Jonathan Franzen and the Web will never get along

The author hates Twitter. Twitter hates him right back. Is it possible both sides are right -- and wrong?

Topics: Books, Editor's Picks, Fiction, Internet Culture, Jonathan Franzen,

Jonathan Franzen and the Web will never get alongJonathan Franzen speaks during the Hay Festival Cartagena in Colombia on Jan. 28, 2012. (Credit: Joaquin Sarmiento/Reuters)

“You eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or secondhand in your own pages. … If you really love fiction you’ll find that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are.”
– Jonathan Franzen, in a 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College

Before the Internet trained its full shaming power on brutal warlord Joseph Kony, it was a bad week online to be Jonathan Franzen. Well, another bad week.

Franzen might be the most acclaimed and the bestselling major American writer of his time, but he’s about as popular online as an Occupy protester is at Davos. On one hand, Franzen’s become the vehicle through which the literary world discusses big issues: the comparable attention paid to male and female writers, the value of reading online versus reading print books, the purpose of the novel in an electronic age, whether truly important fiction needs to be accessible to all or an experiment with language and form.

But in other ways, the lightning rod has become a whipping post.

Franzen’s comments at Tulane University that Twitter is “unspeakably irritating” and “stands for everything I oppose” stirred up social media networks in all the predictable ways, from irony to indignation. By declaring that serious work on Twitter would be the equivalent of writing a novel without the letter p, and drawing lines between serious readers and social media yakkers, Franzen at least succeeded in distracting his critics. Book blogs had previously been aflame debating a New Yorker essay in which Franzen wrote about slowly appreciating the brilliance of Edith Wharton. He suggested, in part, that he overcame his bias against her life of privilege by balancing her fabulous wealth against her less than fabulous looks.



That a writer whose fiction is so hyper-aware can be so clueless to the way his work will be received might be the ultimate Franzen paradox. It’s been on display ever since he wrestled so painfully and publicly with Oprah Winfrey’s decision to include “The Corrections” in her televised book club. How is it that a genuine American master — one who sees the faults and flaws and doubts of his characters with such lacerating and uncomfortable intensity – can be so tone-deaf to his own?

Turns out that he’s not. There is no Franzen paradox. Despite all of the ink spilled over Franzen of late, both in print and online, an important point has been missed. He is not out of touch. His opinion would not be any different if he actually spent time on Twitter before criticizing it. He wouldn’t feel any differently even if he was a struggling young writer who needed social media to market his work.

Jonathan Franzen means every word. He’s completely sincere. He knows exactly how some might respond. He not only doesn’t care about whether he starts a firestorm on Facebook, he feels liberated to speak his mind – indeed, he sees it as a prime authorial duty, as the essence of truthfulness. And he learned this while watching his mother die.

In a startlingly and sometimes uncomfortable lecture titled “On Autobiographical Fiction,” presented as an essay in his forthcoming collection “Farther Away” (May, from FSG) but pieces of which can also be found online, Franzen delves into his divorce and awkward family life, and strips himself as bare as “The Corrections” Chip Lambert or Patty Berglund in “Freedom.” But it’s the discussion of a last conversation with his mom that resolved the Franzen paradox for me. As he told his mother secrets about himself on her deathbed, and tried to explain who he was and why he’d be just fine without her, his mother ultimately nodded and said “Well, you’re an eccentric.” And in those four words, in that summation, Franzen heard “the implicit instruction not to worry so much about what she, or anybody else, might think of me. To be myself, as she, in her dying, was being herself.”

Let’s get beyond, for a moment, the general ickiness of the way Franzen turns his mother’s death into an excuse to let his own freaky narcissism flag fly. Is it possible to find a new understanding, even a new empathy, for Franzen in this anecdote? Might it explain exactly why the Internet hates Jonathan Franzen, but also Jonathan Franzen will never stop being anyone other than himself? And could it explain why Franzen is right about the Internet — it is, after all, full of phony friendships and false poses, it really is hard to make an argument in 140 characters — but also why the Internet is often right about Franzen. It might also explain why they’re both talking completely past each other.

*

Let’s back up for a moment. The Internet has been amazing for book talk. There is more of it, and at a higher quality, than perhaps at any other moment, certainly in my lifetime. Dinosaurs love to lament the lost space in newspaper book reviews; a few years ago, the National Book Critics Circle fought, what seemed to me, a self-serving campaign to save the book review, by which a handful of people really wanted to save their right to sell the same lame 450-word book report to a handful of regional dailies. You didn’t have to bother reading the book to write many of those reviews, and as a one-time daily books editor myself, who once assigned reviews to some of those active in this debate, it was clear that many critics did not. Now we have the Rumpus and the Awl and the Millions and the Morning News and Maud Newton and Bookslut and the Nervous Breakdown and Full-Stop and the Los Angeles Review of Books and HTMLgiant and you get the idea. Professional freelancers didn’t save the book review – the battle was won by the Internet and people who love reading. The culture is richer for it. Twitter’s a useful tool for keeping track of the idea explosion.

And as the savvy critic Roxane Gay wrote on Salon earlier this week, the Internet has also reorganized the relationship between readers and writers. The conversation is not one-way, through a new book that’s handed down every 18 months. It is ongoing, through all of these social media forums Franzen is so suspicious of, whether Facebook or Twitter. At a time when major publishers spend less time genuinely building an author’s career, a writer these days must – by mere dint of not being fortunate enough to have Jonathan Franzen’s sales or, perhaps, talent – not to curate your brand, to collect followers and friends, is to limit one’s chances to have a career.

To this argument, Franzen would probably say That’s exactly my point. These Twitter and Facebook personalities are about image, they are about sales, they are advertisements for your best self. They are not your true selves – they’re carefully edited selves. And however much careful editing might be part of the writing process, holding one’s true self back is antithetical to the author’s task.

Isn’t it possible that both Franzen and his critics are both right? When we organize ourselves online into groups based on what we’re most passionate about, we also form new families and tribes. In the early days of the Internet, back when we all had AOL addresses, I was part of an indie-music mailing list and got an early lesson in the way new identities were constructed online. People took new last names – the name of whatever their ‘zine or record label or band was called. It meant taking the one thing you could not change about yourself – the family name you were born into – and turning it into your truest passion. Two decades later, one’s Twitter name is the same thing; it’s easy to imagine writers and readers at the AWP conference last week or at South by Southwest this week introducing themselves with an @ in front of their names.

That the online book culture is full of branding and image-burnishing is hard to deny. But it is also a generous place, at its best, and writers who use these social media tools understand this. They retweet, they send out links to positive reviews and articles about other people, they congratulate each other on publication day. Promotional, sure — but if it’s news that a favorite writer has a new story in a small journal I wouldn’t have known about, well, that’s valuable news. Indeed, it’s at least as valuable as the phony and promotional blurb industry which Franzen seems to have no problem being a part of.

Unlike the blurb conversation, which is full of secret links between agents and editors, writers and MFA advisers, the Twitter talk is open for all to take part in and follow. To misunderstand (or to have the privilege not to understand) the power of this community building, or the way writers in an evaporating publishing world use this to amplify their own diminishing voices, is to miss something fundamental about how both the book world and the Internet works. As Forster might have said, being online is one way to “only connect.”

*

But no matter how generous the online book world might be, the name of the game, for many, remains branding, positioning, spinning. That’s the dishonest hall of mirrors Franzen objects to. And the sometimes dishonest response to his comments online, in many ways, only proves his point.

Sure, there’s clubs and cliques online. If Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, the Internet’s book world is where some folks who were once-marginalized — readers! — have now become the popular people. To my thinking, these readers and writers have built something deep and enriching. But with publishers and authors unsure of the future, but certain that it somehow involves being online, the Internet has the upper hand, and not everyone is comfortable with that transfer of authority and influence. Most big-name literary authors engage online in some way – Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody, Tom Perrotta, Nathan Englander, Bret Easton Ellis, the list goes on and on. Some authors are amazing at it; others are dragged kicking and squirming. If your favorite author isn’t already part of the conversation that any reader can follow, they likely will be when their next book comes out. Follow me, like me, be my friend.

Jonathan Franzen is the biggest celebrity in this world. He will not play in this sandbox. More than that, he thinks the sandbox — this community — that these young writers and midlist writers have worked hard to build — is worthless and the opposite of the real tasks performed by real writers. So sure, it is easy to understand why the Internet reserves such special bile for him, in return. It’s almost too easy. There’s the offense taken when someone who isn’t online, criticizes something they don’t really know anything about. There’s the ease of saying things about someone who isn’t listening, while everyone else is RTing and liking. (Aimee Mann learned that the hard way; while you’d think we could all agree that Ice-T is a limited actor on “Law & Order,” when she said so publicly on Twitter, the man himself was listening and suggested she do something untoward with a fiery bowl of penises.)

And he makes a damn good lightning rod, because if the Internet is also about sending spitballs at the elite, there’s no bigger target than this rare writer who has figured out sales and acclaim, who wins awards and tops bestseller lists. Who appears on Charlie Rose and the cover of Time magazine.

Want to start a debate about middlebrow vs. highbrow, men vs. women, commercial vs. literary? Franzen guarantees you attention. He gets dragged into many of these arguments — and often simply allows them to flare, without comment of his own, the price of smart debate. When Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult coined the term #Franzenfreude as a Twitter hashtag to describe their pain over the “multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen,” it wasn’t really about Jonathan Franzen. It was about who gets taken seriously and who gets to decide. It was about respect and fairness and balance. But in the end, Weiner merely hoped that other women writers would be reviewed as often as Jonathan Tropper, not that everyone got Franzen-level acclaim. Of course, #Tropperfreude would hardly generate the same coverage in the New York Times or on NPR.  And that Franzen has written introductions to the work of Paula Fox and Christina Stead that certainly turned thousands of readers on to their work (well, at least me), giving the amazing gift of a new readership decades later, often gets lost in the din.

Likewise, as Laura Miller pointed out on Salon this week, the online response to Franzen’s focus on Edith Wharton’s looks was in some ways a misreading of what he actually wrote.

The way I read it, he wants to see Wharton as, at heart, “an isolate and a misfit, which is to say a born writer,” and no doubt a lot like himself. In the same way that a novelist uses a character’s desire to coax readers into sympathy across boundaries of gender, class, race and time, for Franzen, teasing out this kinship is what stirs his sympathy and allows him to identify with Wharton. Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that seems to have had the reverse effect on how everyone else feels about him.

*

Doesn’t he care? Shouldn’t he be embarrassed, or worried that his points are being lost, or something? Shouldn’t someone have said, “Dude, stop talking about Oprah in interviews”? Or isn’t there a New Yorker editor who might have pointed out that Franzen could come off as small and petty and jealous in what was supposed to be an appreciation of his late pal David Foster Wallace? After all, for someone who seems to hate Twitter for the way people live out loud, he sure does seem to live out loud in careless ways.

But what if what seems like carelessness or callousness is really a writer bent on fierce honesty? That might not make Jonathan Franzen less of an ass, as one blogger headlined her item about his Wharton essay. What if what Jonathan Franzen is really giving us is the best of himself and the worst of himself, at a time when we’re all watching every word and carefully minding our images to appeal to online friends who aren’t really our friends, just people we want to buy something from us, or like us, to vote for us or listen to us. That might not be the honesty we want from our friends, whether real ones or of the Facebook variety. But isn’t what we want from our artists?

In some ways, Franzen’s public agonizing – whether about Oprah or e-books, about Twitter or Facebook – looks like the same old authenticity debate that killed Kurt Cobain, the agony of the privileged artist who doesn’t know how to handle success. But perhaps we should look at it differently. Maybe Franzen is actually the successful writer who knows exactly what he wants to do with his platform: He wants to make a case for the way people should read, for the very meaning of honesty and expression and truth. He wants to find a way beyond shame, beyond worrying about what others think — for the sake of getting closer to the truth in his work.

As he says in the the “Autobiographical Fiction” lecture:

All loyalties, both in writing and elsewhere, are meaningful only when they’re tested. Being loyal to yourself as a writer is most difficult when you’re just starting out — when being a writer hasn’t yet given you enough of a public return to justify your loyalty to it … And the question then becomes: Am I willing to risk alienating someone I love to continue becoming the writer I need to be?

Franzen’s willing to alienate everyone. And if that’s what it takes to have “Freedom” and “The Corrections,” I’m glad someone has the discipline to make ruthless calculations few others would be capable of. Perhaps this is the real Franzen paradox: Can you keep in touch with basic human connection and still be a great writer? Or, in pushing past that point where you care what others closest to you think, does your work lose something real, as well?

It might yet backfire on him. He may turn out to be speaking “truths” few want to hear. And, ironically, he might have more influence if he engaged with that which he despises. In that commencement address at Kenyon, however, Franzen said that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect who you really are. That everything else is fraudulent. It’s a debate that is not going to be settled anytime soon – does the Internet bring us closer together or push us further apart, does it make us more genuine and generous, or more phony and posturing and pedantic? Do we really like what we like on Facebook, and who are these people, really, who we consider friends. Do we like ourselves on Facebook, or do we recognize the artifice? There’s almost something comforting, however, about the comfort Franzen has found deep within his self. He’s settled these questions. He’s chosen art. The rest of us have to keep wrestling.

David Daley is the editor-in-chief of Salon

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