Readersforum's Blog

March 10, 2013

Good sex in literature: why is it so hard to find?

Julian Barnes claims that British novelists feel obligated to write love scenes and so make a hash of it, replacing euphemisms with cliches. So what is so tricky about literary sex?

Was it good for you? Sylvia Kristel and Nicholas Clay in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981).

Was it good for you? Sylvia Kristel and Nicholas Clay in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981).

By Stuart Jeffries

Who wrote this? “He lifted her on to his hips and staggered around with her mouth locked to his, and then they were humping fiercely through their clothes, between piles of other clothes, and then one of those pauses descended, an uneasy recollection of how universal the ascending steps to sex were; how impersonal, or pre-personal. He pulled away abruptly, toward the unmade single bed, and knocked over a pile of books and documents relating to overpopulation.”

Here’s a clue: they came second in salon.com’s 2011 Good Sex awards. Guessed yet? Here’s how the scene ended. “He began to cry into Lalitha’s hair, and she comforted him, brushed his tears away, and they made love again more tiredly and painfully, until he did finally come, without fanfare, in her hand.” The answer? Jonathan Franzen, in Freedom.

If Franzen does write well about sex, he does so in part because he allows in humour (that overpopulation gag; and the idea that a really good orgasm might be saluted by a horn section) without letting it overwhelm the scene or destroy its pathos. He also recognises the personality-transcending nature of sex – at least if, and I don’t want to be prescriptive, you’re doing it right. And it is this very universality or impersonality of sex that creates a problem for those novelists who write about it: in a steamy paragraph of universalisable fatuity, you risk destroying the characters you have spent the preceding pages creating.

Julian Barnes, writing in this week’s Radio Times, identifies a specifically British problem about sex in literature.

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September 6, 2012

Shutting out a world of digital distraction

Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith are among a growing group of novelists who struggle with internet-addiction. Carl Wilkinson investigates the powerful effect of the web on the creative mind.

Tucked away in the acknowledgements at the back of her new novel NW, along with the names of friends, family, editors and publishers who have helped her, Zadie Smith thanks freedom and self-control “for creating the time”.

Every writer needs the freedom to be creative and the self-control to stick with a project until completion, but Smith has something rather more 21st century in mind: Freedom © and SelfControl© are computer applications that can be downloaded and configured to increase productivity by blocking access to the internet.

These two pieces of software originated in quite different places. Freedom was developed by Fred Stutzman, visiting assistant professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science, and counts Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Naomi Klein among its users. Stutzman has also released Anti-Social, which blocks the social-media elements of the internet. SelfControl, meanwhile, was created in 2009 by American artist Steve Lambert, one of the people behind The New York Times Special Edition – a hoax copy of the paper published in November 2008.

It seems that Smith, Hornby, Eggers and the rest have taken to heart a comment made in 2010 by Jonathan Franzen, who famously wrote portions of The Corrections wearing a blindfold and earplugs to reduce disruptions

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January 30, 2012

Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society

Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom, is being hailed as one of America's greatest novelists Photo: AP

Jonathan Franzen has launched a passionate defence of the printed book, warning that our desire for the instant gratification of e-books is damaging for society.

ByAnita Singh

The author of Freedom and The Corrections, regarded as one of America’s greatest living novelists, said consumers had been conned into thinking that they need the latest technology.

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model,” said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.

“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

“Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

“But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

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August 7, 2011

Tribune literary award goes to Sondheim

Franzen, Wilkerson to receive newspaper’s Heartland Prizes.

By Mark Caro

Isabel Wilkerson

“Writing” seems an inadequate word to describe what Stephen Sondheim has done, yet it is the breadth, impact and influence of his writing that have won him the 2011 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement.

The 81-year-old composer and lyricist will be honored at the Chicago Humanities Festival at Symphony Center on Nov. 6, the same day that the Tribune’s 2011 Heartland Prizes will be presented at the UIC Forum to Jonathan Franzen for fiction (“Freedom”) and Isabel Wilkerson for nonfiction (“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”).

“It’s really a surprise, and I’m delighted,” Sondheim said on the phone from New York.

“With the literary prizes, we celebrate the written word and the power of literature to transform lives and have an impact on society,” said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern. “Each of the authors we honor this year has had a powerful influence on America.”

These award winners certainly are an accomplished group.

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March 15, 2011

This might hurt: Which Jonathan Franzen character are you?

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:53 am

Click to buy

by Jeff Labrecque

Which Star Wars character do you most identify with? Which superhero would you be? These are fun, frivolous games to play while killing time with the kids in the car on your way to the in-laws (hopefully not in St. Jude). But then there’s this question, suggested by The Office‘s Mindy Kaling, who tweeted: “The Jonathan Franzen character I’m most like is Abigail, Patty’s sister in Freedom. Which Franzen character are you most like?”
                                                                                                                                       …read more

January 7, 2011

2011’s Most Anticipated Books

Filed under: Books of the Year — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 10:18 am

From Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, here are the 21 books that you won’t want to miss in 2011.

The mistletoe has been put away, the presents unwrapped, the New Year’s Champagne uncorked, and you still haven’t quite finished Franzen’s Freedom. But new books on how to run the world, turn around Starbucks, deal with a famous father, and even join a club are all coming out in the next few months. So get ready for the new literary season.

Here is The Daily Beast’s picks of the most controversial, intriguing, and just best reads for the first few months of 2011….read more

January 5, 2011

Modern novels: They’re big, but they’re not always clever

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 8:53 am

When did the modern novel get so long and unwieldy? Sometimes the best things come in small packages, says Arifa Akbar.

Does 'Freedom' justify its 562 pages?

The biggest publishing event of last year saw Jonathan Franzen’s doorstopper, Freedom, garlanded as the “great American novel” by one half of the world and hailed as a modern-day War and Peace by the other. Yet after nine years of gestation and the most fastidious of working methods (the earplugs, the blinds, the disabling of internet portals), one wondered whether, if Franzen had given us something far less Proustian in length, the critical reception would have been quite so breathless. What if he had produced a sleek, 150-page novella? The idea that a work of fiction so short and sweet could gain the same critical attention as a 562-page tome is an unfamiliar one, even though several contemporary novels might have been greatly improved by more rigorous editing….read more

January 3, 2011

Books in 2011 – from the new Alan Hollinghurst to David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King

There’s little by way of ex-prime ministers’ memoirs, but the year ahead offers some fiction big-hitters and some impressive debuts.

Anne Enright's first novel since her Booker prize-winning The Gathering is out in April, entitled The Forgotten Waltz. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

By far the two most talked-about (if not most read) books published in the past 12 months have been Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey and Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. It is tempting, therefore, to ask what their equivalents are likely to be in the coming year. The good news is that, as far as I can tell, they won’t have any equivalents. If 2010 was, in literary terms, a year of disproportionate attention lavished on a few high-profile titles, 2011 looks set to be one in which the spoils of praise and publicity are more evenly divided….read more

December 20, 2010

27 best books of 2010: The Seattle Times looks back at a year of great reading

The Seattle Times’ list of the best books of 2010 features an entire year’s worth of great reading, from Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” to Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life.” “Fall of Giants” by Ken Follett is the 1,000-page page-turner of the year; Rebecca Skloot has immortalized the life of Henrietta Lacks; and Gary Shteyngart has written a “Super Sad True Love Story.”

Compiling a list of best books of the year always turns me into an optimist — though lamentations for the decline of literacy are widespread, every year certain authors keep producing books that are better researched, more insightful and more readable than ever before….read more

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December 9, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Bookblurb @ 6:31 am

Jonathan Franzen is among the most admired and popular novelists of his generation, a distinction confirmed by the rapturous reception to his fourth novel, Freedom, earlier this fall. But it wasn’t always that way. In his long, searching Art of Fiction interview, to be published later this month in The Paris Review, Franzen discusses in frank detail his struggles to find a voice as a writer and an audience of readers for his early fiction; the anguish, ambition, and “Sons & Lovers psychodrama” of his young adulthood; and his lifelong effort “to find the means to make visible and feelable the unsayable things inside me.” Selections from the interview appear below.…read more

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