April 13, 2012
While reading “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen, I fell in love with the author’s remarkable and dazzling writing ability. I looked at the book cover’s artistically indulged photo of the author: movie-star-handsome. After finishing the novel, I was curious about the Oprah Winfrey commotion over the book, so I went to the computer to read up on this writer. The first article that popped out at me was a criticism of the author’s photo, an elaborate, vicious vendetta-seeking article showing the straight-on snapshot of Jonathan Franzen side-by-side with the indulged photo. Not a movie-star handsome face. But so what if the PR person was trying to help the marketing! Then another article popped out on the same subject, and still another. My God! Not a word about the novel itself, or the writer’s spectacular ability. Jealousy. Petty jealousy. Sniveling, absurd. I grew furious and full of pain and sympathy for Mr. Franzen. The man devoted years of heart and soul to a writing project (oh, they don’t know), and all these people could do was look for their “leveling” angle toward one-upmanship. A photo! So I actually wrote a short-short letter to Mr. Franzen saying, “If only you could hire someone to screen out these sniveling critics. . . .” I also told him I could not longer take the rejections; I had given up. But that, if in five years I returned to writing, he would have done that for me.
He answered me. “Dear Mr. Marshall, Belated thanks for the rousing words. I hope you’re enjoying your vacation from stress & distress, and I hope that, when you do shoulder the literary load again, you find a way to make it fun. If it’s not fun, I think, then to hell with it. Warm regards, J. Franzen.”
Nine years later, Jonathan Franzen came forth with the novel “Freedom.” Nine years! Why so many years? Had he continued to read those snivelers, and undergone his own pain and needed to convalesce? I don’t know. But I do know that writers are very sensitive creatures. And serious literary writing is very personal. The writer is connected to the characters and to the message in the deepest ways. Agents and editors who are true professionals know this and know how to handle us.
Eventually, I returned to writing because without it I had lost my center. I had disappeared. Jonathan Franzen had understood my pain and knew how to coax me.
Criticism is a careful art. It is not to be delivered with an anvil.