Interview: Jonathan Franzen on New York City

Interview: Jonathan Franzen on New York City

This conversation took place in a New School classroom an hour or so before Jonathan Franzen was scheduled to help act out his own New York-centric State By State essay in an auditorium somewhere downstairs. When I mentioned the geologist from his piece, Franzen picked up a Sharpie laying on a nearby bench and wrote NYSG on his hand, so as to remind himself to send the man a copy. This admittedly freewheeling interview was done for this month's Lit Seen: hence the focus on New York, since after all, the idea was to chart a certain kind of literary end of an era.

Your New York, in State By State, is already a somewhat prelapsarian one--pre-budget shortfalls, economic collapse, etc.

Yes...Governor Spitzer was still Governor--of course, he'd already lapsed. We just didn't know it. And of course the economy had already crumbled. We just hadn't realized it.

I guess. There is a stretch in the essay where we harken back to the anarchy and decay of the '60s and '70s in the city, which was a time of financial crisis. And I hope we're not headed that way again. I wonder what particularly you had in mind--it's not like people don't still have publicists. Or personal attorneys.


There really is a New York State Geologist. He has an office in Albany.

I guess the joke that goes around these days is that you really can buy crack on the corner of 98th and Columbus.

I don't think much has changed quickly in the crime rate, or in the loss of services in the city. Obviously you can expect that in the next year or two. Maybe even in the coming months, post-Christmas. But it hasn't happened yet. So I think we're still living in prelapsarian times. The cord has snapped, but the elevator hasn't hit the ground yet.

I don't know what to say. "The owl of Minerva flies at dusk"--the one quotable thing Hegel ever said. You tend to be moved to write about things just as they're ending. And there's lots of that going around, because we live in such modern and fast changing times. So things are ending every five minutes. It's a great time to be a writer.

Except for the employment issue.

Yes, well we were talking about that WNYC this morning--Sean [Wilsey] and Ricky Moody and I were on the Brian Lehrer show, I believe it's called?


You guys were talking about the idea of a new WPA.

Exactly. And I really like Sean's idea of paying writers not to write. I can think of a few that I'd like to pay not to write.

Another thing you guys talked about on the radio today, which was also a big theme in your essay, was the pull of New York to the archetypal Midwestern kid, a pull I have zero access too. Does this dynamic still exist, do you think?

Well the Midwest is not really a place. The Midwest is a metaphor. The harder you to try to pin down what the Midwest is, the slippier it gets. I had a lively and enlightening debate on British radio once with a British scholar who spiritedly claimed there was no such thing as the Midwest. He'd asked dozens of people, and he'd never gotten a satisfactory answer. They couldn't even tell you where the Midwest is. Even Midwesterners disagree on what geographically the Midwest consists of. So it's a possibly mythical, non-New York part of the country. It's a place people want to get away from to go some place more central. And New York is the great magnet, has long been, continues to be, for young people who want to define themselves against that mythical Midwest.

Of course, those people bring all of their Midwestern niceness, whatever that might mean, and create the strange situation wherein New York is full of very friendly, courteous people--far more so than people in the Midwest actually believe. Obviously native New Yorkers are part of that, but a random sampling of any rush hour commuter train will pull up a lot of people from Nebraska or Minnesota.

One thing that runs through your piece is a note of sadness: Things are homogenizing, flattening out, disappearing. Is this something to be upset about? Is New York an exception?

It was the n+1 editors who had that great line about the city turning into one large bank. Of course, that was also before the financial crisis. The erosion of difference worldwide--the Levi-Strauss problem of cultural entropy--is a subject of horror to fiction writers, belletrists in general, because it means less voltage, less interesting detail, less mystery. Less regionalism, less distinctly defined manners, less interesting language. All of that feels like a disaster to the writer. And yet, it reveals the political dubiety of belletrists, because all of those homogenizations are in the service of spreading prosperity, spreading modernity, better healthcare, more standardized ways of living.

For most people in the world 100 years ago, an elimination of the difference between themselves and people living on the Upper East Side of New York would've been an absolute boon. And that process continues even today. The Chinese eat a lot more like us than they did ten years ago: lots more chicken, lots more beef. Good for them; bad for the world, and bad for the fiction writer. And yet, you really morally have a hard time making the case against that spreading prosperity.

New York still prides itself on its exceptionalism.

Well, that is the thing about being number one. One is a very special number. One looks a lot less like two than two looks three. And it will attract the talents and the assholes as long as it is number one, which long live New York City and its primacy.

Still, part of my essay is a lament for a certain kind of urban grittiness that was lost in the great cleanup of the city beginning in the late '80s, and continuing on into the present. Some distinctive flavor that you taste in the early DeLillo novels.

Do you think this financial thing has any shot at taking us back?

Well, I don't really mourn it. As the lawyer in my essay points out, a lot of bad shit went down. It's not a good thing to be able to buy crack handily in residential neighborhoods. It's not a good thing to run sweatshops. It's not a good thing to pollute the Hudson River at will. So let's hope not.

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