Franzen doesn't get Twitter

The author calls it "the ultimate irresponsible medium." But he doesn't understand why people actually tweet

By Roxane Gay

Published March 7, 2012 3:52PM (EST)


This originally appeared on HTMLGIANT.

In some ways, we’ve brought this on ourselves; it is a slippery slope. First you wonder what Angelina Jolie had for breakfast because she was so great in that one movie or whatever and then you’re buying cereal and thinking, “Does Oprah eat Raisin Bran?” Eventually, you even start to give a damn about what famous writers think about the weather or, say, social networking, and someone like Jonathan Franzen revels in his dislike of Twitter and other means of social networking from his Important Writer perch and we respond because if Franzen hates Twitter, does he hate us too? The angst is unbearable and yet it’s all sort of inevitable.

Franzen’s A Great American Writer and all but I don’t give a much of a damn about his opinions on anything (see: Edith Wharton obvi). Or I do. Is it really surprising that Franzen doesn’t care for Facebook or Twitter? His overall comportment does not suggest an affinity for the levity of social networking. I can’t really say I love Facebook, myself. It has become increasingly hard to make sense of the interface and I keep getting invited to parties and readings in Bali and Temecula and I don’t live in those places, so the experience is, at best, fragmented. At the same time, I don’t need to proselytize my dislike unless I’m on Twitter. Who cares? My opinion doesn’t matter nor does Franzen’s, though he is Very Fancy, so in the calculus of mattering, his irrelevant opinion is less irrelevant than mine. Math.

J. Franz talking smack about Twitter, though, them's fighting words.

Jami Attenberg wrote down some of what Franzen said Monday night at Tulane:

Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring "The Metamorphosis." Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter "P"… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.

Is anyone really using Twitter to craft complex rhetorical arguments? What does responsibility have to do with chattering online? It’s like Franzen is saying, “I cannot swim in my car and therefore my car is not useful.” He doesn’t understand what Twitter is for. Of course he dislikes it. He’s working from a place of profound ignorance. His stance is one of those things where you have to say, “There, there, Mr. Franzen, here is your Ovaltine.”

Attenberg smartly concluded that

he doesn’t understand that a lot of writers have to use the medium as a promotional device as well as a way to build networks. He doesn’t have to do anything! He has a publicist who probably has dreams about him every night, whether he has a book coming or not. He is free to write and just be himself, while the rest of us are struggling to be heard and recognized.

Team Franzen has the infrastructure to publicize and promote Franzen. Who knows how he wastes time, but clearly it isn’t online, so he has no need for people to “Like” his pithy Facebook updates or retweet his deepest or shallowest thoughts about, say, yogurt. He has reached a niveau where he can make ill-informed statements about something trivial and in turn we spend the next several hours, days, weeks, parodying, poking and otherwise pondering those ill-informed statements on the very networks he denounces. The circle of life.

When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

If you attended the bookfair at AWP, you saw four rooms filled with magazines and publishers, and these attendees represented only a sixth of the magazines and small presses out there. It was a total zoo. Also, it was beastly hot. We were being punished. As I stood in the bookfair day after day, talking to writers, I was reminded of how we are all guppies in a very big pond. For those of us among the un-Franzen, there’s an intense amount of competition for any kind of attention. We are guppies together. Most writers write to be read. How the hell do you get read when there is so much to read? Sure, you have to do something interesting but you also need to do a little more. There are countless writers doing interesting things. Excellence isn’t enough. Make your peace with that already. As J. Attenberg says, the rest of are struggling to be heard and recognized but fortunately, there are great options to help us with that.

I was also on a panel at AWP about Literature and the Internet in 2012 with Blake and Kyle and Stephen Elliott and James Yeh. I had no voice so I awkwardly whispered into the microphone a couple times and it was very difficult because I had way more to say. Alas. One of the audience members asked if she needs a blog because she had heard in another panel that she needs a blog. She did not seem to actually want a blog. It was a good question. Last night a friend on Facebook asked if she needs to keep her Google+ profile she never uses. In fact, one of the questions I am asked most frequently is, “Do I need a [insert social networking platform]?” There’s a lot of anxiety out there about what we need to do as writers to reach readers.


What do we need?

I need to stay black and die. Everything else is relatively optional.

What do we need to do as writers?

We need to write. We need to write well and hopefully that will at least get our work into  places where we might be read. We don’t need to do anything else. However, if we want the work to be read by more than say, our parents, we should probably get connected, in thoughtful, non-annoying ways, to other writers and readers.

Social networking is a convenient way of creating these connections in a low-pressure environment. Franzen already has a million connections and a million readers so it is easy for him to sneer intellectually at social networks while using words like semaphoring. I looked up semaphore. It is an apparatus for visual signaling (as by the position of one or more movable arms or a system of visual signaling by two flags held one in each hand).

It’s interesting that Franzen wants to make social networking a conversation about responsibility because it is a little irresponsible to make such deliberately provocative statements a) about something relatively silly and b) without knowing anything substantive about the platforms.

When it comes to the social networking, do what you want. This is not as complicated as we make it. Ignore most of those well meaning articles about writers and social networking. Some of those articles are a little crazy and written by people who want you to Market Yourself and Be a Product.

Do what you like. Do what you want. Don’t stress. This should not be stressful. Social networking should not feel like a burden or obligation or something to be resented.  At the same time, get over the “self promotion is gross” thing. If you don’t like what you write enough to want to tell people about it, in moderation, don’t publish and that problem is solved.

If you want to be on Facebook, do that too but perhaps don’t ask people to like your Fan Page or whatever because if they haven’t already, they probably don’t want to anyway. If you want to be on Google+ with me and like six other people, do that, but know it’s very lonely there and lots of strangers who speak different languages will talk at you in those different languages and it can be confusing. If you want a blog, create one but update it and put more content on your blog than updates about your writing. Find something to talk about. I hear rejection works well or movies. The problem with social networking is not its triviality but rather its half-assedness. Writers feel this “market pressure” to “network” so they create social networking presences they have no idea how to use, that they have no interest in using, and then those presences languish and make the writer look like they don’t give a damn.

Do something where you are willing to show that you give a damn, however you interpret giving a damn.

Twitter is my favorite thing. If you like babbling about nonsense, and current events, and occasionally sharing links to your work, get on Twitter. I love that people willingly listen to me talk about Fage yogurt, "One Tree Hill," Scrabble tournaments and my writing, in that order. I love listening to you talk about your cats and babies and your drunkenness and all the other things you want to talk about in 140 or fewer characters. I love when you send me things to read because most of the time, those things are great. Most importantly, let’s keep it real—no platform is more conducive to collectively watching an awards ceremony than Twitter.

Franzen approaches social networking with far too much gravitas. If he had been on Twitter during, say, the Grammys, he would better understand what it is all about. He doesn’t want to be on Twitter, though. The desire is not there and it’s not a matter of necessity for him. In that regard, Franzen is modeling the right attitude toward social networking—do what you like.

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications

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