Poor Jonathan Franzen has had a rough few weeks here in the UK: wrong version of ‘Freedom’ printed, glasses stolen and held to ransom, Giles Coren carping about him in The Times for not knowing that Denmark use kroner rather than euros. Maybe having a readily accessible internet connection is beneficial to the fiction writer. Or spending slightly longer than a cumulative eleven days out of nine years doing research.
This was one of the revelations disclosed at a Guardian Book Club event last week. Interviewed by John Mullan of UCL, Franzen took a while to open up. While he blamed this on fatigue and jet-lag, I felt that it was as much down to Mullan’s interviewing style, which was to direct a stream of his own (very clever, obviously) impressions of the novel at Franzen, adding a question mark at the end as though seeking his assent. One could barely discern a question in the things he said, and they didn’t really leave much room for Franzen to expand. The author fared much better later on with the more direct, open-ended questions posed by audience members.
After the talk Franzen stayed on for more than an hour, talking to readers and signing copies of his books. I found myself wondering when this publicity cycle became a regular part of an author’s job; one hardly imagines Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway doing promo stuff. But it’s a vital part of publishing now. While I can understand the frustration of authors who simply wish to communicate through their work, there are so many books published each year that you need to spark public interest to get people reading your book in the first place. While writing thoughtful and engaging work is clearly important, published authors are far outnumbered by those aspiring to be published, and authors have everything to gain from a professional approach.
By the time got through most of the queue to sign my book Jonathan Franzen was flagging. The “Hi, how are you doing?” he greeted me with was so defeated and unconvincing I actually felt a bit sorry for him. He did perk up a bit when he saw I had a proof copy, and asked how I got hold of it, repeating the same brief, banal exchanges hundreds of times over was obviously wearying. I thanked him for signing my book and was on my way.