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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Franzen engages students

Jonathan Franzen, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, visited Binghamton in March 2012, to accept the John Gardner Fiction Award and read from his acclaimed novel, Freedom. An audience of more than 400 packed the University Union’s Mandela Room to listen and ask questions.

Before the reading, Franzen engaged a group of Binghamton writing students in a wide-ranging discussion. “You know, I’ve never been to Binghamton but I know it’s a flagship school, and I’ve heard good things about the students here, and nothing in the last hour and a half has changed my opinion about that,” he says.

“One of the things I most enjoy about book touring is the Q&A at the end of reading, and I often am struck by a really good question,” Franzen said. “And it’s a funny thing, I almost never remember afterwards what that question was. I’m so intent on answering them that they don’t stay with me. … One or two of the questions today were really … I wish I could remember what they were, but they were not questions I’d had before. And that’s a high batting average, I’ll say that. It’s very easy to imagine an hour of questions in which something like that question had been asked before, so I thought there were good questions.”

Creative Writing Program director Maria Mazziotti Gillan initiated the Milton Kessler Poetry Award and the John Gardner Fiction Award in 2002 to attract more authors to Binghamton to read, fill the library with more poetry and fiction, and advance Binghamton’s standing in the world of creative writing. The awards are named after two late Binghamton professors — Milton Kessler and John Gardner — both highly regarded writers who made lasting contributions to the worlds of poetry and fiction. The legendary Kessler co-originated Harpur’s creative writing program with current Harpur Distinguished Professor of English John Vernon and published five collections of poetry. Gardner won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Fiction for his novel October Light, and was an influential voice in the world of letters and an inveterate teacher of fiction writing.

Gardner’s work had a deep influence on Franzen, especially his notion of the fictional dream.

“He was the first contemporary fiction writer writing about life in the present I had ever read,” Franzen said. “I read The Sunlight Dialogues in … wow, 1978, and it opened up a whole world of possibility to me. And I subsequently read The Art of Fiction, or at least good chunks of it."

Franzen offered advice to the students in this often-isolating digital age of distractions: “I think there’s a lot to be said against being cool and there’s a lot to be said against keeping your options open. And if you’re passionate about something you’re not being cool. If you’re committed to something, that’s not so cool either. So simply saying, ‘This is what I want, this is what’s important’ — that is in a certain respect limiting your choices.”

—Nicholas Wilsey

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Last Updated: 12/10/14