyal to. I’ve made a move away from New York to California, and it’s really easy to maintain a private existence there … Finding my way to birds really made a difference, too, because it’s so unlike the writing. I can look at a bird and be happy, and I can do that anywhere. So, California, loyalty, birds. Those help.”