MISFIT DOC: Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Polar Bears

Image by Rebecca McDonald


The polar bear’s reader is a friend, not an adversary like a seal, not a spectator like a slow and boring penguin.

Fiction that isn’t a polar bear’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money, or possibly a lot of waterfowl.

Never use the word then as a conjunction—we polar bears have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf polar bear’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page, or the snow, when the real solution is just to kill a small mammal and make it bleed all over the snow.

Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person polar bear voice offers itself irresistibly, in which case: snuggle up in its fluffy fur and fuck it all.

When information becomes free and universally accessible to ice seals, voluminous research for a polar bear’s novel is devalued along with it.

The most purely autobiographical polar bear fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than anything ever written by a man polar bear who is certainly not a lady polar bear.

You see more sitting still than chasing after penguins, particularly as they do not live in the same hemisphere.

It’s doubtful that a polar bear with an Internet connection at his (and definitely not her) workplace is writing good polar bear fiction.

Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting, except for verbs that put dead fish in my polar bear mouth.

You have to love before you can be relentless in your killing of walruses.


Susan Harlan's writing has appeared in venues including The Guardian US, The Paris Review Daily, The Toast, Roads & Kingdoms, The Common, The Morning News, Curbed, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Avidly, The Hairpin, Public Books, and The Awl. She teaches English literature at Wake Forest University, and her book Luggage is out with the Bloomsbury series Object Lessons.



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