I came across a terrific photo in the December 2010 issue of GQ magazine. No, it wasn’t of Scarlett Johansson. There’s an article on “Writer of the Year” Jonathan Franzen, written by one of my favorite pop culture writers, Chuck Klosterman, who seems to have moved over from Esquire to GQ. Klosterman writes good books, too, and I thoroughly enjoyed Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs as well as Fargo Rock City. I wish I could share the link to the article but I gather it’s hidden behind a subscriber-only wall. Oh well. The article seemed at first like a fascinating match between writer and subject, but I found it surprisingly blah. My sense was that Franzen didn’t give Klosterman much to work with in the interview. Maybe that’s the thing with writers: It’s better to read their work than it is to read about them.
My guess: Franzen would agree with that. I know he admires the reclusive novelist, Thomas Pynchon, and I bet he identifies with Pynchon’s wariness of America’s star-maker machinery. I get that Franzen is uncomfortable with author-as-celebrity, the whole Oprah thing, author videos, and such. Read the book, that should suffice. As opposed to Jay McInerney, who by appearances viewed writing one really good book as a means to his real goal in life: dating runway models, going to night clubs, and guesting on television talk shows. He famously soaked up the celebrity lifestyle and his reputation as a writer suffered, perhaps deservedly so.
But taking pot-shots at famous authors is not why I’ve gathered you here today.
Just look at this photograph by Chris Buck (my apologies for the poor scan quality), originally printed in the GQ article. Do you see it? There, look to the left.
It’s a shovel! The guy has got a shovel beside what I presume is his very neat and orderly writing disk. Obviously, the shovel placement was not an accident. It may even be a prop. I can only guess — and this is wholly unsubstantiated — that Franzen put that shovel beside his desk to remind himself that writing is a kind of physical labor. In its own way, back-breaking work. You have to sit down and do the job. Just keep digging. As an added bonus, the metaphor works literally on other levels, because as you dig, you do go deeper. And that’s where writers hit pay dirt. You have to push yourself to dig deeper. At least that’s one of the primary things I’ve learned from my editor, Liz Szabla, who will sometimes prod me to dig deeper.
By the way: I might be totally wrong about the shovel and it won’t matter. I’ll still have received the message that I needed, and passed it along, because now the photograph has a life of its own. Just like a book. Original intention no long means much, if anything.
Note to self: Must really get around to reading Freedom.
Oh yeah, here’s a short, wise video of Franzen registering his discomfort with author videos. The clip is only two minutes long, and it’s only the first minute that’s really worth seeing, so why not give it a go.
Confession: This guy reminds me of my oldest brother, Neal. The brains and the vague discomfort.