On Thursday, Literary Hub published acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen’s “10 Rules For Novelists”. Franzen, one of modern literature’s enfantterribles who famously rejected the inclusion of his breakout novel The Corrections in Oprah’s Book Club because he didn’t want it associated with the other “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional” novels included in her list, is a favorite whipping boy for literary critics and internet trolls alike, who bemoan his pompous self-importance while envying his talent. On Friday, another Literary Hub article compiled some of their favorite responses to Franzen’s list, including satirical missives from comic writer Patton Oswalt and novelist Chuck Wendig.
My 7 rules for book writing
2. Have a Frankenstein in it
3. Do not talk about Book Writing
4. Do not talk about Book Writing
5. It should take place on a boat
6. A scene where a guy splits a bullet in half with a sword
7. Have a nice plant on your writing desk
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) November 15, 2018
As is common for Wendig, his comments contain foul language, but you can read his tweets on the subject here.
Eligible Magazine’s Sarah Sahagian penned her own response to Franzen’s list, citing the list’s “pompous, internet-hating tone.” Sahagian, who has published one novel, even offered her own rules for writing.
Franzen’s 10 rules include:
- The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
- Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
- Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.
- Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
- When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
- The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.
- You see more sitting still than chasing after.
- It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
- Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
- You have to love before you can be relentless.
It is uncertain what about these rules such writers find so offensive. In fact, the outpouring of criticism against Franzen’s list smacks of the envy of less-talented writers and the desire to drag Franzen down from his aloof pinnacle. Compare Franzen’s rules to those penned by the recently departed William Goldman:
Goldman’s Ten Commandments for Writing, as published in Writers Write:
- Thou shalt not take the crisis out of the protagonist’s hands.
- Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist.
- Thou shalt not give exposition for exposition’s sake.
- Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise.
- Thou shalt respect thy audience.
- Thou shalt know thy world as God knows this one.
- Thou shalt not complicate when complexity is better.
- Thou shalt seek the end of the line, taking characters to the farthest depth of the conflict imaginable within the story’s own realm of probability.
- Thou shalt not write on the nose — put a subtext under every text.
- Thou shalt rewrite.
William Goldman became a writing legend over the course of his fifty-year career. He adopted his novels Marathon Man and The Princess Bride into screenplays that became successful films, and won two Academy Awards for the screenplays of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men. Yet his rules seem no more or less insightful and/or problematic than Franzen’s.
The response to Franzen’s list denotes one of the worst qualities of human nature, particularly in the world of art: the desire to drag down the successful, rather than lift up the work of those who strive to share their vision with the world. It is a shameful display of how mean-spirited many in the literary community can be, especially toward one of their own who has agreed to share his knowledge and understanding with the world.