Two St. Louis Area Writers

I’ve been asked, since the release of my novel Baxter’s Friends whether I am familiar with the novelist Jonathan Franzen and whether his writing influenced me. The answers are- yes, I am familiar with him and no, he has not influenced my writing, for several reasons I will set out hereinafter.

I assume I am asked these questions because we both are originally from the St. Louis area- Franzen from Webster Groves and I from Southern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.  I will admit, from the outset, that Mr. Franzen is twice the writer I am-both literally and figuratively.  His one novel I read, The Corrections, includes over 500 pages in paperback, while Baxter’s Friends weighs in at a mere 206.  His talent is as weighty as the book.

I can only base my opinions and thoughts on the one Franzen novel I’ve read.  I can definitely say we construct  books for different reasons. Certainly  The Corrections has a story and themes and substance. But Mr. Franzen appears to build a book like a house to tastefully decorate the interior with stunning objects of erudition- his book is a veritable encyclopedia of recipes for exotic dishes, wine, factoids about railroads and engineering, literary references and other artistries he’s collected over the years.  His book is massive but delicate. Clearly he puts his Ivy League education to work like a fine interior designer.

On the other hand, my work is blue collar, reflecting my public school and local college educations.  I build my books like a carpenter, hammering them together with a plain, but novel use of language to house lives less honored.  My writing is by no means delicate.  If Mr. Franzen would deign to read Baxter’s Friends he likely would dismiss it after a few pages as “dirty little fiction”, a term one critic used to describe the work of southern novelist Harry Crews.

Furthermore, I embrace St. Louis; Mr. Franzen chooses to thinly veil St. Louis with the fictional city  St. Jude.  I am not sure why.  Anyone from the area certainly can see St. Louis behind the cloud.  New Yorkers would not, and perhaps that is the point. Perhaps he wanted to draw on his roots but could not get past the effete eastern establishment prejudices against St. Louis, the belief that there is nothing there but mass-appetite  beer, a second rate baseball team, and crime. Perhaps calling St. Louis by its real name risked starting The Corrections at a disadvantage with New York literary critics.

Finally, and I do not mean this in a derogatory way, Mr. Franzen’s writing is much more feminine than mine.  I am sure he has legions of women readers; Oprah Winfrey selected his writing for her book club.  Mine will never make the grade.  When I read The Corrections I found it ambiguous as to male and female point of view.  I assume that is the hallmark of great writing.  My book, on the other hand, is written with a strong male voice.  There is no ambiguity.  That is not to say that Baxter’s Friends is only for men, who I think will identify with the male characters, but it also is for women, who will be fascinated by how men think, how they act out of the presence of women, and the difficulties of being a man in today’s society.

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