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What fuels great fiction?

In a recent New Yorker, Evan Hughes explores how personal friendship, rivalry, and jealousies among a group of writers that included Jeffery Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Carr, and David Foster Wallace pushed each of them to become better.

Eudenides’ new book, The Marriage Plot, sparked the story.

It was another novel-in-manuscript that had propelled Franzen toward his new phase — the thousand-plus pages of Infinite Jest. Almost all of what Franzen had read at the Limbo had been written in a kind of response to Wallace after getting an early look at his groundbreaking book. “I felt, Shit, this guy’s really done it.” As Franzen saw it, Wallace had managed to incorporate the kind of broad-canvas social critique that the great postmodernists did into a narrative “of deadly personal pertinence.” The pages Franzen produced then, he says, “came out of trying to feel good about myself as a writer after what an achievement Infinite Jest was.” His comments to Wallace weren’t all sunshine, though; he also “pointed toward some plot problems.” Wallace granted that the problems existed, Franzen told me, but said that he would thereafter deny ever having admitted it.

Nevertheless, Franzen knew it was “a giant book,” an end point of sorts. “It was clear that it was not going to be appropriate of me to try to compete at the level of rhetoric and the level of formal invention that he had achieved.” He turned instead to “a family story about a midwestern Christmas,” the beginning of which he read at the Limbo. The result was The Corrections.

I posted this on twitter a while back but thought it deserved a wider audience.