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Brooklyn Voices Presents Jonathan Franzen

by Michelle Darris '18

BK Voices Franzen

On September 26, 2015, a special guest visited the Brooklyn Campus of St. Joseph’s College. Kicking off the Fall 2015 Brooklyn Voices series, a partnership with Greenlight Bookstore bringing authors and like intellectuals to our campus, author Jonathan Franzen spends this Saturday evening discussing his novel Purity with Wyatt Mason, renowned and respected critic.

Jonathan Franzen begins the event with a brief reading of Purity.  

“I’ll try to actually keep this to 20 minutes,” he jokes, placing his watch in clear sight on the podium to keep track of the time.  

Opening with the beginning of his novel, Franzen reads from the first chapter. The audience holds on to his every word, and chuckles when his delivery called for it. As Wyatt Mason would later pinpoint in the following discussion, Franzen’s prose has a subtle humor that those analyzing the novel may not give due credit.

Franzen goes on to cover certain passages from the third chapter and the ending of his novel and, adhering to the 20 minutes he allotted for reading aloud, he moves on to discuss Purity with Wyatt Mason. In this discussion, Jonathan Franzen gives the audience an intimate look at his writing process and explains certain idiosyncrasies.

Staying true to form, shrewd critic Wyatt Mason notes that Jonathan Franzen’s novels tend to be divided evenly between male and female perspective. Franzen explains that he does this almost compulsively — after all, approximately half of the world is made up of women, and the other half of men.  

Mason also mentions the odd chapter in Purity that Franzen writes from a first person perspective. Normally, Franzen is a firm believer of writing in the third person. However, he strays from his pattern for a single chapter near the end of his novel. The reason for this, he tells Mason and the audience, is that the chapter simply could not have been conveyed properly through third person perspective. With it being a particularly intense chapter, it was only appropriate for the story to be told directly through the character — thus, the chapter was duly granted an unprecedented first person narrative.  

Speaking on the development of Purity, Franzen reveals that he did not have a specific set of ideas going into the book but rather, a concept around an abstract word. Interestingly enough, he also notes that, arguably, the book as a whole was written as a package for the first person narrative.

When Mason observes the uniformity in length of Franzen’s novels, in a display of humility that some may be surprised to find from an author that TIME magazine regards as a great American novelist, Jonathan Franzen’s answer, in its simplicity, is honest: he has a terror of inflicting a book too long on his readers and has found that 560 pages and some change seems to be the perfect length. For fear of being impolite, Franzen maintains his approximate 560 page template to ensure that his message is being conveyed without demanding too much of the reader, and this consideration of his audience’s time is nothing short of endearing.

Further exhibiting his attention to the diversity of his audience of readers, Franzen delves into the dimensional aspect of his novels. He notes that on one hand, he designs his novels to be page-turners to accommodate those who are looking for a suspenseful read. But he also utilizes extended metaphors and other intricate literary devices to appeal to the readers searching for deeper substance.

Closing the discussion with Wyatt Mason and keeping his joking promise of trying to maintain some semblance of a schedule, Jonathan Franzen allows enough time to take questions from those in attendance and for the following book signing.  

In this new, audience-initiated conversation, he discusses the nine years between Purity and The Corrections, the novel that preceded it. He admits that before he finished The Corrections, he was a miserably hard-working person; naturally, he needed a vacation.  So, he spent four years happily bird-watching and playing tennis, and he took up an interest in journalism. He notes that the process of writing a novel typically takes at least five years, and he spent his remaining five doing just that.  

Thus, on September 1 he graced the world with Purity and, 25 days later, as the first guest of the Brooklyn Voices series of 2015, graced SJC’s campus with his discussion of it.

Our next Brooklyn Voices presentation takes place on October 8, when Patti Smith will present her new book, M Train.



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