DIsclaimer: As a bookseller I have sold many, many books by Jonathan Franzen. I even read one once, and I think I enjoyed it, although I have no memory of it at all.
Jonathan Franzen is one of those who seems certain that the literary world is going to hell in a handbasket, and that handbasket is named Amazon,com. Self-publishers are nothing but “yakkers and braggers” who do nothing but hawk their products too loudly in the open marketplace like common vulgar fishmongers. What about the quiet ones, the reclusive ones, the autistic geniuses who can’t make themselves heard above the noise of the crowd? In the old days he laments, those few-and-far-between were playing on a level field of mass mailings of manuscripts to exclusive agents who would never even glance at them unless they had a mutual connection at the University of Iowa writing program. Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be!
They say that hindsight is twenty-twenty, but often it’s more like forty eighty, or ten nine thousand. Amazon is not the only face of corporate America dictating culture to its consumers. It’s just joining the private club, the one where Random House was used to holding court and deciding who’s who and what’s what, along with Harper Collins (Fox!) and a couple of other conglomerates. I’m sure he enjoys his status as “house” slave to the gentry, but his diatribes reek of Uncle-Tom’ism. Amazon and its legion of dirty field serfs are making too much noise and don’t know their own place. The rabble is reading fan fiction! Dear Lord.
Technology is disruptive. Change is a bitch. But as it says in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Of the making of many books, there is no end.”
The whole Franzen article is curious. Much of it discusses the early 20th Century Viennese journalist/satirist Karl Kraus, a prophet of sorts regarding the trajectory of modern history (not dissimilar to Thorstein Veblen in some regards) and Franzen’s relationship with that writer and his ideas. There’s always a certain presumptuous in delineating one’s affinity for an important figure, especially one who’s no longer around to say, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, ‘you have no understanding of my work’. For one thing, Kraus was a popular performer as well as a journalist and publisher, not merely a cranky curmudgeon. It’s possible he was more of a Lewis Black than a Jonathan Franzen. He was putting on a show. He was certainly an interesting and brilliant person in his own “great times”, but Franzen’s take reminds me of Lily Tomlin’s wonderful saying: “It’s easy to be cynical. It’s just hard to keep up!”
Franzen comes across as basically cynical. Twitter is dumb because … people are stupid? Readers can’t find good books because … there are so many bad ones, unlike before, when every bestseller was an eternal gem, like Clan of the Cave Bear? Amazon is worse than Random House, because … why? We all suck because next day delivery is pretty darn convenient? Technological progress is making us all idiots because we can instantly look up any information about any subject anywhere anytime, unlike the old days, when we couldn’t? In the end, though, in the final paragraph, he seems to be coming to terms with the idea that he’s basically whining like an old coot from a previous generation who has not adapted to what reality is now.
In my own reading of Karl Kraus, I never understood him to be taking such a position. He was not nostalgic nor romantic. He was more of a fatalist, a philosopher, who saw that the essence of humanity was not changing underneath the trappings of modernity, despite the predictions of futurists and progressives who believed in the inevitable moral evolution of the species based on technological progress. That still rings true to me.