How writing fiction exposes the writer

In the latest New Yorker Magazine, author Jonathan Franzen writes that a fiction author’s body of work is a mirror of that writer’s character. This does not mean that fiction writers are necessarily writing about themselves or using biographical details from their own lives. What Franzen is saying is that the choices a writer makes in inventing a story reflect his or her character.

In the article, Franzen is writing about Edith Wharton whose advantages in life make her hard to like:

“To be rich like Wharton may be what all of us secretly, or not so secretly want, but privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage.”

Franzen goes on to describe some of Wharton’s exceptionally beautiful, but unlikeable heroines. Not until AGE OF INNOCENCE, he maintains does Wharton produce a novel in which she arouses the reader’s sympathy. Written in 1920, after Wharton’s Gilded Age had ended, the book has a scope and hindsight missing from her other work.

According to Franzen, sympathy is what makes fictional works matter:  “I suspect that sympathy or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.”

Often accused of arrogance, Franzen, the writer, sparks little, if any sympathy, although his characters sometimes resonate. This is a curious piece for him to write, and we look forward to the way this insight may affect his next book.

In the meantime, if you are in the midst of writing a novel, this bulletin that you are indeed exposed in your manuscript probably doesn’t come to you as good news. But it does explain why writing is such a stressful business. As much as you are hiding behind characters that are very different from you and placed in a situation foreign from yours, you are nevertheless exposed.