Author Jonathan Franzen visits campus, talks fiction writing and bird watching as part of the Collins Distinguished Speakers’ Series
Jonathan Franzen, acclaimed author of novels such as “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” visited the University of Oregon Thursday night as part of the Collins Distinguished Speakers’ Series. After a brief introduction from UO professor David Li, Franzen read from one of his essays, gave some thoughts on novel writing and answered a few audience questions.
The event began shortly after 8:00 p.m. The audience was mostly made up of older community members, as the event was free and open to the public. The majority of students in the audience appeared to be grad students.
Franzen told the crowd that he had been unsure of how to use his time, but he offered a few possible directions and took it from there. He began by reading a longform essay that had been published in the Guardian towards the end of 2017. Franzen introduced the essay with the name “The Essay in Dark Times,” but the same work can be found online under its alternative title: “Is It Too Late to Save the World?”
Throughout the reading, Franzen mused on Donald Trump, climate change, birdwatching, and the act of essay writing itself. He also took a number of pauses throughout to offer some added thoughts, as well as a few jokes. The reading of the essay lasted a little less than an hour.
Afterwards, Franzen gave some advice on writing, elaborating on a list of ten rules for writing fiction. Franzen advised that “the reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator,” and criticized the use of first person over third person perspectives in fiction — “unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.”
Franzen also noted, with his sixth rule, that autobiographical fiction necessitates pure invention. He took the time to praise Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” stating that nobody had ever written a more autobiographical story. Franzen argued that an author frees themselves to write about messy, personal shortcomings in their fiction if there is some kind of distance between the writer and the character — in Kafka’s case, the main character being a giant insect.
Towards the end of the night, Franzen turned it over to audience questions. Franzen, being an avid birdwatcher, had mentioned birding a number of times throughout the night. A couple questions focused solely on birdwatching which caused Franzen to make joke: “Thank you for coming out, are there any novel readers in the audience?” Time was limited, so Franzen only took a few more questions and then thanked the audience to end the night.
Franzen won the National Book Award for “The Corrections” in 2001. He is also known for a famous feud with Oprah, which began after he criticized the inclusion of “The Corrections” in Oprah’s Book Club. The two have since made up, and Oprah included Franzen’s book “Freedom” as book club pick in 2010. In the same year, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline “Great American Novelist.” Franzen’s most recent novel “Purity” was published in 2015 and he has a collection of essays coming out later this year entitled “The End of the End of the Earth.”
In 2019, Cornel West will visit the University of Oregon as the next speaker in the Collins Distinguished Speakers’ Series.
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