Jonathan Franzen has written a book about a writer once nicknamed the “Great Hater,” and announced it with an essay in which he hated on a lot of things, including Twitter, Salman Rushdie, Jeff Bezos, Jennifer Weiner, the Mac guy in Apple’s Mac vs. PC ads… the list is long.
While his jabs against Bezos and Rushdie have gotten the most attention, if you read the whole essay he actually comes across as somewhat sheepish about hating the modern world so much, ultimately acknowledging that “Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal.” But underneath that seeming self-awareness is an author who is unwilling to acknowledge that what makes him angry is the prospect of people like him losing their place of privilege as the world changes.
It’s somewhat strange at first blush that Franzen, who once wrote an essay criticizing overly difficult books, is devoting an entire book to a satirist whose prose was intentionally dense so that it would only be appreciated by fellow sophisticates. In other words, Kraus’s intent was not to write beautiful, if difficult prose, or to grapple with complicated concepts, but rather to create an artificial bar of entry, like a literary velvet rope from behind which he could sneer at those whom he deemed insufficiently enlightened to pass.
This is a prose of exclusivity and of a singular belief in the author’s inherent superiority. Franzen is channeling and articulating his rage about the world through this particular author, whom he first read when his adolescent anger was stirring.
Franzen tries to head off charges of elitism against Kraus, saying:
Although Kraus could sound like an elitist, he wasn’t in the business of denigrating the masses or lowbrow culture; the calculated difficulty of his writing wasn’t a barricade against the barbarians. It was aimed, instead, at bright and well-educated cultural authorities who embraced a phony kind of individuality – people Kraus believed ought to have known better.
Ah yes. It’s the phony individuality of “cultural authorities” that is worthy of critique, as opposed to would-be cultural authorities like Kraus/Franzen, who, it must be noted, are the real individuals.
The three straw men of the apocalypse
Very tellingly, this is the point in the essay where Franzen pivots to go on the attack, with the first of three irresponsible throwaway lines that show his unwillingness to grapple with the dark underside of the world he wants for us:
I confess to feeling some version of [Kraus’s] disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter. Or when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, N+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally “male,” celebrates the internet as “female,” and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers.
Franzen hates Twitter. Fine. Clearly he doesn’t follow someone like Seinfeld Current Day, which is operating on three or four levels of satire with every 140-character tweet, but okay. His loss. (Here’s Rushdie’s response).
Instead, let’s unpack the sneering false dichotomy Franzen sets up in the last line.
N+1 denigrated print magazines for being terminally male, maybe, ya know, because the magazines that publish essays by people like Jonathan Franzen still employ a vastly disproportionately male staff and publish vastly disproportionately articles and essays written by men. Even when women are published in these places, they are often speaking in defense of traditional gender roles. And meanwhile, the Internet, that terminal scourge of everything, is opening up new avenues for female voices, including, I should note, via Twitter.
Even if you accept that it’s harder for freelance writers to make a living these days than it was in the past (Franzen doesn’t provide evidence), he seems unwilling to accept a tradeoff between a world where female voices have greater prominence for one where it’s harder for writers to make money.
Guess what: I’d make that trade! I find a world with more balanced voices better on the whole than one where writers have to hustle more to make a living. But it’s a false choice to begin with. In the world we actually live in, the Internet is not currently preventing writers of the likes of, say, Jonathan Franzen, from profiting from having their work published online.
Ladies, please grab your laptops.
It’s also telling, in a passage where he aims to demonstrate his beneficently open mind about the coming print apocalypse, Franzen takes a dig at Jennifer Weiner:
But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers.
I follow Jennifer Weiner on Twitter. She is opinionated, she is funny, and she does some hilarious Bachelor live-tweeting. I don’t always agree with Weiner, but then again, there is no one in the world I always agree with.
What I don’t see Jennifer Weiner doing is relentlessly self-promoting Jennifer Weiner’s books. Seriously. Look at her Twitter feed and try to find a shameless plug for her books.
Perhaps what rankles Franzen instead is Weiner’s steady critique of the New York Times Book Review, believing it to be sexist and elitist. Or, as Weiner herself postulates, perhaps Franzen was irked when Weiner used the term “Franzenfreude” to criticize the vast breadth of coverage of Freedom when it was released to the exclusion of, well, pretty much anything else.
The point that Weiner makes (and which Franzen to my knowledge has never tried to refute) is that it’s convenient for Franzen to attack Twitter and self-promoting authors because he doesn’t have to self-promote and doesn’t need to be on Twitter because the print world and media establishment does it for him. He doesn’t have to get down in the muck like the vast majority of the writers he’s ostensibly advocating for. And he is plainly disdainful of having to do this icky work himself.
That brings us to the last appalling throwaway:
But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows. It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer.
Oh yeah, except for that.
The thing is, even though he’s intelligent enough to know better, when you add these passages together it’s hard to avoid the impression that Franzen is yearning for a world where someone like him can reap the maximum benefits from the system that existed in the past, nevermind if it was inextricably bound up in an environment where women and minorities were insufficiently represented. It was a world where publishers invested in young writers like him, where a patriarchal establishment got to decide what was good for everyone else and constrained the public’s choices in advance, and there was no alternative outlet like the Internet to challenge that order.
Maybe Franzen wants it both ways, where everyone is serious and erudite and Twitter doesn’t exist and also women and minorities are equally represented in the high cultural waters. But he never makes this case, preferring to snipe at the world as it changes without articulating how print establishments can preserve the things he loves while admitting a more balanced array of voices, something they’re still failing to do in 2013.
Thankfully, there’s the Internet. One man’s apocalypse can look a lot like another person’s opportunity.
Rage against the elderly German lady machine
To his partial credit, Franzen grasps that privilege is somehow bound up with his rage, but he seems vanishingly un-self-aware about it.
In a thrillingly bizarre and honest anecdote, Franzen ties the first stirrings of his young adult rage to women (noticing a theme?), namely to a penny-pinching German woman he had a bad experience with. He then throws coins on a train track, aiming to punish not just the individual woman but rather all the women like her in Germany, moving ever so deftly from disliking an individual to extrapolating to a broader group and never stopping to consider that someone who would willingly injure their hip stooping for coins very plainly needs the money he so blithely tossed away.
He was also upset at the time because he failed to have sex with a beautiful girl from Munich, which, he is careful to note, actually stemmed from his own decision rather than hers.
This passage has already been skewered deftly elsewhere, but I prefer to take it seriously. The genesis of Jonathan Franzen’s rage stems not from experiencing injustice personally or from feeling an empathetic aching after seeing an injustice committed against someone else, but rather from being forced to forego the spoils he believes he is entitled to. The world simply isn’t giving him what he wants. (The girl from Munich’s thoughts on the matter do not seem to rate.)
Or, as Franzen writes about Karl Kraus:
I wonder if he was so angry because he was so privileged… the person who’s been lucky in life can’t help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insists on going wrong ways, corrupt and tasteless ways, he feels betrayed by it. And so he gets angry, and the anger itself further isolates him and heightens his sense of specialness.
Even though he sees this quality in Kraus, Franzen can’t seem to connect the dots that he was born into a world that was pivoted to his unique benefit and he wants it to stay that way as long as possible. So he zeroes in on those parts of the world that are changing in “corrupt and tasteless ways” of his own definition, which just happen to be things that potentially stand in the way of his continued privilege, particularly the disruption of traditional publishers and bookselling. (Ironically enough, the print institutions Franzen wishes to preserve were the disruptors Kraus hated in his day.)
Then Franzen turns those things around on us. This is not about his wishes and desires. No. It is for the well-being of the rest of us that we must preserve institutions and cultures that have heretofore existed to the extreme benefit of people like Franzen.
The thing is, he isn’t wrong about everything. The disruption of traditional publishing could lead to a race to the lowest common denominator or an Amazonian monopoly. Twitter really does sometimes lend itself more readily to mass freakouts and personal attacks than to thoughtful discourse. We do need to be mindful of being thoughtful and stopping to think once and a while as the world speeds up and changes so fast. But instead of articulating those cases, Franzen would rather just hate.
What makes Franzen a crank instead of a critic is that he is less successful at attacking things on their merits than he is at bemoaning that the world is changing in a direction that does not directly benefit him. Instead of making a compelling case for why the world as a whole would be better off if the things he hates ceased to exist or if society changed course, he attacks with false dichotomies, straw men, and ahistorical false utopias.
And that gets to the core of it. Rage is ultimately about impotence. It occurs when less intense negative feelings like frustration or anger aren’t given an outlet and are instead bottled up until the person’s emotions eventually boil over.
Living today in a more enlightened world than the one he craves, Franzen can’t very well go about advocating directly that people like him should enjoy still greater privilege. That leaves a second option for an outlet, which is to adapt to the world as it changes, something Franzen is resolutely unwilling to do.
Thus, rage and hating. But much like the Incredible Hulk or a hysterical toddler, people who rage can only destroy things. They never win an argument or build a palliative alternative.
So much the better. Franzen can have his impotent rage. We’ll go on changing for the better.
Art: Knabe mit Schwesterchen by Albert Anker Schreibender