A Rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s “What’s Wrong With The Modern World”

I’ve recently been challenged to do two new blog posts, one on the theme of friends (not the TV show, but the relationships) and one on the theme of does Twitter make you a better writer? Interestingly enough, both of these fit neatly into my thoughts regarding a recent article that appeared and was propagated throughout the blogosphere.

About a week ago Jonathan Franzen came out with an article in The Guardian discussing the perils of our technologically-charged age and decrying the ‘yakkers and braggers’ – authors who have resorted to social media to promote their works. The full article is here, and I highly encourage every one of my blog readers to give it at least a cursory read-through. Naturally, as one of those ‘yakkers and braggers’ myself, I took some issue with his essay, but surprisingly, in a lot of cases, I agreed with him. I’d like to go into a little bit of detail about Franzen’s essay and take it apart a little bit, to analyze where Franzen might have been coming from in terms of a superiority-culture of ‘literary fiction’ writers, and also to discuss where he might actually be right.

What a babe, amirite? Of course, in all the other photos, he sort of looks like a caricature of this one.

But first, lets start with a little background. Jonathan Franzen, for those of you who don’t know, is a highly revered novelist who has had precisely one good picture taken of him his entire life (though I’ll admit that’s neither here nor there) with an impressive list of credentials from the literary-criticism world. Franzen is actually from my hometown, good old St. Louis, Missouri, which was also the setting of his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. After doing a Fullbright scholarship in Germany, Franzen spent six futile years in Boston trying for a career as a novelist, until finally he moved to New York and sold that first book, which was published in 1988. His most famous novel, The Corrections, won the 2001 National Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. When he had a minor scuffle with Oprah regarding the fact that he was worried her label on the back of his book would discourage male readers from picking it up, he suddenly got a ton of press, which contributed greatly to the marketing of the book. (Just goes to show, all press is good press, right?)

In this most recent Guardian article, which I can only assume was published partially to promote his upcoming series of translations of Karl Kraus’s essays (who’s a ‘yakker’ and a ‘bragger’ now, Franzen?) expounds heavily on Kraus’ essays and uses them to draw parallels to our modern time. From these parallels come a number of observations, some I consider incredibly poignant and some I consider incredibly, brutally, ignorant. But just so it doesn’t seem like I’m unilaterally bashing him, let’s start with one of the observations I consider poignant.

Franzen writes:

[…] you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree on how to keep healthcare costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense.

While I think his claims of ‘apocalypse’ might be a bit overblown (though it’s certainly not out of the question) what I think is most true here is his decrying of the cognitive dissonance we have as regards the state of our world. We, as an American culture, have blinded ourselves ‘drifting’ of our ‘weakened empire’ and in place of real theorizing about how to solve these problems, we coddle ourselves with iOS7, videos of Miley Cyrus riding her wrecking ball, or the latest Kindle Paperwhite. This point of his – this I agree with.

When I begin to take issue with Franzen is when he turns his ire on the individual artists who are using these ‘cool new media and technologies’ to try to make an artist’s life for themselves. Here’s where he turns truly judgmental:

Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?

To this I say: Jonathan Franzen, you are being an insufferable elitist. If you paid even one whit of attention to the world of self-publishing, you would learn that there are still people out there who care about the ‘quiet and permanence of the printed word’ – indeed, this is truly what draws every aspiring writer to write! To leave a legacy, as my excellent friend Jonathan Paul has written about, in the quiet and permanence of the word. We, too, ‘want to communicate in depth, individual to individual’ and not all of us have resorted to buying reviews on Amazon (which is frankly despicable, Mr. Franzen, that you would lump all of us together into such a category), and who believe that ‘yakking and bragging’ about our own works are indeed intolerably shallow forms of social engagement. What you forget, Mr. Franzen, is that we, too, aspire to be in the same position that you are now – just as you surely did during those years you, too, were nothing more than an ‘aspiring novelist’.

He goes on to argue that this ‘technoconsumerism’ is depriving us of our humanity. “Kraus was appalled by the carnage [of the Great War], but he saw it as the result, not the cause, of a loss of humanity by people who were still living. Living but damned, cosmically damned.” Clearly drawing the parallel to our own times, the implication would be that this overabundance of writers self-publishing their books, reviewers who aren’t ‘accredited’ or ‘credentialed’ somehow, and when every reader is, as he says, ‘tempted to be a sophisticate’ (how appalling! that ordinary people should want to make critiques and express their opinions!), somehow is about to result in an apocalypse of culture that will ultimately dehumanize us all.

Mr. Franzen, I challenge you to explain to me how more people writing, expressing themselves creatively, and striving to better themselves artistically, is anything but a wonderful thing. I challenge you to do this without expressing the belief that there is only a certain portion of the population that deserves to be allowed to write – a belief that is, to my mind, impossibly elitist and inherently contradictory to a democratic world. “Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption […] that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers,” you write, in apparent longing for those gatekeepers you hold so dear. You seek an oligarchy of culture, or perhaps at best I’ll credit you with something resembling Plato’s philosopher kings – a world where culture is prescribed from above and the masses open their mouths and swallow the pill without question.

But when Franzen abandons his vitriol regarding the individual aspiring artists and Jeff Bezos’ heralding of the apocalypse, I begin once again to agree with him. There are, without a doubt, downsides to our on-demand and instant gratification lifestyle.

I could, it’s true, make a larger apocalyptic argument about the logic of the machine, which has now gone global and is accelerating the denaturisation of the planet and sterilisation of its oceans. I could point to the transformation of Canada’s boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sands byproducts, the levelling of Asia’s remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot, the damming of the Amazon and the endgame clear-cutting of its forests for beef and mineral production, the whole mindset of “Screw the consequences, we want to buy a lot of crap and we want to buy it cheap, with overnight free shipping.” And meanwhile the overheating of the atmosphere, meanwhile the calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness, meanwhile the widespread tinkering with cell nucleii, which may well prove to be as disastrous as tinkering with atomic nucleii. And, yes, the thermonuclear warheads are still in their silos and subs.

But even this argument is fallacious. These things, Mr. Franzen, were going on long before the advent of the ‘machine’ of self-publishing which you demonize so passionately. The ‘destruction’ of art and culture via the ‘machine’ as you see it, is not, in this case, connected so intimately with the downfall of traditional publishing that you can lump the two together in a cause-and-effect cycle and blame the whole thing. I won’t disagree that there are similarities between the two phenomenons, but they aren’t so great that you can connect the ‘denaturisation of the planet and sterilisation of its oceans’ to the advent of self-publishing. You cannot blame the damming of the Amazon on Amazon, Inc.*, and if anything, you can thank the rise of e-books for helping prevent the continuation of chopping down trees for paper. While I agree that these environmental concerns are truly an apocalyptic threat to our world, this deceptive argument does you less credit than your intellect deserves, Mr. Franzen.

You expected better of the world, Mr. Franzen; well, I expected better of you.

Kraus, in one of these translated works, writes: “For as long as there have been geniuses, they’ve been placed into a time like temporary tenants, while the plaster was still drying; they moved out and left things cozier for humanity.” I think Franzen fancies himself one of these geniues; the only problem being that he’s acting and looking retrospectively, rather than futuristically, and his version of temporary tenancy would have him tearing the plaster off the walls and leaving nothing but the skeleton of a budding culture for us to enjoy.

And so, onto the challenges for this blog: What role does Twitter play in this new writing world of ours? My friend challenged me on the question of whether or not Twitter helps a writer improve his craft by forcing him to be more concise; on that question, I’m not sure. (I know it’s made for some incredibly funny people and some amazing jokes, though, who never fail to entertain.) I can say this with conviction, however: Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool, not for self-promotion, as Mr. Franzen accuses, but for connection. Whether or not Twitter forces writers to be innovative in creating better, more concise sentences, or whether it simply encourages bad grammar and hasty, shoddy words, what I know is that it encourages people to seek out like-minded connections, to follow people with similar interests and communicate with them. Some of the best friends, truest critics, and most talented writers in my life, I’ve found on Twitter. Fie on Mr. Franzen if he derides such relationships as facetious or ‘intolerably shallow’. That is not for him to judge.

A friend and I recently discussed the notion that Twitter can occasionally feel populated with invisible people; this is true. I sometimes wonder if the people across oceans or continents with whom I’ve shared parts of my life really exist. But when they respond with equal and powerful candor, emotions and responses that can only be recognized as viscerally human, I can feel nothing but gratitude to Twitter for bringing me into such an inspiring world.

*I am SO glad that he brought up the Amazon (the river) so that I could write this.