America’s Litt-It Guy Jonathan Franzen entered a banged-out Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library Saturday afternoon and tried to move the podium to the center of the stage.
Undaunted, Franzen proceeded to read the “Mistakes Were Made” chapter from his blockbuster new novel Freedom, which, he disclaimed, “was not intended to be bite-sized – more an intravenous kind of thing.”
It was more than intravenous. It was stunning.
At the conclusion Franzen said, “this gets harder to read” each time.
Not as hard, though, as dealing with the audience Q&A that followed.
First question: What’s the significance of the pop culture references in the book, specifically the band Bright Eyes and SNL’s Tina Fey?
Franzen (after a painful head-scratching interlude): “As opposed to making up a band’s name or a comedian’s name?”
It only got worse from there.
The next question – more like a manifesto – was about how Franzen’s literary ambitions had evolved in terms of “form-al innovation in novels” and etc. and etc. and more pseudo-literary posturing.
Franzen (running his hands over his head): “I can practically feel that question smoothing my hair back from the blast of it.”
The questioning continued in that vein – self-absorbed, convoluted, opaque, phony – until someone asked, “What’s your writing routine? Did it really take you nine years to write Freedom? What do you do about writer’s block?”
Franzen: “Three of my least favorite questions in one package. There ought to be a law . . . I don’t believe in writer’s block. It sounds so vulgar, so mid-century Freudian . . . it also ties in with the large-intestinal view of literary production.”
Excellent. But then it was back to it’s-all-about-me questions (Audience member: “Skip it!”) and plot-revealing rambles (Audience members: “Boo!”).
Overall the questions made any right-thinking person embarrassed for Boston.
(If you’d like to hear actual thoughtful questions posed to Franzen, check out Guy Raz’s Saturday All Things Considered interview with him.)