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Scott Lax Blog

On Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM

Jonathan Franzen has written what many are calling a great novel: FREEDOM. I haven't read it, so I can't comment on the work itself, but I can say that Franzen acts like a writer, by all accounts.

And I like that. A lot.

What I mean is that he isn't primarily a self-marketeer; he isn't a novelist that tries to figure out what will sell and what the trends are. From everything I've read about him, it seems he is a man who loves language and how people use it and how they relate to one another with it; and then he translates that to fiction, which is, for many of us, as important and true as anything that's actually happened. Fiction goes to the heart of life.

I hope Franzen's passion for writing literary fiction makes an impact on readers in the same way as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Phillip Roth, Sherman Alexie and Tim O'Brien have made. We need stories about love and family and everyday life, not just about vampires.

Literary fiction is to writing what organic food from the farmer's market is to your dinner plate. I hope that Franzen is one of the new breed of chefs.

I'll be back with how the dinner tasted soon; in the meantime, I applaud Jonathan Franzen for keeping the faith.  Read More 

John Irving on Being Serious

I recently read a short interview with the great novelist John Irving, author of such books as "The World According to Garp," "Cider House Rules," and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I admire Irving for many reasons. One is that he successfully writes literary fiction and it sells. That's no small accomplishment, and no accident. Irving believes in story telling; he has as his influences Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville. Like them, Irving manages to combine wonderful language with intricately plotted stories.

Too often today, fiction may be considered literary when its language is lovely or creative, but its plot almost non-existent, muted, or small. Plot-driven fiction, of the type by masters of that craft such as James Patterson, is filled with clunky, clichéd, sometimes awful writing, though the plots may be interesting and fun for readers. I can't handle them -- the writing is just too lazy. Still, I give that kind of book (and author, or teams of writers in some cases) credit for their plots. But that's about it.

There has to be a middle ground: one that contains the flowers of literary writing and the food of plot. John Irving inhabits that middle ground, that place, that island, and I'm glad of it. He writes beautifully and weaves intricate plots; he shows there is still a market for that kind of writing.

Daniel Stashower asked Irving, in AARP magazine, "What does 'Woe to him that seeks to please rather than to appal!' -- a quote from "Moby Dick" -- mean in your own work?"

"Be serious," Irving replied. "Life hurts. Reflect what hurts. I don't mean that you can't also be funny, or have fun, but at the end of the day, stories are about what you lose."

I agree with Irving. You can be funny, but life is serious business. If you want to be a serious writer -- and this is what I tell my students -- you need to shine a light into dark corners. That means you may find some gnarly things there, things that are hard to look at, much less write about. One corner may be clean and bright, but another may be filled with loss, grief, and hurt. That's where serious writing comes in. You have to be willing to go there, to show those corners, to write from deep in your soul, and do so in a way that brings the comfort and joy of expert story telling to your readers.

Irving does that. If you read his novels, you may laugh until you cry. And then you may cry. Yet you'll come out of his novels knowing more about the human condition. I think that's the finest thing an author can do for his or her fellow human beings.  Read More 

My new novel

I'm working on the second draft of my new novel. It's for fans of literary fiction, wine, psychological murder mysteries, and love stories that take place in Paris, the South of France, and small towns in the Midwest U.S.