Jonathan Franzen Stands Corrected
When a media war erupts between tolerant, diverse, future-oriented progressives and reactionary mossbacks clinging mindlessly to tradition and the past, you will find me with the fuddy-duddies every time. I’m a one-man right-wing Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ready to defend or advance the cause at any time or place. I will even rush to the side of Jonathan Franzen, though I’m sure he wouldn’t want me there. And I’ll agree to call him a curmudgeon, though I know he’s no such thing. People should marvel at the depth of my devotion.
Franzen is that oddest of ducks: a novelist with serious literary ambitions who is also rich and face-famous. When he made the cover of Time, for example, he was the first writer to do so in nearly 15 years. His two most recent novels, The Corrections and Freedom, were sprawling works that curled their way into the erogenous zones of every professional book reviewer in the country and tickled them without mercy. For people who care about the life of letters—that subculture of earnest middlebrows who subscribe to the New Yorker, pore over McSweeney’s, and look forward each morning to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on NPR—Franzen looms large. His out-of-town lectures can draw audiences numbering in the thousands; he holds press conferences when he travels abroad. And as a man in his exalted position must, he holds all the correct opinions on political and cultural matters. Except one.
For a few years now, it’s been clear that Franzen does not share in the near unanimous approval and giddy wonder lavished on our new social media and the digital revolution that spawned them. While his readers and fellow Baby Boomers—he was born in 1959—embraced Facebook, he called it “dumb.” As they peppered each other with tweets, he defamed Twitter as “trivial.” He disdains the ebook technology that many big thinkers believe will prove the savior of the written word.
In September, his antipathy reached a kind of comprehensive climax when he published an essay called “What’s Wrong with the Modern World” in the Guardian. It was filled with contempt for all things digital, and for readers and writers—“yakkers and tweeters and braggers”—who have succumbed to the pace, superficiality, and excitability of the Web, which he casts as the enemy of refinement and careful expression. The controversy it touched off—blogs exploding everywhere, fiery showers of tweets raining down—had the usual lifespan of disputes in the digital age. It burned with the intensity of a wildfire and flamed out in a few days. But not before it illuminated many unflattering features of our contemporary literary culture as it migrates, slowly but surely, to the Web. It was for exposing these that Franzen was dubbed a curmudgeon.
For someone familiar with Franzen only from his novels, the most surprising thing about the Guardian essay was how awkwardly written it was, bordering here and there on incoherence. What kind of literary lion is this anyway? The lazy, pre-fab phrasing—our era, he insists, is “media-saturated” and “technology crazed”—is odd coming from a “prose stylist with the most profound gifts” (if you’re to believe the New Yorker, and why would you?). Much of the essay was devoted to the 20th-century German satirist Karl Kraus. Sure enough, whole paragraphs read as though a clumsy Danish translator had squeezed the German original into English: “Although Kraus would probably have hated blogs, Die Fackel was like a blog that everybody who mattered in the German-speaking world, from Freud to Kafka to Walter Benjamin, found it necessary to read and have an attitude toward.” At least he didn’t push all the verbs Teutonically to the end of the sentence.
If the essay itself was unexpectedly maladroit, the written reactions to it on the Web made it look positively Addisonian. The “tech editor” for the Daily Telegraph, a paper once admired for the creamy British charm of its scribblers, had this to say: “The Web is to [Franzen] what a lamp post is to a dog: something to spray with his urine while sniffing contemptuously at the scent left by others.” (That’s what used to be called overexplaining the joke.) Worse, the writer said, Franzen was “trying to do a Malcolm Gladwell.” He didn’t explain what this entails, but it can’t be good. Indeed, the matter of Franzen’s motives was much in play, as it always is in Web disputes, with huffy bloggers and tweeters insisting that the celebrated novelist wasn’t expressing himself sincerely but merely “trolling”—digispeak for posting provocative statements with the sole purpose of creating controversy and getting attention for the yakker.
Inadvertently, this charge—what other purpose could he have than to try to make us mad?—demonstrated one of Franzen’s points about the insularity of literary culture under the Web’s influence. The self-selective nature of Internet discourse quickly leads to self-absorption and then to self-importance, until every Web community becomes the pretty girl who just assumes everyone is looking at her. Even the more sophisticated rebuttals, including one in what used to be the Atlantic Monthly, served as evidence of Franzen’s critique. These expressed their objections in the form of bullet points and lists, a common form of Web-writing that suggests the writer couldn’t be bothered, or might not be able, to create a seamless argument from sequential thoughts, as old-fashioned writers used to try to do.
And Franzen is old-fashioned all right, a memorialist to the old way of doing things. In the Web’s new literary culture, he asked, “what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth…in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?”
No wonder these were taken as fightin’ words. When you remember that Franzen’s targets here are his fellow progressives—aspiring or accomplished literati “who should know better”—the intensity of their reaction becomes clearer. He’s snobbing the snobs. Franzen suggested that in succumbing to the “logic of the machine,” they participate in the triumph of market economics whose other consequences they claim to revile: pollution, galloping materialism, vast concentrations of wealth, and the rest. By any liberal standard, for example, Steve Jobs was as rapacious as any robber baron, reliant as his company was on foreign sweatshops, heedless of environmental degradation, utterly indifferent to the plight of the poor. (He never gave a dime to charity.) Yet Jobs remains a progressive hero because…well, because…because my iPhone makes tweeting so easy!
The implicit theme of Franzen’s essay is that progressivism, as practiced in its more rarefied precincts, has degenerated into a kind of empty preening, a series of moral poses struck by people who revel in the blandishments of capitalism and materialism while pretending to disavow both. For non-progressives, this is not news. For Franzen’s audience it was slander, enough to earn him the title curmudgeon.
The title is ill-fitting, of course. In literary culture the truly transgressive act would be to embrace market economics and capitalists openly, to praise the capacity for innovation and ever higher standards of living that allow subcultures of earnest middlebrows enough leisure time to hive busily with one another. It is unthinkable that Jonathan Franzen would ever go so far astray. The old saw says that a curmudgeon—a fearless teller of truths—must “always keep one foot in the stirrup,” ready to dash off to escape the hostility of the outraged crowd. As it is, Franzen remains high in the saddle, and he’s not going anywhere.