The irony of going to hear a writer speak was immediately pointed out by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' first guest lecturer on Sunday night.
"Thanks for coming out tonight—to hear a writer talk," joked Jonathan Franzen, widely acclaimed as one of the nation's greatest living novelists.
He continued to say that most of the questions he is presented with at such events are "unpleasant" and "the price [writers] have to pay for the pleasure of appearing in public."
"My choice would have been to read a story," he said.
But alas, his contract compelled him to do more than just read from his already published work, and so, instead he proceeded to discuss his life and work in a candid, ironic and self-mocking—and oddly charming—way.
Much of Franzen's lecture addressed the challenges of the writer's having to transform himself with every new novel he writes. Each work prompts the writer to dig deeper, to try harder and to reinvent himself and his life through metaphor.
"You have to become a different person each time you write a new book," he said. "The person you were already wrote the best book you could."
For example, Franzen pointed out that much of his early work dealt with his own senses of guilt, shame and loyalty to his already failed marriage—emotions that became impediments when he started to write his 2001 novel, "The Corrections." The novel eventually became about Alfred and Enid Lambert, an older couple struggling to bring together their family for one last Christmas.
Originally, however, it centered on a man in his mid-30s who was so loyal to his marriage that he spent 20 years in prison for a murder that had been committed by his wife. But for whatever reason, Franzen could not make that character work on the page, something he attributed to being so haunted by his 1994 divorce from a fellow writer.
"Even I could see my work was being deformed by my loyalty to our marriage," he said, explaining that misplaced loyalty was the driving force behind the character.
Once that character was abandoned, he said, the book became almost "effortless" to write.
That's not to say writing is easy, he was quick to correct. One of the major questions he was meant to discuss was the popular notion that at some point, characters "take over" a story and drag the novel and narrative in unexpected directions.
"I just don't like the rhetoric involved in the writer being a susceptible maiden being swept off their feet by these characters," Franzen said. "You are willing the character into existence. They do take on the force of a figure in a dream, but ... you're the one doing that."
For example, Franzen said he struggled with Chip Lambert, one of the major characters in "The Corrections" who has an affair with a student of his. Franzen said that he himself had once been involved with a much younger woman—a student, though not his student, he was quick to add—and all attempts to write a convincing affair scene made Franzen shrink with shame regarding his own experience.
"I ended up with stuff that made me want to take a shower," he said.
Once he learned to write around his shame, he said, he tapped into one of the fundamental uses of literature—and, he said, the reason fiction is still thriving today.
"Fiction is saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, am I the only one who feels awful in these ways?'" he said. "It's naming something no one else is naming. If there is anything useful [in fiction], it's bound up in that."