In Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom, Walter Berglund is a bit of a crank. He harangues people about overpopulation, SUVs, and carbon emissions. Franzen shares a few of his protagonist's vexations—outdoor cats, for example—but he’s far more wide ranging, decrying the pernicious influence of everything from e-books and smartphones to Broadway musical adaptations and New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani.
Speaking at Tulane last night, Franzen inveighed against Twitter, calling it "the ultimate irresponsible medium." According to the writer Jami Attenberg, who blogged about the talk this morning, Franzen said, "Twitter stands for everything I oppose … it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P.’” In addition to Twitter and, in passing, semaphores, Franzen criticized American literature (“something goofy” about it since modernism came to an end) and Revolutionary Road (“dishonestly bleak”). Naturally, Twitter responded by mocking the author under the hashtag #jonathanfranzenhates.
"#jonathanfranzenhates cameras. Real pictures should be painted,” read one tweet. "#JonathanFranzenHates Raindrops on roses & whiskers on kittens Bright copper kettles & warm woolen mittens. Also anything under 250k words." The posts are unlikely to convince Franzen of Twitter's seriousness, though it is true Franzen dislikes kittens—outdoor ones, anyway.
Speaking at the Hay Festival, Franzen launched into a denunciation of electronic books. Paper books are a better technology, he said, because readers can spill water on them and they’ll still work, and they don’t become obsolete in 10 years. But as with most objects of Franzen’s ire, the real problem is much, much larger. Speaking about the ability to edit and delete digital text, Franzen said he’s afraid that "it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”
Franzen’s problem is really with consumer technology in general, but in his Kenyon commencement speech in 2011, he singled out the smartphone. Smartphones, iPads, and other gadgets are so responsive to their user’s every whim, he argued, that they’re “great allies and enablers of narcissism.” Technology, abetted by social media, threatens to imprison everyone in a solipsistic bubble. “Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.” Ultimately, he argued, love, with all its risks, will be replaced with the safer "liking."
The Internet isn’t just an enabler of narcissism and destroyer of love, it’s also killing the imagination. In The Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction series, Franzen’s eighth rule was that “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Asked by Canada’s Globe and Mail to expand on his point, Franzen explained that what “the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.”
Franzen hates a lot of things, but he does love birds. Which means he hates cats. Outdoor cats, at least. Walter, Franzen writes in Freedom, “had never liked cats. They seemed to him the sociopaths of the pet world, a species domesticated as an evil necessary for the control of rodents and subsequently fetishized the way unhappy countries fetishize their militaries.” Franzen takes a more moderate stance, but nevertheless acknowledges that Walter’s story, which culminates with his kidnapping a neighbor’s predatory cat, had an autobiographical inspiration. “Let’s say that I was peripherally involved with some conspirators,” he told The Baltimore Sun’s Mary Carole McCauley. “Never mind where. There was a problematic neighbor with a problematic cat. I like cats—indoors. Some, like this particular cat, are killing machines.”
Franzen frequently bemoans what he sees as literature’s marginalization by television, film, and the Internet. But the culprit isn’t just television, film, and the Internet. It’s also literature itself—difficult, experimental literature. In The New Yorker, he criticized William Gaddis’s formal experimentation and championed more accessible novels, with strong narratives and relatable characters. In 2005, Ben Marcus fired back with an essay titled “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.”
Franzen is just as critical of self-consciously tricky fiction as he is of “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” fiction. That was the term that set off his feud with Oprah in 2001, when she picked his novel The Corrections for her book club. He said she’d picked enough such books that “I cringe,” although he went on to say, “She’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight.”
New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani has said some unkind things about Franzen’s work, including that it’s “as though he actually reveled in being so disagreeable.” In 2008 she got proof of just how disagreeable Franzen could be, when the author called her “the stupidest person in New York City.” And it’s not just Kakutani: “The most upsetting thing nowadays is the feeling that there’s no one out there responding intelligently to the text.”
Insipid Broadway Musical Adaptations
In the introduction to his translation of Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening, Franzen called the Broadway musical adaptation “insipid” and “instantly overpraised.” The play “became dishonest on the road to being that musical,” he explained to New York magazine. “The real way to any theatergoer’s heart is to tell some kind of truth about their experience, not flatter them with some kind of pleasant lie they’d like to tell themselves. It turns it into a kind of self-righteous Avril Sévigné.” New York later clarified that he meant Avril Lavigne.
The first half of Franzen’s promotional video for Freedom consists of one big qualification: he hates author videos. “This might be a good place for me to register my profound discomfort at having to make videos like this,” he says. “To me, the point of a novel is to take you to a still place. You can multitask with a lot of things, but you can’t really multitask reading a book.” Multitasking is another hobbyhorse of Franzen’s. In a review of Alice Munro’s Runaway, he speculated that the reason Munro isn’t more popular is that when “you’re reading Munro, you’re failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data.”