Emily Gould: You are the first author since Stephen King in 2000 to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. In the profile, you say that it's important for books to be compelling because readers must resist so much distraction. But I've also heard the complaint from writers that there's enormous pressure to write clear, compelling realist narratives because they're so much more marketable than difficult, densely written art novels. Are books stooping too low in order to level the playing field with TV and the Internet?
Jonathan Franzen: There was a time when it was assumed that a novel was readable. You go back to Richardson and Defoe and then up through Austen and Stendhal and Balzac and all the way through the 19th century, it wasn't even a question. And then we have modernism, which was made possible by the existence of a long tradition of reading novels. The moderns were able to start doing crazy things with narrative and investigate important questions, like "How does time pass?" and "What is the nature of time?" Faulkner was writing about that in numerous books, Proust was writing about that, in his way, and they were doing this in ways that were very challenging. They could do that because the novel was the dominant form, and what they were doing, at its extremes, was only comprehensible to people who undertook with scholarly seriousness to really study the book.
What happened then is modern literature became something comfortably ensconced in the university, and there was an understandable critical privileging of stuff that required critics. But even as late as the '80s, when I was still in school, there was an assumption that the very best serious literature was challenging. And it was never in my nature to write books that were really hard to read. But for a long time, for decades, I thought that that was a fault in me. And it's really only with this last book that I found my liberation from what was arguably an artifact of a particular place in the development of the novel in the early 20th century, and how it coincided with the development of English departments.
So this is all by way of saying that unless you want to discount everything written before 1900, I don't think there's anything wrong with being readable.
- Novelist Jonathan Franzen, interviewed by Emily Gould for Goodreads. You can read the whole thing here.