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.