The Hilarious Hypocrisy of Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s Guardian article – What’s Wrong With The Modern World – was such a monumental act of self-parody that I was surprised it wasn’t published in The Onion. Even his failures (to have sex with an “unbelievably pretty girl” in Munich) aren’t failures, but a decision he makes, right before shoehorning in mention of his Fulbright scholarship. Classic Franzen, you might say.

This post is from 20 September 2013. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links but the comments remain open.

Franzen likes to think of himself as a “lefty” but he’s really what we call in Ireland a smoked salmon socialist. (In the US, you might use the term champagne socialist or limousine liberal, but the Irish term has a certain something). In other words, while he professes to believe in equality, he’s really an elitist of the worst kind.

Take his attitude to reviews. One of the (many!) things Franzen is decrying about the modern world is the forthcoming extinction of “responsible book reviewers.” Of course, responsible here means a reviewer for a print publication which restricts itself to straight white male authors of serious literary fiction, published by a small selection of approved publishers. The silver service at the top table is being rudely disrupted in other ways too. Franzen is also worried about the health of bookstores and the impending demise of the “Big Six” publishers.

What’s replacing all this is causing Franzen great pain. A system which allows anyone to publish. Retailers who stock everyone’s work. And a world where anyone can review whichever books they like (however they like). In other words, the democratization of the entire process. This, to Franzen, is an “apocalypse.”

Franzen has been building towards this theme for some time. In a 2010 feature, his otherwise unremarkable rules for writing fiction contained this gem:

When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

The first part of that sentence is a nod to Google’s stated mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible (and, by extension, free). Obviously, an elitist like Franzen will have no truck with such things. Writing should be hard (witness his horror at Updike writing as much as three pages a day). If you are writing serious books, writing should be slow and research should be difficult. And cost money, I suppose.

Pretty soon, Franzen’s perma-worry had focused on a new target: e-books. He has a long list of complaints about digital reading which I could easily debunk but suffice to say he’s doing what Douglas Adams called “confusing the plate for the food.”

The thread through all this, made even more obvious by his Guardian piece, is that what Franzen really fears is change – perhaps an understandable sentiment from someone treated particularly well by the status quo. However, change can be both good and bad, something that might be hard to see from that top table.

Franzen’s piece concludes with a reminiscence:

I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers.

Cloud-shouting aside, it’s interesting that he mentioned the 1950s (an oft-cited paradise by straight white males, but I digress). I just finished Lawrence Block’s Afterthoughts in which Block recalls selling his first short story, back in 1957, for the princely sum of $100 – around $830 in today’s money, accounting for inflation and whatnot.

I sold my first short story in 2009, over fifty years later, for the same amount – $100. And I was glad to get it too. Because if Franzen is right about anything, it’s that a whole bunch of changes since the 1950s have been detrimental to writers: the collapse in popularity of short story magazines, reduced coverage of books in newspapers, and the continual merging of publishers – like some crazed reverse-amoeba – until we arrived at the current situation of five corporate behemoths who struggle to look beyond their quarterly numbers.

But this is only part of the picture. What Franzen diagnoses as a continuance of these trends (widespread availability of the internet, transition to online purchasing, and the rise of e-books), is actually the solution to the very problems he’s decrying.

Franzen’s reflexive Neo-Luddism means he sees “the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers” where I see more writers than ever before making a living from selling books thanks to the internet. But Franzen can’t see that because, to him, e-books aren’t real books, self-publishers don’t count, and I suppose none of us are writing serious literature anyway.

For Franzen, all of these developments are signs of the impending apocalypse, with one particular figure manifesting what’s wrong with the modern world:

Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. 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.

It’s in moments like this, when Franzen sets his sights on a particular target, that his overweening hypocrisy becomes most apparent. Whatever your views on Bezos and Amazon, isn’t it at least somewhat hypocritical to rail against them when you are published by Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins?

HarperCollins publishes some fine authors, but it also publishes One Direction, David Beckham, and Justin Bieber. HarperCollins also has some fine people working for them, but it also employs the same executives who thought it would be a swell idea to fix the price of e-books, and to own a vanity press.

Franzen fears a future where readers exclusively decide what to purchase based on, he says, easily gamed Amazon reviews, but has no problem with the long-standing payola practices of his publishers (all of ’em) in paying for placement on book-chain front tables, position on bookstore bestseller lists, and entrance into celebrity endorsed book clubs.

The food at that top table must be fantastic. 

Franzen is particularly aghast at a future where authors might have to promote their own work. If he spent any time outside the rarefied air of publisher-anointed bestsellers, he might realize that the average working writer has to promote – however they choose to publish.

Also among the long, long list of things that Franzen publicly hates is Twitter.

I confess to feeling […] disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter.

Twitter, for Franzen, is the embodiment of the “yakkers and braggers” culture which is displacing serious discourse. Franzen also hates Facebook, and indeed blogs. He prefers “the quiet and permanence of the printed word.”

Lest we forget, our role in Franzenworld is to gaze in wonder at the pearly wisdom he has etched on those stone tablets.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Twitter is sharing information and making connections with people. And the most effective way to do that is simply by having conversations. But I suspect Franzen doesn’t like conversation either, as it implies two people talking, and he probably only likes the sound of one particular voice.

His own.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

143 Replies to “The Hilarious Hypocrisy of Jonathan Franzen”

  1. “Franzen likes to think of himself as a “lefty” but he’s really what we call in Ireland a smoked salmon socialist.”

    I have lived in Ireland forty years and never heard that term.

    I feel sorry for you that you have such animosity for Franzen. It must hurt to be like that.

  2. What about the part where he’s the most talented novelist of serious fiction to emerge in probably 60 years? Dude didn’t get the Time Magazine cover ’cause they liked his haircut. He’s just flat-out better than everyone else, and no amount of ballot-stuffing or self-promotion is going to change that. You’d probably understand if LeBron James were upset that basketball leagues with vastly inferior players and inexplicably comparable salaries were springing up across the globe, wouldn’t you?

    Where talent roams, pomposity usually trails. Perhaps rightfully so.

  3. 1. On facts: Franzen is published by FSG, not HarperCollins, if I’m not mistaken.
    2. On free information: Franzen says that the universal accessibility of information devalues research in novels. You take this to mean that he thinks information shouldn’t be universally accessible. I think you’re extrapolating way, way too far. He could very well be making the point that if information is universally accessible, it’s not worthwhile for a novelist to include well-researched factoids in their novels (cf. the plague of historical fiction, the Wikipedification of literature).
    3. On Updike: Franzen’s point isn’t that Updike is writing too many pages per day, but rather the strict regularity — not one page, not four, but three. How do I know this? Because Franzen has talked about how he wrote 17 pages in one day for his first novel (not that he was advising it, but…). Again, you’ve taken something Franzen has said and bent it completely out of context to make the man seem like a monster.
    Franzen-bashing is a lot of fun, I guess, but this is an inaccurate and unfair takedown.

    1. Hi Travis, responding in turn:

      1. Franzen is published by HarperCollins in the UK. I believe my point remains unaffected.

      2. I actually don’t take what Franzen said to specifically mean that he thinks information shouldn’t be universally accessible. Rather, I think he’s (specifically) lamenting the fact that research has become easy for novelists. I don’t understand your point on how the existence of tools like Wikipedia make it not worthwhile to include “well-researched factoids.” If you are saying that it’s no longer worthwhile for a novelist to have a character drop some little gem they picked up along the way – e.g. that Ethiopia has the highest population of donkeys in the world – then I both disagree with that contention, and disagree that it’s terribly important in the first place. But I think my point still stands regardless, because I suspect Franzen’s position is that nobody should be in possession of such a “factoid” who hasn’t been at a luncheon with the foremost zoologist on the East Coast, who happened to mention same over digestifs. Googling is so crass!

      3. On Updike, this is from The Kraus Project (relevant section linked to above in my paragraph mentioning Updike):

      “Back in the nineties, I spent a lot of time assembling a moral case against John Updike. I was offended (rightly, I still think) by Updike’s famous comparison of a writer’s work to excretion: you take in life, digest it, and shit it out in paragraphs. Updike was very proud of his three-pages-per-day regularity, and I didn’t need to know much about his personal history to imagine his mother crowing over the neatness and beauty of his daily bowel movements. My moral complaint was that Updike had tremendous, Nabokov-level talent and was wasting it, because he was too charmed by his daily dumps and too afraid of irregularity to take the kind of big literary risks that might have blocked him for a year or two.”

      IMO, his specific point isn’t about 3 pages or regularity per se, but just another rehashing of the tired Speed v Quality argument. The idea that there is any relation between speed and quality has been debunked over and over again, but to deal with that quickly: Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. Graham Green spent the same amount of time writing The Confidential Agent in the mornings, while writing The Power And The Glory in the evenings! Anthony Burgess said A Clockwork Orange was “knocked off for money in three weeks.”

      To conclude, Franzen-bashing is fun, mostly because he is so pompous and ridiculous. You really don’t need to twist and distort anything to poke fun at him. He serves up more than enough material on his own.

  4. Do I understand your comment correctly as alluding to my flawed punctuation and spelling? If so, how very classy of you to degrade a comments intention in this arrogant gesture. I am not a native english speaker, I do not know cummings but I apologize if my mistakes offended you. What exactly are the many values that overshadow an idea of democracy that has become in todays politics a farce, merely a slogan, a call to destructive affects that can be used as a tool to sell anything, sell a war to the people, sell a crisis to the world, sell guns to children or whatever works to make money, centralize power into the hands of money. americas sublime object of ideology? and what value is there of any notion that organizes intersubjective processes than the sense of a perspective not completely personal, self-centered? i just don’t get it. and its the stereotypical idea of europeans being intellectually arrogant but this attitude of radically screaming criticism over an author because something offended you personally. this is the attitude i read in nearly every article on franzen. come on, stop the narcism yourself, take a little time to unfold what can be in a novel, try to approach it from different perspectives, dont just randomly decide yourself which sentence you take literally and which one as alluding to other discourses. try out what reading does with you, experiment and try to figure out if there is one thematic or emotional center that all the different versions of reading are gravitating around. sorry but if reading only leads to this arrogant and judgmental reproduction of what one thinks about oneself, then i see no value of literature at all.

    1. I am sorry that you took my comment personally. I just picked yours because it was the last comment. If you look carefully you will see I mentioned all the preceding comments as well as needing help in one way or another. As far as your comments about me, remember you are writing on the blogosphere where everyone is entitled to their opinions, so please don’t criticize mine as I didn’t yours.

  5. The previous comment by someone who is apparently channelling e.e. cummings, and all those before it, remind me of the helpful role proofreaders, copy editors, and editors of all kinds play in the publishing process. You are right about publishing being more democratic but that is only one value out of many.

  6. this is an incredibly silly article. i am shocked how it has become a stupid trend to bash franzen. obviously you have not put more than two minutes of self-obsessed thought into franzens writings. i will politely remind you, that there is such thing as a performative aspect in any writing. franzen might not be so charming or witty as other intellectuals, but maybe consider his 25year (personal and highly intellectual) friendship with wallace and try to figure out on your own, what your article actually says about you. that you are superficial, judgmental and self-obsessed. franzen is committed to a kind of writing that does not promote a certain worldview, but that makes us stumble over issues we would be wise to not judge hastily but take as an invitation to discuss, research. a democracy: individuals that will argue and find a compromise. your article is as ideological and populistic and flat as the tea party members that are about to destroy the whole world economy. think of what really defines america: not people that are free to be stupid, but people who are so different and who want to found a home together, by engaging in discourse, always revisiting the morals that surround them.

  7. Note also Franzen’s hypocrisy at berating publishers and agents for driving authors to Tweet for self-promotion – in the course of a book tour to promote his own latest work, which must have consumed more time and effort than any number of Tweets. He’s so blind to his own double standards that he doesn’t even realize the irony.

  8. I’m also pretty new to blogging, and found you through freshly pressed. Loved this post! Maybe Franzen got his start in the days when publishers READ MS submitted by an unknown. Now you have to have an endorsement by someone like Franzen to get an AGENT to look at it. Things are changing, as you note, but are you surprised that someone with a comfy armchair at the top table is attacking the guy who can’t even get past security at the cafeteria door?

    1. He’s mad because those of us that were stuck at the cafeteria door are now simply climbing up the windows.

      What a great article David! I normally ignore Franzen’s whining but this was fun to read!

  9. What can you really say about this kind of bullshit? Franzen’s perspective is definitely screwed up. I don’t like labels like “elitist”, but he fits the description perfectly.

    Also, damn, Salman Rushdie really burned that guy.

  10. Love it! I’m new to the world of blogging and have been poking around the “freshly pressed” page, looking for interesting blogs with style, humor, content I can relate to, and pointers on getting a freelance career off the ground. I think I found a gem. Thanks!

  11. What a fantastically well thought out piece. I tried with Franzen in my younger days – y’know, those student years when you try desperately to like clever writers – and i always found his writing to lack warmth. Granted, i haven’t taken on the Corrections (never managed to find the required commitment). I think you hit the nail on the head in pointing out that Franzen seems to rail against everything which might upset a status quo which suits him so well. He clearly loves his position and status, feels he’s worked very hard to get there (probably true) and can’t bear that some creative type might use all the modern tools at their disposal to reach (and interest) a readership. Live and let live, surely, you did it your way i’ll do it mine…where’s the problem. On his issues with Twitter, his criticism sounds like it comes from someone who’s pretty ignorant of it. Sure, there’s plenty of bragging and the like, but we each use it our own way, and i find it to be full of creativity. Again, each to their own – just because you don’t see the value in something doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. Franzen needs to lighten up.

  12. I agree with most of this – I loved The Corrections and so have a deal of respect for Mr Franzen – I am very keen to play the ball rather than the man. But what I find particularly odd about people making the kinds of complaints he does is that they are basically railing against change which has already taken place. It is a pointless pursuit – impotently grumbling about these new-fangled changes rather than getting on with the business of making the world as it is work for you as a writer.

  13. Reblogged this on Juliet Waters and commented:
    Not sure I would be this harsh on Franzen. I’m still sitting on the fence, waiting to see if Jeff Bezos does come riding by on his horse, Apocalypso. But there are some good points in here.

  14. You know, you really have to work at it to achieve such a high level of Curmudgeonliness (I know, I made that up, don’t be a curmudgeon) at the age of 54.
    He must be some kind of Idiot-Savant.
    He should run for office.

    Love the article


  15. Great post. I love the term “neo-luddism” . Honestly can’t stand this. I have read most of Franzen’s books but have to say, most were over-rated, over-hyped at best, except Strong Motion, loved that one but that wasn’t over-hyped either. But calling out literary snobs like this is awesome. I think people need to move w/the digital trend and stop fighting it. I love Richard Russo too but when he published a book a few years ago that was in book form only, not on Kindle? Come on. That’s the only one of his books I do not own. I get it. I don’t want my bookstore to go away either, but it’s much more convenient to buy on kindle or download however we wish. And we still support local and buy other things at the store, even if we don’t purchase fiction there. If someone wants to compete, they need to work hard to figure out how to do so. Not just sit and complain that the world has changed and it’s all bad….if he is as talented as he thinks he is, he will figure out how to rise above all the new competition.

  16. Franzen has been loudly broadcasting his asshole status since the Oprah debacle. That said, “The Corrections” is a fantastic book and Franzen clearly has talent. His problem is simple snobbery. He thinks that only “serious literary fiction” is worth reading and worries that it will lose its culturally privileged status. But in a world dominated by the Amazon model, isn’t he right to expect that outcome? Is it not possible that the democratization of taste will lead to an overall coarsening in which works like his are ignored in favor of vampires and billionaires with whips? I loved your piece, but I guess what I’m asking is whether you think a cultural consensus on what makes a great book is still possible without an elite group of tastemakers running the show.

  17. Loved it, Franzen is an intellectual snob, and they are the worst kind of snobs. BTW smoked salmon socialist is a great term as is champagne communist but my prefered phrase is Bollinger Bolshevik !

  18. David and everybody else engaged in this debate while I welcome the access to publishing to us commoners I had the misfortune to stumble across my ex’s debut volume of love poems for his soul mate on Amazon. No self respecting publisher would have even let this over the top rubbish into the building, never mind impose it on the unsuspecting public.

    I don’t think everybody who writes is a writer in the same way that everyone who opens their mouth to sing is a singer. Writing like everything else requires a bit of talent and lots of hard work and peseverence.

  19. A beautifully written piece and poised response! I thank God for self-publishing. It gives a man like me, who’s neither blessed with the education or social standing of Franzen’s ilk, the opportunity to present an idea to real readers and have it judged primarily on its merits, as opposed to being fated by suits whose eyes are skewed by dollar signs and snobbery.

  20. I was ignoring all the hullabaloo on the internet when Franzen’s piece was published, because of my feelings on the man and his holier-than-thou rants. After reading this, I went to go read it finally, but I stopped. I know I don’t agree with him and I know he is going to waste my time and some nice words preaching to me of my inferiority. Unlike Karl Kraus, I am unable to spend “a lot of time reading stuff [I] hate, so as to be able to hate it with authority.” Your response on the other hand is a gorgeous piece, and I thank you for investing the time not to hate, but to pontificate with authority on the problem of hypocrisy within Franzen’s advertisement for his book–oh, I mean essay. Anyway I think Franzen should go hang out in the corner with Aaron Sorkin. None of us “girls” want to talk to them anyway.

  21. I must confess that it feels a bit like he is taking a big gun, pointing it towards his foot and pulling the trigger. Of course, it`s okay to be worried every now and then, but one knows that flexibility is necessary for surviving today, and it feels like he has a hiccup that never stops. Democracy and giving people the ability to choose, can be wonderful, but one might argue, harder, Still, for people who really want something, I think there is really much more opportunity for it today, than it was in earlier times, when we watched the same shows on tv and just had one book to read from the library. Thank for this interesting post, I will check this site more often from now:=)

  22. This is a very interesting post.

    I think a lot of the reason some new authors don’t want to self-publish is because you don’t feel as validated as you would if your book had been taken on by an established publishing house. Also, self-promotion is very tricky. In reality, good work is often ignored by publishing houses because they don’t believe it will be big seller.

    Authors like Franzen making these kind of comments does not help the situation.

    However, I think he has a point about Amazon (although you’re correct in saying he’s hypocritical about it). It would be better if we had a few more markets for self-published books.

    Also, I would love to support more self-published authors, but it is harder to find well-written books in that area. While buying an ordinary book guarantees a certain level of writing, you don’t get that within the self-published market.

  23. Absolutely awesome. Thanks for this article. I usually just keep my mouth shut when people around here are praising him. Though I couldn’t resist a good critique of Freedomland… On my blog. Don’t think he read it. Or that it convinced anyone not to buy the book.

  24. We really need to start calling limousine liberals for what they are: right-wing conservatives.

    In the US, they’re also been called elephants in donkey suits. (Republicans who dress like Democrats.) Of course in the US, none of it matters, because they’re ALL conservatives anyway.

  25. On a similar note, earlier today I took issue with an article — from Digital Book World, of all places — that used statistics from the big publishing companies to declare that e-books sales are slowing down. They completely skipped over self-published works, just like Franzen and his ilk want everyone to do. Of course, this omission calls into serious question their conclusion.

  26. You have to wonder why established, successful authors such as Franzen feel so threatened by self-publishing and digital publishing that they need to decry it at all. What negative effect could it possibly have on them? Is it just fear of change?

    1. Franzen might or might not think this way, but here’s my theory on why we see some very successful authors from the traditional system come out with such defensive stuff: if you are one of those top tier authors, there’s lots of advantages in the old print system. Your books are on the front table of every store. Some stores pretty much only have front tables. Some stores that sell a lot of books (i.e. in airports) will have a tiny selection – they will pretty much only sell those top tier authors.

      Now picture someone about to get a flight, needing something to read. In the airport, they can only choose from that small selection. If they own a Kindle, they can buy from a huge selection – including hundreds and thousands of excellent, well-reviewed books that can’t even get into bookstores. It’s the difference between a rigged game and a level playing field.

      I’m not saying that people will stop being Stephen King fans overnight, and start reading self-publishers instead. But maybe that King fan who wasn’t so crazy about Koontz – but only bought his stuff when stuck at the airport and King didn’t have anything new out – will start buying self-published stuff instead.

      And it’s already happening. By my estimates, self-publishers have grabbed 30% of the US ebook market.

      1. Ok, that makes sense. I suppose it’s the same in the music publishing industry too. Mega-successful people on the warpath because they’re only making half the millions they used to, once they reach the top of their game.

  27. Terrific response, David. But I also empathize with some of Franzen’s arguments– I hate Twitter, won’t join Facebook, and don’t own a smartphone. We’re surrounded by ephemeral, addictive, time-wasting devices. I have kids, two of whom own laptops and iPods (given by relatives), and it’s a constant struggle to pry them away from the screens.

    That said, I ignore people who became successful in the old publishing regime when they criticize self-publishing. One of my favorites, Garrison Keillor, said similar things a few years ago– about how much better it was sending out queries and getting a devoted editor and publishing house back in the 70s. They can’t see that the legacy system stopped working long ago; and if Franzen/Keillor were just getting starting today, they’d likely have to self-publish.

  28. Well done, sir. In addition to being an idiot and a grumpy old man (I can say that as I was born in the same year), and detesting cats, Franzen doesn’t have his facts right. While it’s true that Amazon’s reviews can be gamed, Amazon reviews don’t necessarily lead to sales. The self-published books that have become bestsellers — like the kind written by Colleen Hoover — are romances of a particular type. Literary “lions” like the three Jonathans have little to fear. Instead of ranting, Franzen’s time might be better spent trying to uncover some worthy books that were overlooked by the big six, but then again that might be biting the hand that feeds him.

  29. Great post! I’ve been to a JF reading and from what I could tell he’s a real dipshit (never mind, I’m sure he’d appreciate the French!) I think he writes good fiction, but he’s over-hyped, in my opinion, and no question is he self-aggrandized. Almost enough to give the rest of us a bad name, that is if he weren’t trying so awfully gosh-darn hard to disassociate himself. Oh well, even this windbag cannot stop the wind as much as he huffs and puffs.

  30. Excellent critique of that essay Jonnie Franz done wrote aginst teknology. I’m going to Tweet and FB share it to my peeps. The dude is truly a reverse force of nature. I read your piece, David, saying to myself, “Okay, don’t get started.” So I won’t. I have to say this though: I have believed for my 35 years of adulthood (I’m 55) that there are two kinds of thinkers, those who have decided they’re the smartest person in the room, and those who love going back and forth with everyone and anyone all the time because there’s so much to learn. I feel bad for them that thinks they’re the smartest person in the room. Poor Jonnie.

  31. I thought writers liked to write for love of the craft. But I probably only think that because the most I’ve ever made on a short story sale is $50. I bet if I started making an actual living at it, then I could afford to share Mr. Franzen’s opinions.

  32. *smackdown* .. brilliant, sir, just brilliant.

    I was born in 1958, (albeit female, but I am white so that must count for something) and I KNOW this is the best, most exciting time for writers … well, most writers. Some haven’t quite got the tweet yet.

  33. lmao – I guess I can’t be a /serious/ reader because until today I’d never heard of Mr Franzen. Sadly, if his world view is reflected in his writing then I will probably never hear of him again. 🙂

  34. Are we raging at Franzen, perceived here as beneficiary and icon of the ‘old system’? Or at the dramatic change of that system and the way those in it (and who run it) are struggling to understand or even survive the change, while many of those who instead embrace the new model find they face new barriers – notably, discovery? Yes, some people earn a living from internet book sales; but many hopefuls do not.

    My position is that I’ve spent thirty years being published by the ‘old system’ – published mostly by Penguin and Random House, in fact. But the ground is changing. Indeed, the way trad publishing has gone suggests to me it must adapt or die – and at the moment the nature of response (certainly at corporate level) says it is dying. The ‘new model’, as currently led by Amazon – but which will doubtless include others, later – democratises publishing, but at a cost of reducing individual authors to inaudibility against the flood, as everybody with ambition to write does so. When I look at some of the stuff that has become popular with it, I can’t help thinking that success has become as much chance as an outcome of quality or talent. The issue is discovery, and for most authors that is a higher barrier than the old system of agent-and-publisher. And it doesn’t matter to Amazon because the business model works, from their perspective, through volume – a hundred sales each by a million authors means the same as a million sales each by a hundred.

    For all the flaws of the old model – which included a tendency to nurture elitism, among those who might succumb to such mind-set – it did provide a system for filtering the dross; and, at least in the good times, for nurturing new talent in ways that, I think, haven’t yet been matched by the new system – because of that key issue of discovery.

    1. The flipside of the “key issue of discovery” is that many highly deserving authors got passed over for whatever reason.

      I agree that a lot of self-published stuff is dross, but then again, a lot of the stuff coming out of the Big Publishers is dross too. (Twilight leaps to mind) There are enough good independently published books to keep me coming back looking for the next diamond in the rough. When I find a good one, I review it for the site I write for. And the fact is, most of the high-quality authors grinding out self-published works were not able to get a Big Publisher to even glance at them.

  35. No wonder Franzen feels the need to diss Amazon; he has a three-star average across most of his books – on the sales page for ‘Freedom’, the Oprah’s Book Club choice, he has 337 five-star reviews… and 324 one-stars! According to the automatically selected ‘most common statements by reviewers’ section, these were the two most popular statements about this book:

    “Just don’t expect too much, like some other people might lead you to believe! ”
    Susan Anderson | 179 reviewers made a similar statement

    “This book is 500 pages of waste of time. ”
    SN.Alper | 158 reviewers made a similar statement

    Time to get back to honing his craft, methinks…

  36. Very brilliant critique of his article. As always, David, your analysis is in the present while certain other groups, a kind of Junker aristocracy, including JF and many of his cohort, will assume that all that is as yesterday will continue to be tomorrow. Kind of an historical cliche.

  37. Classic Franzen meets classic Gaughran. No contest.

    Some interesting items haven’t really heard anyone else comment on:

    In his attempts to scrutinize Kraus I believe he stumbles across a pretty accurate analysis of himself. Or maybe he’s just trying to paint himself like Kraus and is hoping none of us will notice:

    “Kraus hated bad language because he loved good language – because he had the gifts, both intellectual and financial, to cultivate that love. And the person who’s been lucky in life can’t help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insists on going wrong ways, corrupt and tasteless ways, he feels betrayed by it. And so he gets angry, and the anger itself further isolates him and heightens his sense of specialness.”

    Pretty telling I think.

    I also like how he manages to use (surprise!) the incendiary topic du-jour (evil Bezos/digital/Indies), which is guaranteed to garner immediate attention and, in no subtle way, works it into one giant plug for his new Kraus book.

    Hmm. Someone’s seems to be quite the huckster

    I’m sure many of his fellow literati elite are cheering him on. “Yaaay, JF’s our here!”

    Funny. Because the rest of us are thinking; “Wow. What a douche.”

  38. David, you’re right to compare Franzen to a “smoked salmon liberal.” People like that all have one thing in common: they want the world and everyone in it to conform to their desires, because only they have the intelligence to say how things should be. Franzen could live out his ideals in his own career (which he doesn’t), but of course that’s not enough. He wants control of what is published, how, how it’s sold, where it’s sold, what people choose to buy, what they choose to read, and even what they think. Oh, and how people communicate.

    No, this man surely has no shred of arrogance.

  39. Great article, Dave. Franzen’s views of the publishing world remind me a lot of Garrison Keillor’s article in the New York Times about three years ago, right before BEA. I’m also reminded of the rubbish Ewan Morrison talks every so often.

    I think the real problem is a reluctance by many established authors to accept the changing landscape of publishing, and often too quick to offer a view that is elitist and hopelessly outdated, based entirely on an era when you shoved a typed manuscripts into a brown envelope and sent it off.

  40. Nice post David. I have noticed an air of panic among the group of writers who are favorites of the big 5 publishers. I also watched a “fixed” question and answer session recently on C-Span in which the head of a big publishing group who shall remain nameless twaddled on and on about how they had the power to promote any book they wanted and in his opinion that was the main reason they had value. Big publishers have forgotten that it is authors who pay all their bills and their main focus is now shareholders. Once any company puts its shareholders first it is doomed and the big publishers are doomed for precisely that reason.

  41. Succinct and clean riposte, David. Always best to leave it to you to debunk such patronising arrogance. Succinct and clean from Rushdie too. Trouble is with people like Franzen, such return fire would, I imagine, be like water off a duck’s back!

  42. It’s interesting to note that the comment by “anonymous.A anonymous” contains the flavor of the same snooty, sneering voice of those of Mister Franzen’s ilk. I doubt Mister Franzen would descend to the level of reading this post, because along with the ivory tower, comes blinders and ear plugs. Thanks for speaking out, David.

  43. Franzen will not be remembered for anything other than his pomposity – on and off the page. I am so glad I never wasted my time on one of his over-wrought tomes.

  44. Awesome article, David. I’ve heard of Limousine Liberal but not the other two. Love it.

    I was wondering how the trad-published big-name authors were feeling about what must be the pinch on their profits created by so many formerly-excluded authors now being made available for readers to choose among. (*happy dance*)

    While I liked one of Mr. Franzen’s books, for the most part (although he really missed the boat in some internal dialogue attributed to a child version of the character that sounded exactly like the adult version of the character, but a minor flaw in an otherwise remarkable book), something he said in an interview really turned me off. I haven’t read anything since. It just made him seem like not a very nice person.

    However, I hope he continues to do well, despite his opinions. It always concerns me that beneath all the pomp and ego is a lonely person.

    I’ll probably read more of his work as he really is quite talented.

    But all my mixed feelings aside, I love all the points you make, and am firmly on the hooray-for-democratization-of-publishing side of the coin.

  45. Many Thanks for the link.

    Franzen’s article is a thoughtful analysis of the ideas of Karl Krauss. His opinions are honest, intelligent, rather fascinating. By contrast, I find this David someone’s rude little missive to be the shrieking of a simpleton, who makes no attempt to even try to replicate Franzen’s basic points, let alone begin to address them in any sort of a coherent manner. The irony of watching a fool ranting at a calm lecturer — so patently his intellectual superior — in order to denounce said lecturer as engaged in a “rant”, is amusing, however.

  46. I thought the most vicious of his comments and the most telling were his sneer at the “old German women” who would pick up the coins the rich American would throw away. I seriously shook my head over whether it was xenophobic, agist, sexist or just plain nasty and man.

  47. Freaking Irish wit. Laughed and laughed and laughed, until I began to feel sorry for white, middle-aged successful American writer. Then I laughed and laughed and laughed again. And last.

  48. No-i-i-i-i-ce. (na-u-oy-s) i liked ‘how to be alone’ a lot. attempted to read the corrections (family moved it when i got a week in psych in 2009) … but i see your point very clearly here. ever look at any Robert Anton Wilson?

  49. Another top 5% author defending the system which made them the top 5% while saying they’re talking for everyone. Another trad author slamming Amazon who sells books on Amazon. He doesn’t even truly understand the irony– he couldn’t pull his books from the Evil Empire of Amazon even if he wanted to because he’s an indentured servant to his publisher. But he has the gall to talk down to those who have the guts to make it on their own?

  50. We discussed the Frazen Rant in a group discussion on LinkedIn, with pretty much the same sentiment as you have written so eloquently. It seems these rants may be attention grabbing situations, something the ‘smoked salmon’ love to do while touting himself as ‘above the average writer’ and read only by ‘serious readers’. There is nothing worse than arrogance.

  51. Gaughran chews a salmon-scented pencil while chronicling Franzen hitting the fan full force. O, lawd, has his bizarre strain of American literary puritanism mutated to this? C’mon down–the scraps are delicious 😀

  52. Saw Frazen’s rant mentioned on The Passive Voice. Got a lot of good, hearty laughs reading it, and also the comments on TPV. What self-absorbed, self-proclaimed “intellectuals” like Frazen don’t realize is that nobody cares much what they have to say. They only shout their own irrelevance to the world. But I’m sure they get a warm, fuzzy feeling seeing their fatuous photos and shrill screeds in print, thereby validating their importance in their own minds.

  53. I drank the kool-aid for many years. I somewhat liked The Corrections (I felt very literary and grown up reading it) and I made myself like Freedom, because Franzen was, well Franzen, and if everyone in the literary world thinks he is so great, then surely he must be. And surely all that self-published stuff must be tripe because it has not been vetted by the industry. But Franzen’s constant griping about the changing world of books and the willingness of people like you to point out the hypocrisy and outright smallness of his attitudes has changed my opinion. I’ve decided that I’ll like what I actually like and that Franzen’s pontifications do not make him seem more erudite and literary, they make him seem insecure and afraid.

  54. Good take-down, David. There are a number of fully cogent and credible arguments Franzen could have made against the loss of the literary reader, the looming Amazon leviathan, the death of the local bookstore and the corruption and collapse of the traditional publishing industry but that would require foregoing his privilege and burning his social and industry connections, which is something I do not see happening anytime soon.

  55. Great post, David. My problem, though, is not with Franzen, who most people already knew was an ass, a hypocrite, and, IMO, couldn’t write a lick. My problem is with the people like Oprah who sing his praises and buy his books because the “paid for” critics tell them to, or embarrass them into thinking they’re part of the “literary elite” if they read such gibberish. I have to admit I didn’t buy his book or read the whole thing, but I spent some time in a bookstore reading a decent-sized sample and then quickly washed the taste from my mind with a double espresso. What’s worse is his books will probably end up being required reading for our poor children.

  56. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but I have no idea who Jonathan Franzen is, LOL! I guess from your article he has written something. And as for writers having to promote their books, that happens no matter if you are with a publisher or not. What’s wrong with having ebooks? Books are content, not their delivery matter. We started off with stone and wax tablets, papyrus and vellum. Are they the only ones we should be reading in or investing in now? Times move on.

    And as for pretentious literary books, I think Mark Twain said it better than I ever could:
    “My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. (Fortunately) everybody drinks water.”
    I’ll stick to writing water books 😉

  57. I contemplating joining a writers/editors group until I looked at a survey they were doing. One of the first questions wanted to know how strongly I agreed with the statement that self-publishing makes writing disreputable. Both the sentence and the sentiment drove me to close the link.

  58. Bravo! Will repost. Snobbery at the upper crust table continues with the Giller prize nominees. So tedious all of this – the in-crowd gets smaller and smaller. I am thrilled by the presence of the indie press just to stick it in some people’s snouts.

  59. Still laughing at your representation of the 1950s as a paradise of straight, white males. Many of them were wearing lace and silk undies beneath the Brooks Brothers armor. I’d much rather let you do the heavy lifting and read his words. Your reaction is more than enough for me!

  60. I was going to write a riposte myself, but I fell asleep halfway through Franzen’s article. Thanks, David. How did you make it to the end?

    1. *Snicker* Pretentious Literocracy… Yes, that does sum it up. I suppose that I wouldn’t have been able to understand Kraus either. I’d almost certainly have to have it dumbed down for me since I’m one of those indie smut writers that’s bringing about the apocalypse one e-book and tweet at a time.

      1. Fist bump from a fellow smut-writer. I’ll bet Franzen’s got some Anais Nin stuffed between the mattresses and thinks he’s being naughty when he pulls out Little Birds in the deep, deep night.

      1. Not exactly. Kanye West pretended to be Jesus. Franzen would not lower himself to Jesus’s level. Why, the man didn’t even know which fork to use, and probably never read The New Yorker in his life.

  61. Three pages a day! Wow, how can any writer keep quality up with that kind of prolific output? This guy really needs to get over himself. Do you notice he never seems to engage anyone in defense of his arguments? If that’s not a sign of a writer stuck in the bygone era of the one-sided conversation, I don’t know what is.

  62. Bravo! Now I don’t have to post a reply to Franzen. That man does not seem to realize that the future is coming–ready or not. Or maybe he does. Perhaps his article was nothing more than self-promotion disguised as a Luddite rant.

  63. Enjoyed the post David, but aren’t we done with the Franzens of the world? I suppose if the Guardian is listening, than we should fight the good fight, but I stopped paying attention to the guy when he decried being on the Oprah List, but then didn’t seem to complain about the money pouring in from the exposure.

    1. I couldn’t resist!

      But yes, the whole Oprah thing was so hypocritical too. And, as many are pointing out, his philosophical issues with Bezos and Amazon don’t stop him selling his books there.

      1. You made some great points here David, as always.

        But speaking of hypocritical :
        You mentioned “easily gamed Amazon reviews … the long-standing payola practices of his publishers (all of ‘em) in paying for placement on book-chain front tables, position on bookstore bestseller lists, and entrance into celebrity endorsed book clubs.”
        Having made a close study of reviews of Amazon-published books (due to considering being published by them) I find that their own books, even those with fairly average to ordinary reviews, continue to be placed in prominent positions enough to — surprise, surprise — stay high on the bestseller lists on Amazon. While other books, both indie and Big 5, 6 or whatever it is, with better reviews fall much faster from those lists.
        I even bought some of the Amazon books in question, and found them very ordinary by comparison to those they were ousting from these top spots.

        Also, the review thing — it’s well documented that when Amazon removed a lot of reviews that were written by self-published authors and their friends, they left in place whatever positive reviews those same people had written about Amazon-published titles.

        As someone who always reads your blog, and who buys your books, obviously I respect much of what you say. But if you’re going to speak fairly on these topics, you need to sometimes criticise Amazon where they are deserving too, instead of pretending they’re perfect.

  64. The past is another world. Some of us have moved to the present with an eye to the future. Change can be disconcerting but it also offers challenges and new hope. Despite the many criticisms of Amazon it has offered many of us an opportunity we would not have had otherwise, and for that I am very grateful.

    1. Sea standards have slipped right off the pier. Men used to dress for air travel. For what should a man dress now? Lower cased vowels? Pfft!

  65. You know I was just waiting for you to respond to this. Honestly, I’m pretty damned sure if Kraus were alive and kicking he would have hated the hell out of what I write. But at least I’d get press from having an elitist who liked to read crap he hated just so he could hate on it. A young writer like me needs all the press they can get whether it’s bad or not. I suppose I should have just continued pitching at conferences or sending out queries rather than reading these blasted blogs that tout self-publishing and going indie. If not for you, Konrath, Eisler, and Marie Force’s fabulous self-pub loop I’d probably still be doing the same thing I was a year ago. Getting ready for my first full length novel release in December, I couldn’t be happier being a yakker and tweeter. I suppose that means I’m not capable of hiring an editor and putting out quality material. Then again, I’m not a real writer anyway since I write romance—one of the biggest, booming genres. Oh, and I still want a Mac. Although, not because it’s cool but so I can upload without going through Smashwords.

  66. I tell you something, David. If he were to read this I bet he wouldn’t much like you. And of course, Franzen is not the only one who thinks this way. i guess it was always thus. What on earth did those jumped up folk like Gutenberg and Caxton think they were playing at? I like smoked salmon socialist.

  67. Excellent review of Franzen’s article David.

    I’ve classified his writing in that article coming across as paranoid. He reminds me of a person on the street holding up a sign saying “The End of the World is Near!”.

    1. Why do say that? I too am paranoid and very wary of being self published. What does that say about me? I need validation before what I write hits the masses and therefore am rendered impotent? Really, honestly think some things should be filtered before drinking!

  68. Superb article, David. You’ve neatly summed up all this is significant in the changing world of books (or content as my digital media savvy son would say). I just released my debut novel yesterday (self-pubbed) and amplified it with as many good marketing ideas as I could. Quite the Superb article, David. You’ve neatly summed up all this is significant in the changing world of books (or content as my digital media savvy son would say). I just released my debut novel yesterday (self-pubbed) and amplified it with as many good marketing ideas as I could. Quite the challenge and hopefully it will have an effect. Regarding book reviews, Franzen should check out Goodreads where there are many thoughtful, well written reviews on offer. Love your smoked salmon socialist!

    1. awriterofhistory’s repetition of her opening three sentences, accented with a piquant ‘Quite the’ before her second stanza, draws the reader along a path that splits under his feet! Astounding! But rather than languish in this literary trapeezery, awriterofhistory self-pubbs the conclusion that any thoughtful Goodreads good reader should draw from this superb article: “Lover your smoked salmon socialist!”

      Do it now.

  69. I am gaping mouth impressed at the brilliance of this article. How poignant under it’s funny irony. Really there are no words left for it. Big smiley face here, honestly. Hats off to David Gaughran.

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