Jonathan Franzen and “Robinson Crusoe”

The Beatles V the Stones, Picasso V Matisse, digital V vinyl, youth is spent drawing up battle lines on either side of these divides. And one of the first choices that all first year English literature students are faced with is Defoe V Swift. This is because the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719 is traditionally seen as the first ever novel and is therefore the starting point for any course in modern literature. Unfortunately, it’s inevitably compared to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which was written, at least superficially, as a response to Defoe’s exotic tale of distant shores.

However successfully you might have suppressed your initial suspicions about Robinson Crusoe – this is after all your first term, and they surely couldn’t have knowingly saddled you with something so obviously second-rate to begin your studies with? – reading Swift immediately after Defoe puts paid to any such illusions. And whilst you might have been able to dismiss Defoe’s casual racism as part of his cultural make-up, there’s no getting away from that dreadfully leaden, and painfully clumsy prose, so cruelly exposed in the light of Swift’s Olympian brilliance.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s superb piece Farther Away in the New Yorker ( it’s impossible not to be reminded once again of quite how dreadful a novel Robinson Crusoe is. Franzen had retreated to Robinson Crusoe island off the coast of Chile, and his emotionally charged piece charts his efforts to come to terms there with the suicide of his friend and fellow star novelist David Foster Wallace in 2008. Defoe’s novel, and his father’s fondness for it when he was a child, gives Franzen the scaffolding with which to construct his moving edifice. And the carefully crafted sentences with which he sculpts his confession produce an intimate portrait of painful confusion. Because Franzen is a real writer.

Defoe was a businessman who decided to write his first book as a means of making money now that he was approaching 60. And Robinson Crusoe is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a retired businessman to produce. It’s not the first novel, it’s the first airport novel, and is not therefore something to be studied, but consumed.

It does serve one purpose though. It is to anybody struggling to write a novel, what Lady In The Water is to anyone trying to write a screenplay. Every budding novelist should have a copy of Robinson Crusoe on their bedside table. So that in their darkest hour, paralysed by despair as thoughts of worthlessness and abject fear threaten to envelop and engulf them, they can turn to Defoe, happy in the knowledge that however awful whatever it is that they’re writing is, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as what they have to hand.



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