jonathan franzen on how novels save us from loneliness

the words of others

Writing is at base a story of solitude. By necessity and inclination, writers are loners. My last blog looked at the American writer David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on how modern culture is scared of silence.

Wallace was thinking about how it is hard to get people to read today because there’s so little tolerance for being alone and silent. Two important prerequisites for reading.

It seems like the condition of solitude was a real preoccupation of Wallace. His friend and fellow writer Jonathan Franzen said the two of them talked at length about loneliness and about “the unique capacity of the written word, particularly narrative, to connect a solarity writer with a solitary reader.”

Both men felt this was as an important role of writing. “When I pick up a Jane Austen novel,” says Franzen. “She’s angry at the same bad behavior that makes me angry.” And there’s solace in that. You don’t feel so alone.

Here’s a short interview with Franzen discussing these ideas, and the changes in our world, particularly technological, which have made such solitude harder and harder to come by.


david foster wallace on silence

the words of others

I first read about David Foster Wallace in an article reprinted in The Guardian, just after he died. It was written by his friend (and fellow writer) Jonathan Franzen. I have an in-built recoil from the zeitgeist so while I was moved by Franzen’s eulogy to his friend, to my shame, I forgot to take any notice of Foster Wallace the writer.

Just recently a biography came out about his life and I finally got round to reading some of his journalism. He’s a very funny writer with a wonderful sense of the absurd, who can take you from a sophomoric toilet joke to a profound insight in a single effortless leap. His book “Infinite Jest” is considered one of the greatest novels to come out of America in the last two decades. He is also (as you can discover on Youtube) a thoughtful and charming interview subject.

Here he is talking first about commercial fiction versus literature, and positing some ideas on why so few people read difficult books these days. This leads him on to the contemporary culture’s aversion to silence. This is an idea that I’ve come across a great deal in my own solitude research and which is explored very interestingly in Sara Maitland’s wonderful memoir, A Book of Silence.

Click here for David Foster Wallace. Only four minutes. Worth the effort.