On Being Generally Disrespected by Jonathan Franzen

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.”

No worries.

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.

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5 thoughts on “On Being Generally Disrespected by Jonathan Franzen

  1. Hi Tom – I had the same reaction to that Jonathan Franzen piece – so just wanted to say “hear hear!” What dismayed me most about it was that (in his longer piece) he talks about how writing fiction has often led him to empathise with people he initially despised – but then straight after that, he launches into this diatribe about how Amazon and self-publishers are propelling us towards hell in a hand basket, destroying all the supposedly good work done over many years by the Big 6 publishers.

    What happened to the empathy there? Can he not see that the smelly self-publishing serfs are driven partly by the failure of the publishing establishment to provide an outlet for books that (as it turns out) a reasonable number of people appear to be interested in reading? And for all its faults, Amazon has helped to create a market for many worthwhile older books that would otherwise be unavailable – how is that a bad thing (or for that matter, a harbinger of the Apocalypse) ?

    I can see that Franzen, as someone who’s done well out of the existing system, might feel dismayed at what is happening to it (look everyone – empathy !) – but as he should be only too aware, there are at least 2 sides to most stories and the Big 6 are at least as much to blame for their current predicament as Jeff Bezos (he just jumped in where they feared to tread).

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    • His pronouncements also smell a bit like the kind of yakking and bragging he complains about, a mode of self-promotion in its own way – here I am! it’s me! remember me? buy me! – because what makes him think he’s any different from any other word-producing-worker? He reaped the rewards of crowd-sourcing (word of mouth) which is the same way books have always – and will always – become popular. People liked it enough to spread the word. Where it began – from a traditional publisher or a website – doesn’t matter in the end. Nobody cares about the history of a cultural product, only about enjoying it. And taking it all so seriously! As G.O.B, from Arrested Development would say, “Come on!”

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  2. Hello Tom, great piece this. I surfed across to that article in the Guardian, and have to admit I enjoyed reading it. I’m not familiar with Franzen’s work at all. It was very meaty and interesting, but I share with others a certain amusement at his lament for a lost Arcadia for “proper writers”. Here’s a link to David Gaughran who also took similar issue to it:
    http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/the-hilarious-hypocrisy-of-jonathan-franzen/

    Franzen’s defence of culture against a deluge of indiscriminate online pap is a familiar one of course. He’s also leery of how that indiscriminate pap is then taken up by the global machine and further used in the destruction of culture. But this is coming from a branded writer speaking as part of a corporate machine that’s been responsible for much of that destruction in the first place, and is therefore rather difficult to take seriously.

    What we do isn’t publishing as the Franzien old guard understands it, but it is publishing, and rather than it ushering in the end of civilisation, I still see the internet as one of the most globally empowering tools ever invented. It will and is changing things, and I think, mostly for the better. The interconnections it facilitates is of truly staggering significance. I’m sure the big six are worried about the likes of Amazon muscling in on their hallowed turf, but they’re missing a much bigger picture, one they can’t do anything about, that the democratisation of writing through things like self publishing and blogging and even tweeting is rapidly moving the zeitgiest away from that queer old system that used to dictate what is and is not “proper writing” in the first place.

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    • Haven’t we come a long way since the Sinclar ZX81? Carla would say so! The changes we are undergoing now are so enormous in scope and so unpredictable in consequences that any small-minded nostalgia can’t help but seem pathetic in comparison. That anyone can communicate instantly with anyone anywhere, read anything by anyone anywhere, listen to any music from anyone anywhere anytime, and so on, is such a radical a break with”tradition” that it’s becoming (as William Gibson noted) even harder to imagine the past than the future. I think we’re all pretty darn lucky to be in the midst of it. I can hardly bring myself to worry about the fates of a handful of corporations!

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