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.