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What I think of Jonathan Franzen's ‘10 Rules for Novelists'

Writers on Twitter are dissecting writer Jonathan Franzen's ‘10 rules for novelists', and finding that there are more opportunities to ridicule than listen.

However, people can be unnecessarily harsh, and he does make some valid points. We all know that everyone loves to have an opinion on something, so as a keen writer and aspiring novelist, I would like to check out what people are saying and decide for myself if these tips help or hinder.

1) 'The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.'

This is a fair enough point to kick off with—it's important to try not to have an air of superiority when you're writing. I personally find the best books I read are ones in which I feel on a level with the writer—no-one likes reading a book which they can't connect to or fully understand.

2) 'Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.'

He's moving into more controversial territory already, and I feel like I don't totally agree here. I understand that in order to pursue your passion you need to be daring, but there is nothing wrong with staying in your comfort zone. You shouldn't have to explore something wildly unknown to you to write good fiction—if you are a talented writer you should be able to turn anything into a work that is worth more than just money.

3) '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.'

American novelist Sandra Newman makes a good point here—this, again, seems a matter of opinion. Granted, just substituting a word for 'and' probably isn't the best way of fixing a sentence that doesn't sound right—it's probably best to get to the root of the issue and just restructure. However, this does seem more a pet peeve than anything else.

4) 'Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.'

I disagree wholeheartedly here. The style in which you decide to write depends entirely on the plot, theme, and message of the novel. In a book with one central protagonist, the first-person narrative can massively help the reader to connect to the character. I recently read The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, a book that tells the story of a psychopathic teenager from his own perspective. It was disturbing and gripping, having a greater impact because I felt I was really inside his mind.

5) 'When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.'

I'm not entirely sure what is meant by this, but I have to assume that Franzen is suggesting that free and accessible information becomes useless to a novel the moment it is made so. As a history student, I worry that if this were true my degree would be a total waste of time. It's not about the information that you use, it's about how you use it, so it doesn't matter if it is universally accessible or not.

6) 'The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.'

I don't even know what to say about this, so I'm leaving it to Christine Estima to articulate the general feeling I have towards such an obscure comment.

7)  'You see more sitting still than chasing after.'

Again, absolutely no idea —Chuck Wendig puts it pretty concisely.

8) 'It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.'

This is a reasonable point to make in the 21st century—having the internet is a huge distraction and the attention spans of millennials are pretty appalling because of it. However, a well-researched novel is a good novel. You can't expect someone who did an English Lit. degree to know about the process of criminal investigation, for example, but with some good research a world of genres is opened.

9) 'Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.'

It's true, you should be careful with how much you dress up your language to sound more interesting or intelligent. It's always obvious when someone is writing with the intention of sounding smarter than they are. Write with your natural skill and let the plot do the talking, not a thesaurus.

10) 'You have to love before you can be relentless.'

The only rule I agree with on this list completely is number one, and this is a perfect example of how to break it. My advice is to stop trying to be pretentious and poignant and let aspiring novelists who are reading this feel able to understand it. This rule is non-advice really; without an explanation, it's basically something you'll find in a horoscope or fortune cookie.

To sum up, I don't really recommend this list to budding novelists, and for once I actually feel that the backlash on Twitter is somewhat deserved.

If you really want an entertaining read, however, I highly recommend Chuck Wendig's thread of responses to each rule—it's the funniest thing you'll read for a while.

Featured image: Mikhail Pavstyuk on Unsplash

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