A besuited, tousle-haired and iconically black bespectacled Jonathan Franzen spoke at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne on Wednesday night. Alongside the thrill of being such a spectacularly-selling author must come the tedium of the usual questions at a speaking engagement, whether they be couched in the language of theory, about the autobiographical nature of a novel, or just containing an expectation that the author will be able to make a definitive pronouncement on the ills of the world. Not that all the questions were tedious. Franzen was complimentary of audience members whose questions allowed him to expand on why he thinks the long-form novel is such an important cultural artifact.
The host, Jonathan Green, said that Franzen’s reputation preceded him, and seemed surprised that the session was warm. The Good Weekend magazine’s recent article is a case of upholding Franzen’s prickly reputation, describing as it does his sighs and hesitations at answering certain questions, and the article ends up portraying Franzen as someone who tries to be nice but is fundamentally a bit of a jerk. But in conversation with Green Franzen showed that this is perhaps a distortion (the Good Weekend was likely looking for an angle) and that Franzen is probably a reasonable person who is aware of the limits of an author’s omniscience but who feels obliged to reply thoughtfully even to questions he has said he doesn’t like answering. His sighs and hesitations, to me, indicated a reluctance to over-step or pronounce glibly.
Franzen indicated that there is a strange, admittedly often remarked-upon, pairing of the solitude of an author writing and the desire for a wide audience and a connection with that audience, whether through the book itself or speaking engagements on a book tour. And I always find it interesting that there is an expectation that an author who has a way with words on the page will automatically be an engaging speaker. And Franzen was engaging, but in a wry, reticent kind of way.