How Jonathan Franzen discovered why he writes

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 25, 2015

By Rebecca Hyde

Rowan Public Library

Jonathan Franzen sounded the alarm in 1996 in a Harper’s magazine article “Perchance to Dream,” sharing his anger and despair over the future of the American novel.

In 2002, he included a revised version in the collection “How to be Alone,” and called it “Why Bother: the Harper’s Essay.” Franzen finds fault with the banal ascendancy of television, America’s value-free culture, and the breakdown of communitarianism, where interaction is optional.

Technology has changed both the demand for fiction and the social context in which fiction is written. As a writer of social novels, Franzen is discouraged. So how did Franzen emerge from this depression and get back on track as a writer? Ironically, it was through science, and specifically with the help of the contemporary social scientist Shirley Brice Heath, a Stanford professor who was studying the audience for serious fiction in America.

In working through his “time of trouble,” Franzen and Heath take an interesting look at writers and readers: the importance of reading to writers and how individuals develop as readers. It seems there is a relationship between how we learn to read, how we are able to immerse ourselves in or enjoy novels, and the solitary acts of writing and reading.

Heath’s research demolished the myth of the general audience. As she told Franzen, for a person to sustain an interest in literature, two things must be in place.

First, the habit of reading “works of substance” must have been “heavily modeled” when the individual was very young. And second, to become a lifelong dedicated reader, a child needs to find a person with whom they can share their interest.

And there is yet a second kind of reader, the social-isolate, whose parents were not really readers (Franzen’s case). This is a reader who is not anti-social but feels very different from everyone around them and has a sense of having an imaginary world. At some point, he or she has a gnawing need to be alone to read and reconnect with that world. According to Heath, readers of the social-isolate variety are more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety.

For Franzen, this was good news, exhilarating and confirming: “Simply to be recognized for who I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”

It’s an interesting case of redemption. Franzen feels he belongs to the world again. In his acceptance speech at the 2001 National Book Awards, he thanked Oprah Winfrey for her “enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of “The Corrections.”

Friends of Rowan Public Library book sale: Members only preview Friday, Nov. 6, 6-8 p.m. You can become a member for $10 at the door. Most items $2 or less. Hardcover adult fiction, $2; children’s books, 50 cents to $1; paperbacks, large, $1, or small, 50 cents; audiovisual, $1 and up. Special items priced as marked. Call 704-216-8240 for more information.

Public sale Saturday, Nov. 7, 9 a.m-4 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 8, 1-4 p.m.; Monday, Nov. 9, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Same prices apply.

Book Bites Book Club: South (China Grove), Tuesday, Oct. 27, 6:30-8 p.m. Free, open to the public. If you enjoy good books, fellowship and tasty food, this club will discuss a different book each month and serve refreshments loosely related to the theme. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evilby John Berendt. Need a copy? Call 704-216-7841.

Blazin’ Blues Bob: In concert Tuesday, Oct. 27, 7-9 p.m. Bob Paolino is an accomplished blues musician specializing in roots blues with his major influences being Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters and Blind Willie McTell. A dynamic slide player, he loves to perform in all styles of blues — Delta, Piedmont & Texas. As an amateur blues historian, educating about the players and the history behind the blues is always part of his performances. Admission is free, and all are welcome. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Show sponsored by Friends of Rowan Public Library.

Computer classes: Getting to know your iPad, headquarters, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 7-8 p.m. Discussion of components, navigation, apps. Must preregister, bring iPad, charged, and with an updated operating system, and have a current, valid Apple ID. Free signup at  Also Tuesday, Nov. 17, 7-8 p.m. Space is limited. Call Paul Birkhead at 704-216-8242 to reserve a spot.

If you’re new to computers or never felt comfortable, Computer Basics will cover the everything from components to programs. Thursday, Oct. 29, 9:30-11 a.m.; Tuesday Nov. 3, 7-8:30 p.m.; Thursday, Nov. 19, 9:30-11 a.m., all at headquarters.

Fall Photowalk: Open to all ages and skill levels; registration is requested. Bring your own camera (even if it’s on your phone) and wear comfortable walking shoes. In the event of rain, the Photowalk will be canceled. Please call 704-216-8242 for more information or to register. Register online at South, Thursday, Oct. 29, 5:30-7 p.m., explore the China Grove Roller Mill.

Jack Tales by Jackie: East, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 6-7:30 p.m. Honoring local storytelling legend Jackie Torrence on screen. Refreshments. Appropriate for all ages.

Displays: Headquarters, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and Family Crisis; South, Carson High School Student Art; East, handmade jewelry by Myrtis Trexler.

Gallery at headquarters: Photographic prints and tintypes by David Lamanno.

Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second  language.

2015 Children’s Bookmark Contest: Monday, Oct. 26-Saturday, Nov. 4.  Children 4-12 years old create and submit their original Rowan Public Library bookmark design. The winning bookmarks in three age categories (4-5 years, 7-9 years and 10-12 years) will be reproduced for distribution at all library locations. Friends of Rowan Public Library Winners Reception will be held Monday, Dec. 7 at 6:30. Visit for contest rules, entry forms and more.

Book Chats: Thursday, Nov. 5, 4:15-5 p.m., for children in fourth and fifth grades. “The Sasquatch Escape,” by Suzanne Selfors. A book discussion group. A limited number of books will be available at all library locations, so registration is strongly recommended.

Teen Fall Festival: Free and open to middle and high school teens. Come play pumpkin bowling, pumpkin sweep and other games celebrating the fall season. All 5:30-7 p.m. East, Monday, Oct. 26.

Thanksgiving in a Jar, create Thanksgiving themed crafts and food in a jar, South, Tuesday, Nov. 10; headquarters, Tuesday, Nov. 17; East, Monday, Nov. 23.

Teen Advisory Board: Teens who join this board provide input on the library’s teen programming and book selections and discuss current events and issues of interest to teens in Rowan County. Meets once a month, 4:40-5:30 p.m. Headquarters, Tuesday, Nov. 3; East, Monday, Nov. 9; South, Thursday, Nov. 12.

Anime Club: For teens, headquarters, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 4:30-5:30 p.m. Learn all things Anime. Second Tuesday of the month, 4:30-5:30 p.m.

Lego Saturdays: The library’s Lego collection will be available for children to play; all times 10 a.m.-noon. East, Nov. 14; South, Nov. 21; headquarters, Nov. 28.

Explorer Club: Headquarters, Saturday, Nov. 7, 11 a.m. Investigate different genres through activities based on books. Programs are for children in second-fifth grades; lasts one hour. This month’s theme will be “Step Into the Past: Who was, What was, Where was?” Investigate the facts of history in the library’s History Room; special tour, followed by a short computer session a a fun research activity. Attend the club this school year and get a Passport to Reading. Earn a stamp at each meeting. Children with three stamps by May 2016 will get a free book. Children attending six club meetings earn a special prize.

Weekly events for children through Nov. 30.

Baby Time: Loosely interactive, introducing simple stories and songs to babies  6-23 months old with a parent or caregiver. About 30 minutes. Headquarters, Wednesdays, 10 a.m.; East, Mondays, 10 a.m.

Toddler Time: Focused on sharing books, singing songs and encouraging listening skills for children 18-35 months old with parent or caregiver; 30 minutes. Headquarters, Tuesdays, 10:30 a.m.; East, Mondays, 11 a.m.

Tiny Tumblers: Simple stories, musical scarves and instruments for babies 6-23 months old with  parent or caregiver. South, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:30 a.m.; 30 minutes.

Preschool Time: Encourages exploration of books and builds reading readiness  for children 3-5 years old. Headquarters, Thursdays, 10:30 a.m.; East, Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Noodle Head Story Time: For children 4 and up to enjoy listening to silly books and tales together; 30 minutes. Headquarters, Thursdays, 4 p.m.; South, Mondays, 4 p.m.

Art programs: Activities and instruction based on various themes and media.  Program activities vary by branch. Children 8 and under must be accompanied by an adult; 30-45 minutes. Headquarters, Art in the Afternoon, Thursdays, 4:30 p.m.; East, Emma’s Easel, Thursdays, 4 p.m.; South, Art with Char, Wednesdays, 4 p.m.

Tail Waggin’ Tutors: Children 7 to 9 years old (first to third grade) can reserve a slot to read aloud to a therapy dog by calling the Children’s Room. Headquarters, Saturdays, 10 a.m., Nov. 14, Dec. 12.