Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Privileged Rage of Jonathan Franzen

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.
Yes, Franzen actually points to the '50s as a bastion of intellectual vigor and environmental stewardship. (I guess DDT and acid rain and Ozone depletion and pre-Clean Air Act pollution didn't count. Oh, and antibiotics for livestock were approved by the FDA in 1951.) It was a wondrously enlightened world, except for the whole segregated swimming pool thing.

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 


Andrea Robertson said...

Great piece, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

Good piece.

What I find a little upsetting/confusing is that Franzen comes off looking like a grumpy old man. And he's not, at least not at a glance. He's an attractive man, still relatively young, and has a lot more to contribute. I can understand many of his feelings, but the world continues to evolve and move forward, and we can either embrace the changes and make them work for us, or live in an isolated box and complain about them. In Franzen's case, he's been lucky enough in life to choose the box. And I believe luck has a great deal to do with it.

Brendan said...

Tell me Franzen wouldn't be the most annoying person to speak to at a cocktail party. But, then again, he's probably against cocktail parties, happy hours, happiness.

Great piece, Nathan.

Petrea Burchard said...

Thank you, Nathan. This piece is well thought out and even-handed. It helps (dare I say it?) that it comes from a white male.

What's the saying? "The only inevitable thing is change." I can go with it or I can rage against it. I get to choose between the former and the latter, between peace and misery.

Cassandra Dunn said...

Well put! I appreciate a calm, thoughtful response to a rant.

Elana K Arnold said...

Really, really well said.

Anjali Mitter Duva said...

Thanks for this confirmation of my own reaction. I wrote my own response a few days ago, and while few people will read it, it did feel good to examine and explain what about Franzen's rant rankled me so much.

abc said...

Well, if I didn't know before (I did) you are smart, thoughtful, and wise. I can see why you got into Stanford, too. You know how to make an argument. You know how to weave words.

I haven't read the essay yet. I'm not sure I want to. I like Franzen as a writer (of fiction) but I wonder if he's having a mid-life crisis. Perhaps he feels like the world is passing him by and rather than go with the flow he's getting pissed.

Also, I like the Mac guy!

Mirka Breen said...

Nicely done, Nathan.

Franzen is a professional kvetcher, and he does it very well. We have such in many of our national treasures (I say this not in sarcasm) like Woody Allen, whom we accept more readily because he makes us laugh while at it, and half of NYC's literati. I'm one who sees this as a useful cultural function and don't get riled up about it.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Great response! Weiner's response was awesome as well and it's worth a read

Johanna Garth said...

When I read this essay I found it like the rant of an elderly man who is terrified of change and who, instead of figuring out how to adapt, wants to vilify it.

Enjoyed your breakdown of it.

Jaimie said...

This is awesome. Thanks so much for writing this. So thought-provoking and life-enriching.

A few standouts:

"...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."


"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."

This is convicting. I was raging on the phone to my mom recently about the source of my sadness: that I was promised things in the 90s and wasn't getting them. Yes, I also raged about actual issues like that goddamned glass ceiling women have and how I'm certain if I were a male I'd be doing much better financially, but my white privilege was there. Not everyone was doing well in the 90s...

"(Ironically enough, the print institutions Franzen wishes to preserve were the disruptors Kraus hated in his day.)"

I feel that Franzen addressed this in the essay, admitted that to some degree he is a byproduct of his time in what changes he finds offensive and that there are any changes to find offensive.

Again, wonderful post. I'm off to read what Jennifer Weiner had to say about women in journalism.

Elisabeth Zguta said...

I am saddened that an 'educated' man like Franzen can grow into such a small minded person. His rants show his inability to cope with change and interact nicely with others. Ideas like his are hurtful, and although I enjoyed your post and others who wrote about his rant too, I think we spend too much time on people like him. I was also born in the fifties, but I embrace the changes made to better society. Books reflect what is happening in society – not just the elite side one hopes. Life is not perfect, but the more voices that can be heard, the better the world. We are lucky things are a changing... thank you for your thoughts Nathan.

Katie said...

This is incredible. Thank you for this.

Sanna said...

Does Franzen remind anyone else of Salinger? Well Franzen despair of the literati and decamp to the NH woods with a succession of 18-year-old girleens and cease to publish?

Bruce Bonafede said...

Sounds to me like he's channeling Evelyn Waugh, but not being nearly as funny and annoyingly charming about it. No, wait, he's going for the Norman Mailer Prize as blowhard of his generation. Yep, that's it.

Laurie Boris said...

Well done, Nathan, thank you. Odd how Franzen often comes out swinging when he has a new book to promote. His swipe at self-published authors did not go unnoticed, either.

Bryan Russell said...

Hear hear.

David Biddle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Biddle said...

One thing I've seen in my 55 years of life is that a big hunk of people at about the age of 40 stop relating to others and have difficulty adapting to change and enjoying life. I used to believe it had something to do with creative intelligence. Now I see that it has more to do with being happy and feeling love for others and love for life.

I'm going to guess Jonnie Franz would be much happier were he not so "successful." Success can make people think they're the smartest person in the room. What you Nathan and so many others kind of show is that indeed he is not the smartest guy in the room ... nor the sharpest tool in the shed. That really sucks for him.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Well. I'm glad to see this, Nathan.
I personally think Franzen has gotten far too much publicity for being Franzen, "the greatest living novelist," and, perhaps understandably, it seems to have gone to his head.

What, in fact, is his essay, his diatribe, but an attempt at promoting his next book--what, the media attention and hype surrounding first The Corrections and second, Freedom, weren't enough?

"Rage is ultimately about impotence."

Bingo. You hit that nail right on the head.

For a novelist to decide to rant in public--that's what an essay, or a book, can boil down to--he must think extremely highly of himself, or think others do, for anyone to want to actually hear or consider his opinion of what's wrong with the world and how not to fix it, but how to express it.

No doubt, unlike an unknown free-lancer attempting to make a living off of either their opinion or even research, Franzen was paid, and if not well, better, because he was Franzen, for writing the piece that ultimately is a long plea for people to read his next book (because, what, 140 characters is too constricting to him?).

I can see him leaning over to strangers at a bar over a beer or whiskey to make his points. But that's my point: his entire rage against the present, and possible future, compared to his idealization (really?) of not even really his youth but before his youth, a time already idealized in fiction since it's passed and people aren't raging against it, winds up the kind of venom spewed by impotent, helpless drunks who will spew to total strangers because the people they know or people who care about them have heard it all, too much, too often, and no longer care to be around.

I was born in 1959. I've been writing fiction probably as long as Franzen. But I wasn't annointed by the reigning publishing elite. Not because what I wrote was too complicated, or too low brow. But because what I wrote was mostly set in a country at the time no one was interested in; my experiences were not taken as much other than youthful imaginings because of my youth, because other than my first agent few publishers considered at my late teens or even early 20s, I'd be capable of writing about "real life," and more than once publishers and agents all lamented that, rather than writing like someone they already were selling, I wrote not like anyone they were already making money off of.

I suspect Franzen "sold out," he compromised his supposed literary integrity to be published, to be famous, to be touted as our "greatest living novelist," and may in fact be a bit bitter (like myself) that now, at 54, neither he nor I have won the Nobel Prize for literature we both feel we should have.

Honestly, I worry for Franzen. While my writing career has suddenly taken off--I've gotten two publishers of different genres in the past year, who have published both those novels--he may, in fact, be quietly noting he's had his peak. He's on the downswing.

Anyone who laments, as he seems to be, their youth, is by simple logic expressing a feeling not only of helplessness, but helplessness at being aware not only that the world around them has changed and is changing, but that they are changing. We're aging.

At 54, Jonathan Franzen now sounds like a bitter, raging, old man.

I hope to whatever resulted in my suddenly being "discovered" at middle age that I won't waste it on feeling old. I expect to have plenty of time for that in the next 54 years.


Anne R. Allen said...

Beautifully put, Nathan. My reaction was similar: this is an aging guy losing his power, screaming at the kids to get off his lawn.

Jaimie said...

David Biddle and Terin Tashi Miller -

I loved your comments. I love your perspective and wisdom on this.

David, I especially love you describing why you think people over 40 go... small-minded. I would have guessed it was just small-mindedness, but this is a good lesson to me to LOVE LIFE. That is the most important thing. Loving myself, loving others.

This comment is so zen and so not like me. Carry on, everyone.

Desmond X Torres said...

Oh God, Frazen has brought back a memory on my part when I dipped my foot into the intellgensia of the NY Hoi Polloi…

Back in the day, I was 24 (born in ’58) and I was a potatoe headed flatfoot working Anti Crime in the Bronx. By virtue of an outstanding elementary and elite HS education I had some smarts. I cannot recall exactly where I heard of ‘em, but I wound up corresponding with this outfit called Mensa. They sent me a frikkin’ package (of course after I sent them a check for I think fifty bucks) of stuff that I had to fill out.

Then I got my Offishial, Dam I’m Smart Certified Genuis Kard and an invite to meet like minded people at a hotel in midtown.

Nahh… I wasn’t the Algonquin, but it was a nice place.
When I got there I met my fill of Franzen clones.

They were so impressed with themselves it revolted me.

Don’t get me wrong- they were dressed real nice. And they talked about such … well, I don’t know WTF they were talking about. I didn’t read the SoHo Evening News nor the Village Voice. My claim to smart was the NY Times and Daily News…

I was probably the only guy in the ballroom who had come down from the Bronx. I was probably the only guy there who hadn’t graduated from NYU or Columbia. I am pretty sure I was the only guy there who was a cop.

The intellectual arrogance… the woeful real world ignorance of what things can be like… offended me.

Every conversation I watched was nothing more that people trying hard… really hard to demonstrate what esoteric knowledge they had gleaned. Yeah, it was like the bar scene from Good Will Hunting, except I’d never claim to be Matt Damon.

My take was “This is the best and the brightest?” What a waste of time. I wished I could get my hundred bucks back. I left after about 45 minutes. Yeah, I tossed my Membership card away somewhere.

No great loss.

Franzen’s a punk. A snot nosed punk who really doesn’t have a clue what the experiences are of the disaffected. The funny thing is his social circle is so narrow. His actual experience is so limited.

He’s more than welcome to play his mental masturbation. And there’s still enough of a cohort left for him to impress and make his living from. But man oh man…

I sure wouldn’t waste my time having a beer with him. Cuz in the final analysis… were I to ask him ‘Buddy, what do you DO?’….

He’d draw a blank.
Toddle off Junior.

JulieD said...

"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."

Thank you, thank you, for taking the time to come up with an eloquent way to express that which had me stuttering and flailing and ultimately failing to put together a coherent sentence. You're right, he's not all wrong: he just sounds like a Victorian dad railing against the loosening of corsets!

L. Shanna said...

When I catch a piece about Franzen I usually don't bother reading on. He presents himself as such an arrogant jerk that I have no desire to read his books, no matter how "great" they are. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Nathan. You make me want to pick up a Jennifer Weiner book just to stick it to Franzen.

Anonymous said...

What JF really wants is people to pay attention to him and pay him. This is what he got -- and will get but not from me. I don't do petty, self-importance. I've got too much of that in my own self to deal with.

Carol Holland March said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent post. You put your finger on the difference between hate and compassion.

fangsandclause said...

Thank you.

Except for the part about how freelance writers are paid less (and not just less, but abysmal), I love to see a good critique/takedown of privilege.

Barbara Bartels said...

Great piece that comes across as fair criticism. Enlightening.
I have had a hard time reconciling my feeling that Franzen's books were well crafted and well worth having read (as opposed to reading -- a discomfiting process) with the sense that I would really dislike being in the presence of the author, that he must be a truly miserable person to be around. Franzen's nastiness gets in the way of his own good storytelling.

AR said...

If Franzen's essay is privileged rage, do this review and all the comments constitute envious rage?

In short I don't read this essay as expressive of longing for the past - the whole point of the article is that he started out angry and poor and had to give up his rage with his success. Kraus, he says, was different because of the differences between writing novels (a sympathetic art) and writing satire (an antithetic art.)

Finally, he says that Kraus' relevance to our situation is to be found in the individual and modern nature of apocalypse - the fact that generation gap recurs every generation now and that everyone who lives to be old will feel that humanity as they defined it in their youth is being rejected.

In other words, how you all will feel when we are old and no one is moaning about under-representation anymore.

I keep wondering why everyone keeps going on about that. Obviously it’s taught in school or it wouldn’t be so universally felt and asserted, like a theological tenet or something. But more than that, you all appear to have adopted a value whereby the function of a writer is not to write well and speak from humanity to humanity, but rather to justify the existence of his demographic group.

White men, the story goes, have already done that, so they should shut up and move over - or if, like Nathan, they continue to write despite their whiteness and maleness, they must pay constant lip service to being colored and female.

Men largely invented literature as we know it. Of course they are going to excel at it - it's their thing. To be jealous of someone else's inheritance is to denigrate your own. When a woman wants in (as I do), then she is tacitly accepting that men are naturally the "representative" sex - the sex that defines humanity for females just as females define sexuality for males. (Oh, are you going to hate me now.)

Or to put it another way, the same sub-culture can’t churn out rap and hip-hop and at the same time be a major producer of literary novelists. The forces that cause women to dominate the romance novel market make them less productive in other areas.

Meanwhile, because of this review, I went to read the Franzen essay - the first thing I've ever read by him. What a Cassandra. The last few paragraphs are full of pathos. I'm not a nihilist but that's good writing all the same.

And I agree with you, Nathan, that we don't necessarily have to choose between one world and another - why not cherry pick virtues and try to have them all? On the other hand, Franzen's approach may simply be based on the recognition that logical connections between ideas and conditions mean that worlds do tend to be closed systems.

He says that his anger began as a reaction against an encounter with a penny-pinching old woman. Nathan, you interpret this as misogyny, but how do you know it wasn't a matter of someone being so stingy that she refused to help Franzen when he was in need? Are there people like that? Yes. I recall a woman who refused to give her hungry grandson a peanut butter sandwich when he begged because she hadn't budgeted for it. This woman was able to buy new clothes regularly so by my standards she wasn't in enough need to justify that kind of thing. I recall another elderly woman who lived in constant terror of poverty and refused to spend enough on food for herself. When she finally let someone look at her finances, she turned out to have in excess of $2 million.

And why would a man in financial need throw away pennies? For the same reason, I imagine, that people cut or kill themselves - it really is rage, the kind that says "what is life without - whatever it is that makes life worth living?" Or in his case, "What good are pennies to me when I need thousands?" I've lived that rage. It's a foolish, poetic, potent sort of rage.

Yet I think it’s obvious that rage is innately harmful and doesn’t make good art. Zeal, now – the human soul’s incensive power – that has its place.

Brian & Max said...

Here here! Excellent piece!

Beverly Diehl said...

Bravo. Thoroughly and cogently argued, sir.

I notice two words kept popping up in your essay: rage, and impotence, and it wouldn't surprise me if JF felt himself... incapable, not only of facing the Brave New World of modern authorship, which includes Twitter and FaceBook and other bogeymen, but in many other ways, as well. Rage is often the flip side of fear.

Mister Furkles said...

So, basically you liked it. Right Nathan?

I wouldn't claim the world today is more enlightened. That's kind of pretentious. You can't reasonably judge a time when you're in it.

So, Franzen is a whiner and nobody wants to hear from a whiner. Maybe that is why we read Grisham instead.

Ted said...

Bravo, Nathan.

The few times I've picked up a Franzen book and started reading a random page, I've found him insufferable.

Here's the paragraph I landed on in THE CORRECTIONS.

The provident young person neither ate his bacon immediately nor let it be soaked by the vegetable juices. The provident young person evacuated his bacon to the higher ground at the plate’s edge and stored it there as an incentive. The provident young person ate his bite of fried onions, which weren’t good but also weren’t bad, if he needed a preliminary treat.

This provident boy put the Franzen book down and moved on to something less insightful.

bozobuttons said...

Well done! Somebody has to bash the sacred pinatas, just not me!

Hey, I like both the Mac and PC guy. The British versions of the ads are even better, because they star the comedy duo of Mitchell and Webb. The characters are still the same though.

Melanie Schulz said...

Nicely said.

Anonymous said...

mmm... very well argued, but i think in the process of taking apart Franzen vis a vis a thesis based on his rage based "privilege," you ignore the fact that while in residency at Yaddo, he found Paula Fox's "Desperate Characters" in the library, read it and championed it in Harper's, thus reinvigorating a career that had lapsed into near obscurity, or championing of Christina Snead's (even more obscure) "The Man Who Loved Children." Thus, your characterization of him as, essentially, a woman hating writer - or, a woman writer hating writer - is false. Yes, I think he's wrapped up in privilege but conflating his obsession with Kraus is, I think, to mistake his intentions which are (possibly?) more earnest than they read. (The Kraus Project, or whatever it is, is bad, IMHO, not b.c. it's the apotheosis of his mourning white male privilege but because it's boring.) Franzen's irritant has been his tone deafness born less of "male" or "white" than a specific literary community that encourages his elitism (I doubt that he would take issue with Jhumpa Lahiri's "Lowland), a privilege that white ladies also participate in -- because it advantages them. I think it's naive to subscribe to the belief that elites, male or female, white or brown, are any different because they are male or female. 1st wave feminism - white women who excluded lesbians from the N.O.W. platform - epitomizes your well intentioned but somewhat myopic impulse to cast "women" as a monolithic class. IDK when you last read n+1 but Carla Blumenkranz is the main (of three) editor, & while their coverage has shifted easy characterization as a platform for Chad Harbach et al (their coverage of OWS was on the ground reporting given historical context unequaled by other media outlets), though I would dispute your characterization as inaccurate - yes, a boys club, but they ponied up the money to start that magazine while working low paid gigs as adjuncts (and Mark Grief's early essays are amazing, far from any easy niche'fication.) As far as Weiner goes, sorry but while she's funny, and definitely has a demographic, her work (and I respect her drive) is 100% middlebrow: for all her kevelling about not being taken seriously, it's challenging to take someone seriously who clearly isn't invested in pushing form, asking knotty questions or aspiring to more than "sales." While her twitter feed may not explicitly shill for her latest release, it's a tap dance. Whatever you think of Franzen's evident tone deafness to technology & pop culture (birds!), his work has consistently exhibited a desire for excellence and depth that is being eroded maybe not by jennifer weiner but the Amazon driven race to a bottom. I'd be curious to hear what you think about Franzen's Kraus project compared with uber agent Andrew Wylie's interview in "The Nation" or if you've ever read Cyril Connelly's "Enemy of Promise." Just sayin' - er, saying.

Avery Tingle said...

It's very simple and often spoken, "adapt or be left behind". While the actual saying is a little darker than that, I don't want to come off wishing Mr. Franzen any ill will.

What I WOULD like, however, is to see his kind of thinking utterly extinct within the next ten years. Talk about an angry, desperate last gasp that makes no effort to contribute to the change, and thus, potentially thrive.

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