Fiction & Fact at The New Yorker Festival: Jonathan Franzen + ‘Reporting from the Edge’

[11 October 2011]

By Sachyn Mital

Contributing Editor

I don’t know if I could do what Jonathan Franzen does, essentially “telling lies for a living”, as his the creative skills required in story-telling is not something I succeed at. Nor do I know if I could do what any the journalists on the ‘Reporting from the Edge’ panel do since their work at the frontline of conflicts to report the truth inherently puts their lives at risk.

Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) sat down in an uncomfortable director’s chair along with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker for an excellent discussion of his career as two colleagues (Franzen contributes TNY on occasion) had a solid rapport. During the event, the audience learned that as a child, Franzen wanted to become an inventor after reading some books on Thomas Edison but later came to realize he wanted to be an “inventor of popular stories”. Mulling over the story writing process, Franzen’s friendship with Remnick became clear. For instance, when Franzen said, “stories I might tell over dinner to entertain someone” wouldn’t create good fiction but that “awful emotional experience” is instead required, Remnick jested that Franzen must feel lucky to have had many of those experiences. Franzen replied he does in fact possess “a treasure trove of deeply uncomfortable emotional experiences”. Quite often throughout the event, Remnick would edge in a thought that got a laugh from the audience.

David Remnick & Jonathan Franzen. Photo Credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

David Remnick & Jonathan Franzen. Photo Credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

As the conversation continued, Franzen explained that he desired to fashion literature that his parents, or anyone who is not a “specialist”, could read “from the get go”. And, while his mother may not have read much of his first novel (The Twenty-Seventh City), his father, a “thwarted intellectual”, took a real shine to the book. The discussion also focused on Franzen’s father’s passing in 1995, some of the German literature he had read, including Kafka and Freud, and some of his favorite works including Robert Coover’s The Origin of Brunists. It also turned to his competitive relationship with David Foster Wallace, where Franzen described their volleying of each completed book back at each other in a fashion similar to Borg and McEnroe. Franzen also identified that Wallace’s work took the “non-closure route” while he himself was “a closure guy”, before heaping further praise on his deceased friend.

HBO will be the medium for Franzen’s adaptation (with help from Scott Rudin and Noah Baumbach) of his book The Corrections, into a four season series. Franzen earned a lot of fans with the publication of that novel in 2001 and, with the amount of time that has passed, he indicated he finds it fun to fill in some of the “points in their life that the novel just skated past”. The series will be something to look forward to because the original author is directly involved in translating his work into a script and because, by knowing the conclusion in advance, he can flesh out the story arc better than writers rushing produce shows season by season with no advance knowledge of they would be renewed.

Jonathan Franzen. Photo Credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Jonathan Franzen. Photo Credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

The discussion turned political later when the topic turned to Obama, who had been photographed holding Freedom. When Franzen met the President, he explained they talked about Nixon, the “last liberal president”, as Franzen put it. Sharing Obama’s response, that “the only problem is he was crazy”, Franzen received laughter from the audience.  Politics is an important theme in Freedom, where a father, Walter Berglund, works his pro-environmental stance into a role at a mining company, and his son, Joey, becomes a supplier of parts of dubious quality to the military. From these themes it make sense that Franzen would keep up on the local political happenings. He vocalized his support of the Occupy Wall Street protests (in opposition to the “the giant blood sucking squid”) and joked that it was exciting “when it looked like Radiohead” was going to play for the demonstrators.

Overall, the excellent discussion gave a lot of good insight into Franzen’s foundations and growth as a writer. At one point Franzen discussed the differences between fiction and non-fiction. “When you are a fiction writer, you don’t want to make mistakes - if you make mistakes it will never see the light of day”. He continued, “If you say the wrong thing in an interview with Tom DeLay or something, the mistake..,” (before Remnick interjected, “Believe me Tom DeLay will never notice”). Franzen added his belief that a non-fiction writer can’t cheat let he cheat the reader and that he stresses his work may not make it past fact checkers. Here he emphasized that the pressures of writing non-fiction essentially required you to be accurate at all times.

For the panelists of the next event, ‘Reporting from the Edge”, fact checkers were likely among the least of their worries. Along with moderator Dorothy Wickenden, the executive editor of The New Yorker, three writers and one photographer, Wendell Steavenson, Jon Lee Anderson, Lynsey Addario (the photographer) and Dexter Filkins, sat down to discuss war reporting. These four journalists placed themselves on the frontlines of conflict, notably so in the past ten years with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as the Arab Spring uprising and other regional conflicts. They were all familiar with each other and had worked together in many cases—the brave few reporting from the field, perhaps.

Steavenson did not speak as much as the other three, but, as I was not specifically familiar with any of the names, I did not arrive with any expectations. Anderson seemed the most experienced and the most eloquent. Addario brought the photojournalist perspective and Filkins provided some levity (though his accomplishments should in no way seem diminished) brandishing his “casual way of reporting”. Responding to the first essential question, “why?”, Filkins cited the Mel Gibson movie The Year of Living Dangerously as his inspiration. He expounded, there is an element of excitement of being able to see history happen right in front of you.

Death and injury are the most obvious and immediate threats for war journalists but kidnapping also poses a risk as well. In fact, Addario had actually been kidnapped earlier this year in Libya—- for the “first time in seven years” as she put it. She detailed the experience as grotesque and disturbing because, as she sat bound, a man was “caressing [her] face, in a very sort of tender way”. She, along with several other captured journalists, found it impossible to get any peace because her captors transferred her into new hands frequently. As Filkins explained, foreigners just looked like “a pile of money”, so that threat is always there. He furthered this point by describing a meeting with a sheik where he had sat patiently as the sheik and his translator talked for thirty minutes. Afterwards, Filkins found out that the discussion had been about whether or not the sheik should kidnap him, (the sheik decided not too because the translator vowed his larger tribe would fight back).

Discussion and presentations of Addario’s photos stirred up a lot of emotion, most specifically the portrait of a boy, Khalid, who was wounded by shrapnel when American bombs were dropped on an Afghan village. The image was meant to be the cover of the New York Times Magazine but just before the deadline, the US Military’s Press Officer called up the NY Times to say, “we can’t verify that this child was injured in that bomb attack”, resulting in the image being pulled entirely. It’s a shame that despite Addario’s insistence and her hard work she could not change the editor’s mind. That the military can deny that something happened (or fail to verify it) is a major travesty, as it shields them from any anti-American messages that may be presented in the media.

Anderson presented the most disturbing realization midway through the event, when he stated that he had “never once heard any officer tell [him] that they were winning” in the conflict in Afghanistan. It seems that the “extraordinary military apparatus”, adding to our country’s debt, has not accomplished what it had set out to do. After hearing this panel, I continue to believe the US government should urgently reexamine its priorities, decrease military expenditures attributed to its presence and disassociate itself with private contractors whose rebuilding efforts or protection services come at bloated prices (in fact, Freedom‘s Joey exploited contracts to profit at the expense of military troops’ safety).

There were other moments of levity in the conversation on stage. I smiled when, for a period of time, Filkins sat hesitant to open a can of soda for fear of the noise it might make. Despite encouragement from Addario, he placed the can back on the table, only to later contemplate opening it again (he did finally open the soda). He also told a story of meeting with a Taliban commander where a translator suggested a gift would be a good gesture (“buy something and expense it”)—so they picked up a Qur’an. When they gave the commander the gift, he reciprocated with a gift of his own and gave Filkins… a Qur’an.

These journalists have shown they are never speaking from a pulpit in their articles. There is never an agenda. They were only reporting the truth behind what they witnessed. We are left to digest their reports and take action. It seems that if our own troops see Afghanistan as a quagmire (another Vietnam?), then it seems time to bring them home. The troops are doing a great service but at a great cost to themselves and to America.

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Internet streams of many of The New Yorker Festival events are available for purchase at http://fora.tv/conference/new_yorker_festival_2011 (some clips are below).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149536-fiction-and-fact-the-new-yorker-festival/