Recursive inanity; or, Jonathan Franzen, you are wrong

If you were hanging around Twitter when I woke up this morning, you may have seen me get extremely grumpy about a quote from Jonathan Franzen. “Write in the third person,” he says, according to @AdviceToWriters, “unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.”

Having just rolled out of bed, I responded in the normal, reasonable way: by getting huffy.

@magpiewhale Not going to lie, this makes me want to write first person out of spite and make it amazing. POV “standards” just. That irritates me.

@magpiewhale Pardon my mulishness, I just woke up. But issuing quips on what you should default to unless you’re extraordinary limits experimentation.

@magpiewhale Not to mention discovery! So I say ignore Franzen and try anything. You’ll figure out what works for your stories.

As I thought about it later, I began to wonder if perhaps I’d skewed Franzen’s meaning a little. Perhaps he’s not being as condescending as he sounds, I thought. Maybe he isn’t speaking to the audience I assume he is, i.e., burgeoning writers. I’ve never read his work, and given the unbearable hype (and boorish subject matter, from what I see of reviews), I don’t actually plan to do so. But I do know how acclaimed he is, for whatever reason, and that his word supposedly carries a note of authority.

Either way, being prescriptive about point of view is irritating and limiting, I feel. As I said in my tweets, artists need to feel free to experiment. If “poorly done” first person is so offensive to a delicate reader’s eye, they’re free to walk away and the writer is free to learn from the experience.

I kept mulling it over, though. And the more I considered the statement, the more inane I found it — because any writer who is exploring a character finds that voice distinctive and irresistible. That’s why they’re using that voice, whatever the POV. The interest is inherent.

All that said, the incident has convinced me of two things. One, I am free from any obligation to read Mr. Franzen’s work. Two, I am thoroughly pleased with my now firm decision to try “Innogen and the Hungry Half” in the first person. It’s not a perspective I use very often, but I look forward to pushing myself with it.

As I congratulate myself for using the word “free” so much in this post, in homage to Mr. Franzen’s latest opus, I have to laugh at myself too. I may disagree with this little bon mot, but in the end, I’m no more authoritative than he is.

eta: Late this evening, @AdviceToWriters posted a different quote that I think is much, much more useful and inclusive.

There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas, of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.

SOPHY BURNHAM

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7 thoughts on “Recursive inanity; or, Jonathan Franzen, you are wrong”

  1. Ha, I was going to say that I agree with Franzen, but then I saw what you meant. I’ve never been behooved to write in first person except when the character is distinctive and irresistible. Maybe he was warning beginners not to try first person just ‘because so and so did it.’? I do find 3rd person to be a much easier mode than 1st, which I rarely enjoy reading or writing.

    1. I’m not sure! It’s quite possible the quote has a larger context that makes it less insufferable to me. But I’m still firmly of the opinion that writing is never one of those pursuits where someone should be told “Don’t try that until you’re better.” How else are you going to learn but by bungling through? (I mean, cliff-diving, yes, but writing, make lots of mistakes!) If he meant “Don’t follow the pack,” though, I can see that as being a little more helpful.

      I usually fall back on third person myself, but I’m excited about trying a longer piece in first! There’s a lot of YA that I’ve loved in first person, for instance. But I’m also a big fan of second person, which can be amazing too, so — heh, I guess my opinion is that I have no opinion and that’s okay.

  2. I’m not a fan of Franzen’s work, but I have to say I agree with him on this. Not that you shouldn’t try things out and experiment to find what works for you – of course you should! I’m not reading that statement as “don’t try this” so much as “have a reason to choose your perspective”.

    Most first person writing is not something I find “irresistible” or even interesting, and I think a lot of authors try to use first person to force an unearned intimacy with the reader. I find it very off-putting and first person that is not superbly (and fairly) written quickly makes me put the book down. Of course, when first person *is* done well, it’s magnificent, and there are some stories that work brilliantly that way and would not work otherwise.

    1. Your point of “unearned intimacy” is definitely fair, and I can really see it as a basis for instinctively avoiding first person. The quote still rubs me the wrong way, though — “Have a reason to choose your perspective” is great advice, but that’s not how it reads to me. But maybe that’s just me resenting how overhyped he is — I’ll be completely open about that!

  3. Much of the great reading I’ve had lately has been in first person, and not only that, but in present tense on TOP of that. God forbid!

    Also, having read your pseudoVictorianRomanBritishwhatsit… I can’t imagine NOT doing first person. You *have* to know what Imogen’s brain is like. Especially if it’s going to be anything like the original play. She’s a wonderful character to start with, and I’m excited to see how you take her on.

    1. Heaven forfend indeed! Man the lifeboats, literature is clearly going down the tubes.

      Thank you! I admit, I got a little worried when I found out some people had such strong negative reactions to first person, but I can’t imagine this story any other way either. Especially because so much of it will depend on that subjectivity down the line… wait, is that a spoiler? 🙂

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