Reading response Week 6: Franzen/Saunders, Prose/Mason

Once you’ve read Wyatt Mason’s review and George Saunders’s story (you might want to reverse the order, to avoid spoilers), and a significant portion of the Corrections assignment, write about your own impressions of Franzen and (vs.) Saunders. How do the two differ? Whose work do you find more enjoyable and in what ways? Do Mason’s (gently phrased) criticisms of Franzen apply to The Corrections as much as they do to the Freedom passages quoted in the review?

Try to make reference both to the spiritual/philosophical divergence Mason posits (possibly challenging, depending on how much of The Corrections you get through), and to more nuts-and-bolts style issues of word choice and figurative language (consider this mandatory). In your discussion of the latter, cite Week 5’s Prose reading on close reading, words, and sentences.

Reading response Week 6: Franzen/Saunders, Prose/Mason

6 thoughts on “Reading response Week 6: Franzen/Saunders, Prose/Mason

  1. Lola Jalbert says:

    I find the main difference between Franzen and Saunders to be the way that they time and arrange their writing. While Franzen’s writing style is a bit more slow moving, Saunders’ plot moves quickly and suddenly. This of course could be attributed to the length of their stories-a full length novel versus a New York Times featured story-but I believe that it can be significantly attributed to the way their space their stories. “The Tenth of December” moves along quickly, filling the reader alternately with fear, adrenaline, apprehension, and sadness. An example of this comes in the middle of the story,
    “Oh for shitsake.
    Oh for crying out loud.
    Some kid was on the pond.
    Chubby kid in white. WIth a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.
    You little fart, put that coat down, get your ass home, mind your own-
    Damn. Damn it.
    Kid tapped the ice with the butt of his gun.
    You wouldn’t want some kid finding you. That could scar a kid. Although kids found freaky things all the time. Once, he’d found a naked photo of Dad and Mrs. Flemish. That had been freaky. Of course, not as freaky as a grimacing cross-legged-
    Kid was swimming.”
    (Saunders)
    This example demonstrates how easy it is to read and understand the action in the story. The short sentences, colloquial language, and spacing of sentences makes the reader read quickly and easily. It has been edited and only the most essential words remain. I think that Francine Prose would enjoy this segment, based on her following words about editing. “Among the questions that writers need to ask themselves in the process of revision-Is this the best word I can find? Is my meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut from this without sacrificing anything essential? (Reading Like a Writer 43) This reminds of the way in which the modern writer has to adapt to the shorter attention spans of a modern audience.
    The Corrections is less action packed, focusing more on interactions between characters, emphasising the tension and problems that are so often found in both familial and long term relationships.
    “‘How big a tip was that?’ Enid asked Chip on the sidewalk, under his building’s marquee, as the driver heaved luggage from the trunk.
    ‘About fifteen percent,’ Chip said.
    ‘More like twenty, I’d say,’ Enid said.
    ‘Let’s have a fight about this, why don’t we.’
    ‘Twenty percent’s too much, Chip’ Alfred pronounced in a booming voice. ‘It’s not reasonable.’”
    (Franzen 20)
    This segment emphasises the nagging and sarcastic way-so realistic to real life-that Franzen’s characters interact. Part of what makes this work is the amount that goes unsaid, the unspoken emotions behind every word. As Prose says in the chapter on words in Reading Like a Writer, “Skimming just won’t suffice if we hope to extract one fraction, such as the fraction above, of what a writer’s words can teach us about how to use the language. And reading quickly-for plot, for ideas, even for the psychological truths that a story reveals-can be a hindrance when the crucial revelations are in the spaces between words, in what has been left out.” (Reading Like a Writer 19) Franzen does this far more successfully than Saunders.
    Saying that I find one more enjoyable than the other is impossible; both books are valuable in their own ways. I enjoy reading Saunders a bit more only because his writing keeps me enthralled in a way that Franzen’s does not, making the reading go quickly and easily. Franzen, on the other hand, is incredible to read when focusing on the dialogue, which paints a stunningly accurate portrait of human interaction. It is a book that I want to pick apart a thousand times, which “The Tenth of December” does not do. Wyatt Mason’s light critique of Franzen’s “serious” language seems to claim that it makes the book pretentious, perhaps a bit more slow moving in that the reader is forced to stop and think about it. This is a valid claim in many ways; Franzen does tend to use long and slightly pretentious wording. One could argue either way as to if this adds anything particularly significant to the story or narrative voice. Mason also points out that perhaps the premise of Franzen’s novel Freedom is not exactly fresh nor original. I find this critique difficult to apply to The Corrections, which I find to have both a unique viewpoint and plotline. As to the religious and spiritual divergence in The Corrections, I was unable to pick up on that, but maybe I just haven’t read far enough yet.

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  2. The main difference between “The Corrections” and “Tenth of December” for me would be way of building the plot. In Saunders’ story we get clues throughout the story that we are supposed to connect and later on get a confirmation of our assumptions. I was delighted to see how little words it takes to describe character’s state of mind. On the other hand, in “Corrections” we get a lengthy description (it is a novel in the end) of Chip’s mental state going from bad to worse with every woman he meets.
    Furthermore, what I found interesting in Saunders’ way of writing makes the reader change his pace of reading.
    “Rail-thin, ribs sticking out.
    Catheter taped to dick.
    Waft of shit smell.
    You are not Allen and Allen is not you.
    So Molly had said.”
    The interrupted way of reading this story, with all the pauses one ought to make while going to the next line and respecting the punctuation put the readers into Eber’s mind without them noticing it. I found this especially interesting once I got to know the condition of the main character, because these interrupted thoughts were essential for my understanding of his personal frustration through my own discomfort created through reading.
    Nevertheless, Franzen is also very capable of luring the reader into the plot. However, via a very different writing style he puts emphasis on the description of the most twisted thoughts Chip has, and leaves it up to the intrigue to take care of the rest.
    “He was kneeling at the feet of his chaise and sniffing its plush minutely, inch by inch, in hopes that some vaginal tang might till be lingering eight weeks after Melissa Paquette had lain here. Ordinarily distinct and identifiable smells- dust, sweat, urine, the dayroom reek of cigarette smoke, the fugitive afterscent of quim- became abstract and indistinguishable from oversmelling, and so he had to pause again and again to refresh his nostrils.” Uf, okay. After reading this passage I’ve felt like I not only knew but also felt the level of obsession Chip has for Melissa and sex. Every work added something more to this picture. I can’t describe what, but good job Franzen.
    As for the word choice and figurative language – I believe Franzen doesn’t lack the similes or metaphors in his writing. As a reader I had a feeling that he picked every word carefully, putting in into a relationship with the surrounding words and making each sentence give away just as much information as he wanted. This is something that Prose talks about in Close Reading- where she emphasizes the importance of every word and it’s contribution to the story as a whole. (Reading like a Writer,11)
    Even though I’ve enjoyed reading both of these books, due to personal preferences I might vote for Tenth of December as the one that made me feel more while reading. Even though I appreciate Franzen’s style more than I can say, I still admire the way Saunders’ every word seems to be crucial(as there is so little of them). I will side with Mason on this one, and say that even though I appreciate the carefulness with which Franzen had chosen the words to use, the might come across as “too much” at some point, and could potentialy make the reader tired of the seriousness of language(in certain parts way more than others). On the other side, Saunders’ language is down-to-earth, fresh and uses 3-word-sentences to describe complex feelings without a mistake.

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  3. Loulou says:

    I think I prefer reading Saunders’ The Tenth of December over Franzen’s The Corrections. I don’t dislike The Corrections, however. I do want to finish the book at some point. I like Franzen’s writing because I always really like the theme, about a fucked-up family, trying to get by. It reminded me in a way of American Pastoral by Roth (really loved that book). But I do agree with Mason’s point on his usage of language. With ‘marmoreally’ in Freedom, it’s too much. It feels like bragging. What I really really enjoyed about Saunders’ story is his use of language. It’s quick and very fragmented. Very minimal writing and I really like that (e.g. Raymond Carver). It leaves a lot of voids in the narrative, leaving the reader guessing (and I like that, sometimes it gets really tiring to constantly be made aware of every detail everywhere). It’s not clear which character is speaking at what time. At first I thought for some reason that Robin and Eber were the same person, only later realizing that they were different. It’s not too posh, he’s not trying to impress you, and I think it fits the story so well. His language is capable of drawing a easily imaginable setting (the woods and the pond). In the beginning, I didn’t understand it, but after finishing it and reading Mason’s text it became more clear. Also, I’m not sure whether it was intended to be printed this way with a lot a space between the sentences, but I think it works well. I found Saunders story wonderfully weird and I’m definitely interested in reading more of his work. Another important difference between the two texts is that one is a full (really thick) novel, the other a short story. And both need different elements to make it work. In The Corrections we are given more context, thus making the relations between characters important, and the conversations between them. We don’t get that in Saunders’ The Tenth of December. I think a reason on why I prefer Saunders’ story as well is because it’s totally different from anything we’ve read so far (if I’m not mistaken)? In Prose’s Reading like a writer in 43 she talks about the importance of words. Keeping the essential ones and cutting the superfluous ones. Saunders uses fewer words than Franzen does. It’s of course a matter of preference for every reader, and I enjoyed Saunders more.

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  4. Ronni says:

    Towards the end of his review ‘Make This Not True’, Wyatt Mason refers to a spiritual quality in George Saunders’s work which is reminiscent of Nyingma Buddhism. He brings forth the Buddhist ideal of mental ‘expansiveness’ and quotes Saunders in saying that fiction “softens the borders… between you and me, between the reader and the writer”. Here, Mason attempts to draw a distinction between Jonathan Franzen’s treatment of this ‘softening of borders’ and Saunders’s, and to tie these two methods to the concept of salvation – internal, or salvation through others.
    The jump that Mason made from the softening of reader-writer borders to the theme of salvation in both authors’ works was far-fetched, in my opinion, and not very well supported. But the comparison of the ways in which each author blurs the defining edges of the writer’s and the readers’ consciousness caught my attention.
    With these two writers, I think that it’s not a question of ‘who does it better’ – they’re both master manipulators of their narratives. I was more interested in seeing how the two accomplish the ‘softening of borders’.
    In ‘The Corrections’, one thing that stood out to me was the dynamic layout of scenes where multiple members of the Lambert family are present. Franzen, through his third-person narration, becomes a panning camera, gliding slowly between rooms and between consciousnesses of his characters. Each time the central focus of his narrative is shifted to a new character, the reader doesn’t feel a thing except for the slight tremor of the camera’s lens zooming in gracefully. I saw this, for instance, in the scene where Enid, Al and Denise have lunch. By spacing out the scene to focus subtly on a different person in each of its segments, Franzen flits between Enid’s, Denise’s and Al’s thoughts effortlessly, guiding his reader towards each character. In the same scene, we inhabit Al’s mind: “Alfred gazed with gratitude at the snacks, which were holding about ninety percent steady as food, flickering only occasionally into objects of similar size and shape” (p. 76) as well as Enid’s: “Her daughter’s taste was a dark spot in Enid’s vision, a hole in her experience through which her own pleasures were forever threatening to leak and dissipate” (p. 113).
    George Saunders, on the other hand, binds author and reader together through the creation of common linguistic and emotional associations. In ‘The Tenth of December’, he uses his language not so much to pan a camera smoothly between elements, but rather (and I’ll continue with the cinematic comparison here) to change the general color-scheme of his scene. We zap between Eber and Robin and the narrative flows not through Saunders’s outright description of them, but through their own associations and trains of thought. This, ultimately, is what makes up the ‘color scheme’ of their scene. We connect to these characters because their trains of thought have commonalities with ours: “popsicle-on-popsicle” and “All his fears about the coming month would be mute./ Moot” are both good examples. The threaded, interwoven bridges that Saunders builds through his characters’ internal language are a shining example of Francine Prose’s remark in ‘Reading Like a Writer’: “All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word over another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with these choices” (p.16).

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  5. Wilma says:

    In terms of difference between the two works, I would have to agree with Irina and Lola; the very shape and type of text of either work determines the pace and form of the writing to be fundamentally different. In Franzen’s work, the author gives himself the time and physical space needed to explore in detail the aspects of many characters and the intricacy of many interactions and situations – Saunder’s Tenth of December is fast paced, not only because its form class for it but because the short, deliberate sentences and his diction shape it so. Donald’s thoughts about Saving Robin need to be short, choppy and urgent – he’s a panicked man in a life-or-death situation. In the Corrections, Franzen has ability to develop the tone of the book over a long period of time. Overall, it’s a work of great anxiety and insecurity of sorts. In Saunder’s story, there’s only so much tension to be built up before the characters and the story eventually find a satisfying, positive conclusion. In Mason’s review of the work, he notes that this is very much like Saunders to use endings of his works, usually some fore of death to further spiritual views with a positive outlook on society and life. In general, I enjoyed reading Saunder’s story more as I felt that Franzen’s work was a little generic. Whilst both the works concerned made use of some quite obvious tropes (pudgy bullied child, bitter old man with a good heart, disease as a uniting factor in family life, cancer (let’s face it) etc.), Franzen’s work was a little too much for me in that aspect; it felt as if many of the traits of the characters were merely a plot device. I enjoyed reading his work as it was indeed well-written and interesting, but the book did not really… do anything else other than entertain me. For me, it kind of raised the question of what it really is that makes a boom successful on a personal level. Is it enough to simply enjoy a book? Does it need to teach me something? Is it alright if it doesn’t add anything new to my life, or literature in general? I guess in this case I expected to learn something, or gain some sort of insight, and as this book failed to give me that, I felt a little disappointed.

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  6. Joel says:

    Following up on what has already said, I also think the pace is what sets these stories apart. As Ronni mentioned in her post, The Corrections’s narration is like a panning camera that moves around the rooms and in the different character’s consciousness. I personally really liked how this was done because it not only reveals what is said, but what is not being said. All the characters, much like people in real life, have things in mind, things they mold in their heads and never really spit out. This builds up the tension in the novel and, as Lola stated its not a short story and Franzen has close to 700 pages to develop and feed them.
    As for Saunders, I admit it wasn’t my favorite. I also admit that my exposure to short stories is also very limited. I acknowledge that in a short story there is obviously less space t develop the characters and their conflicts, but i couldn’t help feeling like if I was reading a movie script. The only difference is that for the movie script I have potentially the capacity to visualize the finished product. I also acknowledge that in Saunders’ story the character finds himself in an extreme situation and he, like the reader, must proceed quickly, but this swiftness posed a challenge for me in following the events as they unfolded. This being said, I think is important to recognize Saunders’ development of plot in such a limited wording, it fully archives a story with conflict and resolution (as far as it can go).

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