Jonathan Franzen – Your fly is open and your pretension is hanging out

Stare author Jonathan Franzen right in his denim-strapped junk, fingertips pressed to his temple in a migraine of creative contemplation, while he gives you his sermon on “10 Rules For Novelists.”

Hey, somebody move that freakin’ green wingback in the foreground, would ya? Totally messing up Mr. Franzen’s authorly, authoritative manspreading here. How’s an author supposed to expound from On High with that blocking his Chi?


On November 15, 2018 author Jonathan Franzen graced us with an article over at titled simply: “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules For Novelists”

Now, that’s just the sort of title that typically presages an onslaught of elitist, pretentious, wankery. To Franzen’s credit, he did not disappoint.  Not all of his 10 rules are created equal. Some of them do indeed make good sense, ranking right up there with “water is wet” and “do not eat poop.” Others splash around in a puddle of self-righteous glory like a toddler in rain boots hopped up on cough syrup.

Thoughts of my own on these 10 Rules flared up like hemorrhoids. They are as follows:

1 – The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

Okay. I’m actually quite comfortable with this one. At this point in the list, I thought to myself “Oh, hey, maybe this isn’t going to be pretentious, elitist drivel after all.”

2 – Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

Huh. Okay, I’m still tracking with you here, Johnny-boy. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to agree with your acknowledgment of the sometimes unpleasant mercenary aspects of the profession. That right there is the woeful tale of a lot of working authors today, chained to works they fell out of love with long ago, but continue to hammer them out to pay the bills.

3- Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

Eh, you’re being a little overly dramatic about this one perhaps, but ‘kay, fair enough.

4 – Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

Admittedly — this is one I actually agree with, at least in so far as avoiding the first-person voice just because it’s easy. If you can’t hear the voice of your story any other way, go for it. With gusto. But if you’ve just decided to take off with that first-person narrative on a whim, I admit, it’s wearing me out too.

5 – When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

Wait. Wut? *cocks head to the side like a quizzical Jack Russell Terrier* I would love to hear the justification to support this one. How, in a world of free, universally accessible information, has research for a novel lost its value?  I’m sorry, I don’t think there will ever be a day that an author talking wildly from their ass because they weren’t willing to do the research will ever be acceptable. Now more than ever, not less. When information on how to crack a safe and the lethality of toe fungus is but a Google search away for the reader, the author had better be doing their research. As an author, you’d hate for the lookup features in a Kindle to make you look like a blathering ass.

6 – The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.


7 – You see more sitting still than chasing after.

Okay, points for being all Jedi on that one I suppose.

8 – It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

*Says the man who has an Internet connection at his workplace while writing his ’10 Rules For Novelists’ list FOR THE INTERNET.* I have to assume he threw that one in there as a troll since he’s disqualifying not only himself but all of academia and most of the employed humans of the 21st Century — from those laying pipeline in remote oil fields to wizened little monks in cloud-shrouded mountaintop temples. Even the guy slinging vials on the corner has an Internet connection at his workplace in this day and age, right in his pocket.

9 – Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

After the insanity of #8, this one’s reasonably grounding. Like a lick of salt and rind of lime after cheap tequila. Like a puff of Febreeze after wrecking the breakroom shitter.

10 – You have to love before you can be relentless.

You have to poop before you can make soufflé. You have to wash your hands before returning to work. You have to hold a monkey before you do your taxes. I think I’m picking up what he’s laying down here.

I dunno. My innate reaction is to rebel LOUDLY whenever I see someone laying down a list of Rules For Being A Really Real Writer. I interact with so many people who suffer from Really Real Writer Syndrome that it’s ruined me on lists like Jonathan Franzen’s here, in spite of his bona fides — of which, hey, let’s be honest, there are plenty. The man doesn’t lack for credentials. Tact, maybe, but credentials, no.

By the time I got to the end of this, I thought maybe my disdain for How To Be A Really Real Writer lists was because I’d never lovingly cultivated one of my own. So, I figured I’d give it a try. In the spirit of Jonathan Franzen’s ’10 Rules For Novelists’ I offer my own:

  1. Peanut butter is essential. Put it on your daddy / lady parts. Immediately.
  2. All Orangutans are named Clyde. This is not negotiable.
  3. Jellyfish are delicious when eaten with human suffering.
  4. Forget writing at coffee shops. If you want to be a Really Real Writer, then people need to see you writing – do it naked at the post office.
  5. When writing, amphetamines are likely to yield more word-count-per-hour than scotch.
  6. BEES!
  8. For much of human history, art thrived as a result of wealthy patrons – get a sugar daddy.
  9. Bathe daily, you antisocial farm animal.
  10. Nothing shuts down an agent/editor conference faster than yelling “Now is when the fisting happens!”


Hugs and kisses, everyone. Until next time.


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