Awhile ago I read somewhere a list by Jonathan Franzen of his “Ten Rules for Writers” or some-such. I tend to think such lists are stupid, but at the same time I am somewhat obsessively attracted to them. I am fascinated by what other writers think about writing, and about what they think are the “rules.” At the same time I think the notion that there are hard-and-fast “rules” is only interesting if you believe that rules ought to be broken. Of course it’s an oft-repeated adage of writing that you can only break the rules if you know them first, and I believe that. I like writers who know the rules and I like writers who break those rules, intentionally, and with purpose.
One of my problems with Franzen’s Freedom is that he seems to break an awful lot of rules that he clearly knows — they are the rules of Workshop Writing 101 — but I, at least, am not able to discern what interesting or thoughtful or provocative or even just purposeful thing he is doing in breaking those rules. To me it seems that he just breaks a lot of rules, but to no effect. No useful, or literary effect.
Now I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m not the most astute reader. Too often I get caught up in plot, on the one hand, and the pleasures of well-written sentences on the other, and I often miss all sorts of literary stuff in between. I almost always have to read a book at least twice to be able to say anything intelligent about it. So, I’m just putting that out there: it’s entirely possible that I’m not smart enough to understand Franzen’s purposefulness in breaking all sorts of basic rules about writing literary fiction. And I welcome thoughtful feedback and challenge in that regard.
But I can’t stop thinking about how much I don’t believe Patty’s supposed third-person autobiography called “Mistakes Were Made.” One of Franzen’s own rules in that list I read recently is, “Write in the third person unless a really distinct first-person voice offers itself, irresistibly.”
Now, it’s not that I don’t believe Patty wouldn’t write her autobiography in the third person; of course she would, because it allows her to distance herself from herself, something she’s very good at. She also creates distance by using the passive voice in the title, “Mistakes Were Made,” rather than the more obviously confessional “I Made Mistakes.” Patty would do this, because she’s smart, and funny, and she would do it fully understanding why she’s doing it, and that in doing it, she’s poking a little fun at herself.
But smart as Patty is, and funny and all the rest, she is not a writer of literary fiction. She’s just not.
Franzen, on the other hand, is. He is a real writer who is writing a novel in which he creates a made-up world. As such, even if he were to write in the first person, he gets to write like a great writer, and does not have to limit himself to the actual writing ability of his first person character. Even in the first person, this is so, because the tacit agreement readers make with writers is that we accept the artifice of being told this story in the first place. We accept that there is a narrator — first person, third person omniscient, it doesn’t matter — who is created by the writer and who has occasion to be telling us this story. If you think about it, it’s kind of a funny thing — sort of like the fourth wall in a play, I guess — but it’s the implicit deal we cut with writers so that we can enjoy their stories, at least in realistic fiction. The fact of the story is separate from the story itself, and so we’re willing to suspend disbelief, even when an artless first person narrator tells a story in an artful way.
The problem is, Franzen isn’t just employing a first person narrator, or even a first-person narrator masquerading as a third-person narrator, behind which he still gets to be, by tacit agreement with us, his readers, the artful wizard. Instead, Franzen employs a first person narrator masquerading as a third person narrator in a story that is a real thing inside the world of the novel. It’s not a contrivance we agree to accept with a nudge and a wink — it’s a real thing that exists inside this made-up world, words actually printed on a page, a manuscript that other characters will actually hold in their hands and read, a manuscript that will, in fact, finally push characters who have been stuck for decades to a significant climax in the book.
And it seems to me that such a real thing needed to be written as Patty actually could have written it, and not as Franzen — at his best, I would argue, in Freedom, anyway — could write it. It’s as though putting it in the third person gave Franzen permission to hide behind the wizard’s curtain — but the wizard’s curtain isn’t about point of view. Fiction readers accept the wizard behind the curtain when a story is told in first person just as well as third — and conversely, the artfulness of Patty’s manuscript is just as jarring in third person as it would have been in first, because there’s no wizzard, there’s no curtain. There’s just Patty and the actual, real artifact she’s created.
If I were Patty’s spouse and found this manuscript, as her husband Walter eventually does, I would possibly first be wounded, as Walter is, about the things she has said about me, and about the fact that she has had an affair with my best friend. But close on the heels of feeling wounded, I think I would then be utterly amazed that I had been married, for decades, to someone with such wicked literary talent — and rather than kicking her out and not speaking to her for six year, I might try to find her an agent, feeling fairly certain that maybe I could convince a lot of critics that I had possibly just discovered the next great American novelist.