I was all ready to jump on the Jonathan Franzen hate-wagon after hearing second-hand outrage about his Guardian essay. I mean, Salman Rushdie? Seriously? Even if you hate Twitter, how can you hate on the writers who use it? How dare he? I searched for the piece out of some combination of Oh no he didn’t and an after-the-fact desire to be part of the conversation. Just the lede wound me up: Yeah, what a fucker.
But then I read the actual essay in all of its 6,000 words. And I think a lot of the outcry misses—or at least enacts—the point.
Sure, it’s douchey to make unprovoked, dismissive proclamations that (understatement:) accomplished writers “should have known better” about much of anything, but what a throwaway line. Intentionally provocative, probably better edited out before publication, but not the point. Still, that line lends itself so well to the format of Twitter—Just one sentence! BURN! And now that we’re tweeting it we’ve gone meta!—that it had to be picked up and rehashed, and then Rushdie tweeted back about ivory towers, and we collectively flipped to the public feud channel.
Meanwhile, with Mauna Loa hovering around 400ppm CO2, and U.S. troops still in Afghanistan twelve years after 9/11, and children killed by chemical weapons, and consolidated corporate pseudo-governments, and garment workers dying in collapsed factories so we can buy $6 T-shirts, and all of the genetically damaging chemicals we’re absorbing from flame retardants as we type these volleys back and forth, and all of the fossil fuel guzzled by the server farms that keep our steady streams of ephemera flowing—is there any room to accept that Franzen is not, nor did he intend to be, a perfect diplomat? Accepting that, could we talk about some of the merits and substance of the essay itself, not our insecurities about remaining terminally midlist if we’re lucky, but about statements like this, ones I wish would give us pause:
And yet 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.
I am a woman poet in a corner of the publishing world where people get zero-digit advances and three-digit print runs, where presses are nonprofits trying to stay afloat, and the currency that crosses writers’ palms is that of esteem, spots in readings, maybe the occasional visiting writership. In this corner of the world, Amazon really may be the apocalypse: No one wants to say it for fear of waking the beast, because a book doesn’t exist if it isn’t for sale on Amazon, but some small presses actually take a loss for the privilege of selling on that platform—losing money on every sale to make up exposure in volume, but what volume? Instead of worrying whether Jonathan Franzen thinks we’re “yakkers or braggers,” maybe we could read to the end of the paragraph, and discuss:
As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).
I’m also an archetypal introvert, the first to come down with a severe psychosomatic illness just in time to miss the party where I don’t know anyone. In other words, I was made to be on Twitter and Facebook—it’s “free,” it’s a grassroots readership machine, it’s quasi-anonymous, no small talk unless you want it, no big public lectures—but even if I don’t outright hate social media enough to renounce it, I understand the ambivalence, I do. Sometimes I have meaningful interactions with writers and artists I would never meet or talk to otherwise, and for that I am grateful. Mostly, though, I tweet other people’s events or retweet interesting things they’ve said, because I just don’t work at the speed of Twitter. It’s exhausting, an exercise in not-good-enough. Case in point, I’m writing about JFran’s essay TWO WEEKS after he posted it. Those in the know had something to say about it within two minutes, but I was probably talking to my cat instead of keeping up with my feed, and then I had to process for a while. It’s the same reason I always got zeros for class participation: By the time I thought of a coherent contribution, the group had already unselfconsciously externally processed its way to new territory. I stayed two or three subjects behind.
So it resonates when Franzen asks “What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word” and when he fears that social media is “one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.” Does that make him such a curmudgeon? Didn’t some of the same people who lit torches to swarm Franzen’s house in the night also tweet dismay at the NSA’s betrayals?
When I see a writer with a platform as large as his write a paragraph like this, I feel actual physical pain that the conversation is tearing him down—is proving his point about total distraction—instead of forgetting him and rising to our collective challenge:
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.
So what if Franzen himself is a flawed, out-of-touch asshole: He’s pointing to something real and broken, and struggling in obscurity or not, we could band together and start to fix it.
I’m not a die-hard Franzen reader, I’m not worried his feelings are hurt by the backlash, I don’t think he’s the messiah—I just think he’s more conflicted than confidently judgmental, the controversial moments have the awareness of irony, and he has his own self-effacing passages, as much as a middle-aged white guy bestselling millionaire writer who doesn’t need social media can self-efface. Yes, it’s easy (and tempting) to hate on him. He’s practically begging for it, publishing something like that, being who he is. And all the fist-shaking critique will sell that many more of his books. Damn it.
But he doesn’t need our love; he’s already far surpassed any possible dreams of success, any concern that an article like this will make or break him. He’s too big to fail, and he must know that mastering his craft invites intense criticism, and he’s probably too busy grappling with another long-form something to care. Kind of like, I don’t know, Salman Rushdie.
(c) Teresa K. Miller 2013
* Photo taken from The Guardian, 9/13/13, Jonathan Franzen: what’s wrong with the modern world