Books

09.26.13

In Defense of Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is in a fracas over his comments deploring our literary culture, Amazon, and social media. Michelle Goldberg defends the novelist—and says we should admit we’re losing something important to the Internet.

The Internet gets very angry if you criticize it. Earlier this month, as you probably know, Jonathan Franzen published a nearly 6,500-word lament, modestly titled “What’s Wrong With the Modern World,” about the eclipse of literary culture by a digital swarm of “yakkers and tweeters and braggers.” The reason you probably know this is because the piece was so widely mocked and reviled. “Jonathan Franzen Misses the Old Days, When Women Couldn’t Tweet Back,” Amanda Hess wrote in Slate. The real problem with the modern world, Mic Wright declared in The Telegraph, is “the veneration and promotion of tedious bores like Jonathan Franzen.” His essay was considered so risible that few even bothered trying to argue with it. “[T]he piece seems designed to attract Internet hate-reads,” wrote Caroline Bankoff in Vulture, dismissing it as an extended exercise in trolling. 

What did Franzen do to invite such ire? It’s not like he insulted Oprah again. The essay’s central device—using the fin-de-siecle Viennese satirist and aphorist Karl Kraus to discuss the spiritual impoverishment of technocapitalism—might be pretentious, but it’s hardly inflammatory. (It was even pretty illuminating.) I was annoyed by an offhand line equating leftists who “think we coddle Israel” with right-wingers who “think we coddle black people”—the former is true, the latter delusional—but Franzen’s critics aren’t angry because of what he’s saying about Zionism or race. 

No, his crime is nostalgia. He thinks Twitter is stupid and pernicious. He misses the days when publishers made long-term investments in promising young authors and “every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section.” Amazon, he writes, “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.” Franzen does not want this world. Well, the Internet has an answer to that! #Elitist!!!

As disputatious as life online can be, an unseen consensus runs beneath it, a broad acceptance of the technology giving that life its form. After all, people who really hate the Internet are probably not spending a lot of time there, unless they are Evgeny Morozov. That means that with so much of our literary and intellectual conversation taking place on the Internet, there’s not a lot of room for discussing what the Internet is doing to that conversation.

Unlike Franzen, I spend a lot of time online. I lived in San Francisco during the first burst of techno-utopianism in the 1990s, and started writing for Salon.com when it was published weekly. Though I held out longer than most of my peers, I eventually succumbed to Twitter, and now see it as a professional requirement. Nevertheless, most of Franzen’s essay resonated with me. Certainly, the fact that he isn’t on Twitter means that he doesn’t have anything insightful to say about it, and perhaps he should be faulted for making broad pronouncements about a phenomenon he hasn’t even tried to understand. Still, it seems to me that he’s mostly just missing the specific ways that Twitter is horrible.

In his essay, Franzen compares Twitter to cigarettes. This is inaccurate. Twitter is like doing cut-rate cocaine at a boring party where a lot of the guests dislike you. (As I said, I lived in San Francisco in the ’90s.) You’re not having any fun, but it’s really hard to stop.

Last fall, after my son was born, I avoided Twitter for several months. I didn’t feel like arguing with strangers, or cheering on other people as they argued with strangers, or sending evanescent puffs of outrage and sarcasm into the ether. The longer I stayed away, the more I dreaded reengaging. Twitter began to seem like a machine that runs on rage. You see something that disgusts or infuriates you. Tweeting about it provides momentary relief, followed by the brief validation of the retweet. As you scan your feed, you take in other little microbursts of nastiness. So you get angry all over again and respond, perpetuating the cycle.

If Franzen were on Twitter, he’d have realized that ‘What’s Wrong With the Modern World’ would be written off as the rant of a Luddite misogynist.

That’s not all there is on Twitter, of course. But it’s a lot of it. Earlier this month, researchers at Beihang University released a study of Weibo—the Twitter of China—which found that angry messages spread faster than any other kind. “Our results show that anger is more influential than other emotions like joy, which indicates that the angry tweets can spread quickly and broadly in the network,” they wrote. I’d be shocked if the same weren’t true of Twitter itself.

For writers, especially writers whose professional success is tied to their social-media presence, this creates certain incentives. When I returned to Twitter after my maternity leave, I could feel myself scanning the news for things that were despicable, and despicable in easily digestible ways. The easiest way to write for the Internet is to take offense. Twitter rewards ideological policing.

At the same, awareness of this policing creates an anxiety that affects my writing. As the cranky, Internet-hating Irish Times columnist John Waters put it, “Because everything written specifically for online consumption is written in the expectation of addressing a hostile community, the writing process demands, as a prerequisite, either a defensive or antagonistic demeanour.” It’s not surprising that the Twitter era gave us the phrase “hate-reading.”

Which brings us back to Jonathan Franzen. His essay isn’t a milquetoast plea for civility—Karl Kraus, the Austrian writer on which he hangs it, was, in Franzen’s description, a shrill and withering critic, perhaps the original hate reader. Rather, Franzen seems to be mourning a certain kind of depth and seriousness. The essay itself seems an artifact of a dying tradition, and not just in its grandiosity. He seems to take his readers’ good faith for granted, doing nothing to inoculate himself against the jeers that anyone who spends time online would know to be inevitable. He makes himself a fat, juicy target.

I’m thinking, specifically, of the passage where he writes about discovering anger at 22. He describes himself on a train platform in Hanover, spiteful and sexually frustrated, throwing coins on the floor. “There was an element of anti-German hostility in this, because I'd recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains,” he writes. This is clearly not a boast; it seems, rather, a shamed admission of petty, callow cruelty. But he just lets it hang there without explicit apology, as if he were writing for an audience whose understanding can be assumed.

That may be a function of being a novelist. In his essay, Franzen writes about how the empathy at work in fiction tends to undermine anger. “[W]hen a novelist finds an audience, even a small one … the relation is based on recognition, not misunderstanding,” he writes. Writing online, where you have to assume that your words will be interpreted in the most invidious possible way, is very different. If Franzen were on Twitter, he’d have realized that “What’s Wrong With the Modern World” would be written off as the rant of a Luddite misogynist.

In her Slate takedown, Hess calls Franzen “[l]iterature’s preeminent dude-bro,” seeing in his technophobia a snotty fear of the subaltern. “Franzen is less enthused about the prospect of other humans actually responding to his stories—or, God forbid, telling their own stories without the aid of Franzen’s refined literary filter,” she writes. Thanks to the Internet, she points out, “a much wider and diverse group of humans now has the power to inform privileged literary voices like Franzen about what the conditions are actually like on the ground.” This is clearly true. Maybe it even makes up for losing paper books and brick-and-mortar bookstores and one newspaper after another, for the collapse in freelance rates and attention spans and the wearying professional imperative to collect followers rather than readers and to build a brand rather than develop a voice.

Franzen himself doesn’t really argue otherwise. He feels out of step with the culture, but he is not entirely sure whether the fault is the culture’s or his own. Modernity’s ever-escalating pace of change, he argues, means that the “experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost.” The end of a certain kind of literary world is not the end of the world, even if it feels apocalyptic when the things you care about most threaten to disappear. The Internet’s creative destruction probably has to be accepted. But do we have to like it?