Screw the Rules

Jonathan Franzen is a talented writer. No question. But, Jonathan, you are not the keeper of the rules of writing. And in fact, I’m proud to say at one time or another, writing here in the shed, I have broken every single one of your “10 Rules for the Novelist.”



Franzen recently issued his ten rules in his new book of essays, The End of the End of the Earth. The list is both specific and vague, arrogant and elitist, holds half-truths, and suggests that we all would be better off working through the creative process in the exact same way. My assessment of Franzen’s list might be a bit unfair, but not entirely. You see, I am not alone. He’s being slammed by other writers all over the internet.

No real writer likes rules. Those who create within strict barriers are not truly writing, but are simply putting words next to each other to create something your English teacher in high school said fit the parameters of some arbitrary system of prose. Are there good practices for creative work? Of course. But they are your practices, certainly not everyone’s. One could argue that even grammar, at times, is arbitrary. It’s all arbitrary. If I see one more internet article that lists the dos and don’ts every writer should adhere to, or one more video lesson from a popular author about how to create a bestseller, or some university workshop that suggests it has the lesson plan for being a great writer, I will go hide in my shed for a week and have someone bring me my food.

It would be easy now to sit here at my desk and write a list of my own “rules” to counter Franzen’s. But who the hell am I to do such a thing? Franzen holds considerable weight in the publishing world. I don’t. Plus, I’d just be trolling Franzen to make myself feel better and would end up doing exactly what he’s doing. Instead, I suggest to anyone who writes, paints, sculpts, dances, plays music—respect those who do it well, consider the details of their craft, study their process, and then (BTW, this is word Franzen says a writer should never use) go do your own thing. Make your own art. Do not put yourself in their box. It’s their box. Stay out of it. In fact, stay out of boxes altogether.

Jonathan, just so you know, I have internet access in my shed, something you apparently believe a good writer should not have in his workspace. I have used the word then,. Sparingly, but I have. I’ve written in the first person (something you suggest is not the best approach for a novel), and I’m pretty sure Kafka was not an insect. You apparently believe The Metamorphosis is autobiographical. I think I know what you mean. Still, Kafka is “not a beetle” as novelist Christine Estima tweeted in response to your list.

But Jonathan, I will agree with at least one of your rules.

The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator. 

Now, there’s a rule I can get behind, wholeheartedly.

I’m getting back to my writing now, Jonathan. Thanks for thinking of all of us. I’m sure you were only trying to help. But maybe the best thing you could do would be to write another wonderful novel, craft some good essays, and pen another article about birds. We know you love them.



I’ll leave you with one “rule” of my own. It is actually something Jack Kerouac once said.

Write what you want bottomless from the bottom of the mind. 

That kind of says it all, don’t you think?




5 thoughts on “Screw the Rules

  1. Sounds as though Franzen has donned the stifling cloak of insufferability. Perhaps I judge him too harshly, not having read his tips myself. But where would we be in any of life’s endeavors without the rule breakers to show us new ways forward?

    I’d be happy for Franzen to lecture Joyce on his use of language or Picasso on his cubist inclinations or Cage on what constitutes music.

    You and I are keenly aware of the constraints radio news imposes on how we write our scripts. All the more reason to cut loose in the shed or at the easel.

    Each creative person must find his own path . . . her own voice. It may not be easy, but the struggle is part of the reward, is it not?


    • Right on, Nick. I once had some early readers of a work of mine tell me I was plotting everything wrongly . “Plotting everything wrongly” — really? So plotting has a particular form every time? And wait, aren’t some of the greatest works of literature WITHOUT plot? It was then that I gave up on the rule makers. This was some time ago…but I still see and hear these comments all around those who write. So unfortunate.


  2. Pingback: Are You a Writer? | The Writer Shed

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