The excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming third novel that appears in the spring issue of Conjunctions brings to mind the 19-page essay that he wrote for Harper’s in April 1996. Many novelists, myself included, have never forgotten the Harper’s piece, “Perchance to Dream,” Mr. Franzen’s account of the obsolescence of the novel as a literary form, and it opens with the extraordinary sentence: “My despair about the American novel began in the winter of 1991, when I fled to Yaddo …” Once this usually sharp writer recovers from his Yaddo opening (thank God he hadn’t fled to Fire Island or Sagaponack!), he admits that he hungers for a large audience, but apparently has no readers. “I … realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.”
Mr. Franzen is aware that his lament is unseemly: “In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as ‘whining’-the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do.” He puts this up front, but then doesn’t refute the notion. Instead, he whines even louder for four long paragraphs, telling us how depressed he is. How he is no fun. How his own brother prefers Michael Crichton to his books, and “The work that I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.” What an astonishing performance! Mr. Franzen wears his failure like dancing shoes as he skips, jigs and hoofs it up and down the walls as flamboyantly as Fred Astaire.
To leap from Mr. Franzen’s piece to the current June issue of Harper’s , which contains the essay that everyone is still talking about, Francine Prose’s “Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” Ms. Prose doesn’t begin her essay by telling us she fled to Yaddo. Instead, she states with sarcasm: “What a glorious time it is to be an American woman novelist!” She then explains why women writers are given a raw deal. Ms. Prose, who mentions Mr. Franzen as a “contemporary male writer,” doesn’t refer to herself or her own work at all. She keeps her Failure Shoes hidden in her closet-if Ms. Prose even owns a pair!-and this American woman novelist’s argument is the stronger for it.
Mr. Franzen’s Harper’s essay would have been more convincing if, like Ms. Prose, he didn’t mention himself. But then would his first novel have returned to print a year later? Would he have received the grants and important awards he then won? Would we now be breathlessly awaiting the publication of The Corrections ? Probably. Maybe. But it’s in the tradition for a writer to benefit from wearing the Failure Shoes in public. Consider James Wilcox. In the July 4, 1994, issue of The New Yorker , this fine novelist was profiled by James B. Stewart (“Moby Dick in Manhattan”) and portrayed as being so impoverished that “he [Wilcox] had just finished the last of three meals he’d extracted from eighteen pieces of chicken he bought at Key Food for three dollars and forty cents.” Mr. Wilcox was crazy like a fox to cooperate so fully with Mr. Stewart-the novelist even revealed his tax forms. But the direct or indirect result of the piece was that half-a-dozen of Mr. Wilcox’s books were reprinted a few months later. He also began judging various literary awards (for example, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program). Although such functions don’t pay enough to buy a summer place in the Hamptons, Mr. Wilcox was surely able to shop at Balducci’s instead of Key Food for a month or two.
The historical precedent for publicly wearing the Failure Shoes is F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the mid-1930′s, he had a breakdown and stopped writing altogether. Reportedly, the author was then encouraged by Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich to describe this collapse as a way to get back on track. Fitzgerald made a stab at it. The result was the three flagrantly intimate “Crack-Up” essays that appeared in sequential issues of Esquire in 1936. Most of Fitzgerald’s peers were aghast at his howling-but he was writing again and stayed productive until his death in 1940. Five years after that, his pal Edmund Wilson saw to it that the “Crack-Up” essays were republished in book form, and Fitzgerald’s compelling honesty about failure made The Crack-Up instrumental in the revival of the author’s posthumous career.
The most recent sporting of the Failure Shoes was James Atlas’ essay in the May 25 New Yorker , titled “The Art of Failing.” In it, the author contrasts his writing career with the successes of nonwriters (their expensive cars, their photos in the New York Times business section). Then Mr. Atlas gives a harrowing description of himself standing on upper Broadway in front of Gray’s Papaya and reading Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s negative review of his first novel. Now a thousand novelists get killed on their first book. More than half bite it on their second as well. Then go on to their third … But not Mr. Atlas. He confesses without shame that he got killed galloping out of the chute, and he’ll never write another novel again.
If you read Mr. Atlas’ The Great Pretender , you know that it’s a swell coming-of-age novel that deserved to go to paperback. Well, 12 years after publication, I forecast the book will see print again because ever since Fitzgerald’s day, writers who wear the Failure Shoes in earnest are usually rewarded by the publishing community-probably because all of us, no matter our professions, have periodic 3 A.M. jitters, fearing our failures. As Martin Amis says (quoted by Mr. Atlas): “We live in our failure.… It’s those terrible … flops that make … us stop dead on the street and babble to drown the memory.”
The only downside to wearing the Failure Shoes and babbling in the streets (or the pages of Esquire , The New Yorker and Harper’s ) is that even when one takes the shoes off, they’re always sitting outside the door, waiting to be shined. This won’t hurt James Wilcox. When his new novel is published this fall, few readers will care whether his appetite has moved up the food chain from chicken to T-bone. But if James Atlas gets over the Lehmann-Haupt willies, he can never write a second novel unless he’s willing to eat crow. As for Mr. Franzen, his third novel will not be considered on its literary merits next year as much as it will be judged whether the enterprise was worth all the author’s public bellyaching.
As alluring as the Failure Shoes are, it’s not prudent to wear them in print. The main audience for essays about writer’s woes are other writers. And there are more writers striving to overcome hard luck than those being chauffeured to Vogue shootings. The personal failures of writers seemed romantic when I was a kid, but then I grew up and forgot that a large portion of my role models were drunks, suicides, deadbeats, hermits and schmucks with Underwoods. How many writers drive Jaguars or Porsches, let alone mere BMW 740s, status cars that Mr. Atlas appears to yearn for? If Herman Melville were alive today, he’d probably be pushing his Key Food grocery cart one aisle down from Mr. Wilcox.
The last time I was struck by Mr. Franzen-like doubt and asked, “Why am I bothering to write these books?”-I imagined asking the same question in French to Jean-Dominique Bauby, the nerve-damaged Parisian who “typed” his only book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his eyes. A smart guy or dame just clams up. In the long run, it’s a better career move to keep the despair one feels at Yaddo or reading Christopher Lehmann-Haupt to one’s self.
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