Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Jonathan Franzen, Kanye West and the cultural appropriation of trolling

It's been ten years now since Kanye West caused an immense stir in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by staring into a camera and saying, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" next to a memorably dumbfounded Mike Myers. (George Bush later said it was the worst moment of his presidency).

Kanye West has of course gone on to say and do many more brazenly controversial things, including interrupting Taylor Swift's VMA award speech with "Imma let you finish but Beyonce had one of the best music videos of all time," to announcing himself as the successor to Steve Jobs, to most recently rambling at the VMAs before saying he's running for president in 2020.

Love him or hate him (for the record, I'm mostly a fan), Kanye West has mastered the art of capturing attention in the social media and reality TV era. It's not enough to just be a good artist these days (which he is), you also have to fight for attention and eyeballs, and one of the best ways to do that is to do or say something plainly ridiculous and watch it get retweeted through the Internetosphere.

It's why I find Kanye West's much-lampooned video for Bound 2 hilarious, which consists almost entirely of him riding a motorcycle with a naked Kim Kardashian in front of images of iconic American landscape, including stampeding white horses in slow motion. He even premiered it on the Ellen DeGeneres show for some reason. You can almost hear Kanye's challenge to America -- you know this is what you want, you know you will eat this up.

This is the art of the troll - taking our cultural sensitivities and proclivities, countering or fulfilling them in a brazen way, and using our resulting outrage as a ploy to capture our attention. Trolls have been around since the early days of the Internet, and that darkest of art forms has now seemingly risen to great cultural heights.

Jonathan Freezy

No less a personage than eminent Man Of Letters Jonathan Franzen has seemingly taken a page from the Kanye West playbook in advance of the publication of his latest novel, Purity.

In an interview with The Guardian, Franzen professed that he had considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan out of his frustration that young adults are insufficiently angry. Yes. The quote in full:
Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks. And was finally killed by Henry’s response. He made a persuasive case for why that was a bad idea. The main thing it did … one of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me. And part of what journalism is for me is spending time with people who I dislike as a class. But I became very fond of them, and what it did was it cured me of my anger at young people.
Adopting an Iraqi war orphan. Because he's confused why young people are insufficiently angry. In the same era as the Black Lives Matter movement. When Franzen's own greatest source of anger seems to be the plight of North American songbirds. It's completely ridiculous.

The quote reverberated throughout the Internet, just in time for the release of Purity, currently the #13 bestseller on Amazon. (It should also be noted that Kanye West's George Bush Katrina remark came just after the release of his album Late Registration, which went on to sell 3.1 million copies.)

Franzen can't be serious. He has to be trolling. Right? Or is he serious? Do we know? I can't tell. Pretty sure he's trolling. Pretty sure.

Meet the Franzdashians

Kanye West is of course married to Kim Kardashian, reality TV show extraordinaire, who came to fame via the Paris Hilton playbook, and has stayed there ever since via her family's uncanny ability to ensnare our attention.

One of the essential appeals of reality TV isn't that it's real, it's that it blends reality and fiction in a complex way, where we're left puzzling over what's real and what's not. It's why I like The Bachelor so much. It's unreality that somehow creates its own reality, and teasing out what's real is an entertaining but ultimately futile exercise. I mean, can we talk about Bachelor in Paradise??

We're living in an era where we're constantly, relentlessly besieged by fakery -- spam emails, parody Twitter accounts, The Onion, Andy Borowitz, vaccine scares, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. Every day we have to navigate this miasma and decide what's real. It's why Snopes exists. It seems fitting that our evening entertainment would capitalize on a dynamic that we spend a good chunk of our day navigating.

Franzen has, naturally, disavowed reality TV too. He suggested the "reality" at the start of this quote by Karl Kraus be changed to "reality TV:" "Reality is a meaningless exaggeration of all the details that satire left behind fifty years ago." Yet intentionally or unintentionally, he keeps feeding the beast and forcing us to wonder if his fuddyduddery and provocations are earnest or contrived. He's living out his own personal reality TV show in the old-schoolest way possible, through interviews in the newspapers and magazines that still exist.

All the while, we keep talking about him. I mean, look at me. I'm writing this 1,000 word post about Jonathan Franzen. It's the second time I've done this. I'm unintentionally promoting his book.

He sucked me in. Just like Kanye.


Other Lisa said...

I think Franzen's totally trolling. In fact, given what I've read about it, I think his latest novel is all a troll. I'm really tired of the guy, personally, both him and his work.

John Stanton said...

I had to the first in the comments to respond to the theme of this post with two words...

Donald Trump...

Bill said...

I just wanted to point out that your title used the word "appropiate", which doesn't exist. It just povides more poof of the impotence of poof-reading and spel-checking.

Bruce Bonafede said...

Interesting post, but I'm afraid I don't accept the premise that "It's not enough to just be a good artist these days." In my opinion this depends entirely on your motivation for being an artist. If you make art to make art, it is still "enough." If you make art because you seek validation, then no it's not. Now, everybody likes validation, but if gaining attention and success becomes as important to you as making art, you leave yourself vulnerable to being sucked in to the fakery of our celebrity/media/Kanye/Kardashian-driven culture, which deserves exactly zero of your time.

JOHN T SHEA said...

I refuse to comment on such trivialities.
Oh, wait...

wendy said...

Of those mentioned, I'm only familiar with Kanye West. However, I suspect if any of them were accused of trolling as their motivation all would react with offense and denial. With Kanye West, I wonder if he has come across the theory that our words, our testimony, contain power which can propel us into the stratosphere or bring us down into the depths. If we create our future through our beliefs made concrete through what we profess, perhaps what he's doing with statements like the claim he's running for Presidency is trying to fuel an optimum future. However, other than this piece of speculation, I don't get him at all, and on the surface he seems kind of hostile and deluded. His VMA speech bordered on the former. However, having said that, it's great people are trying to work out where he's coming from rather than just denouncing him.

wendy said...

Correction: I meant to write Kanye West's VMA speech bordered on the latter not former.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Dear Former Agent Man:
I completely agree.
Though, I have to note: I still blame publishing itself for becoming big media business, instead of smaller, "family" houses, like Charles Scribner's, and Putnam's, and Boni & Liverite, and Brown.
In addition to noting "trolling" as a marketing gimmick, have you (or others) also noticed that, for newer writers, at least, "image" is as important, or more, than actual writing?
It seemed (to me) to start around the time Sebastian Junger, a great writer and brilliant journalist, seemed to be being marketed as much for his "looks" as his skills after he penned the amazingly well-researched and written "Perfect Storm."
Now, "Author's Photos," (Profile pictures) seem intended to interest the reader as much as the author's books.
And I always get a kick out of seeing books on store shelves, the title of which you can't really see because the author's name is so prominent.
In other words, the authors, not their works, have become the "commodity."
And woe be any writer who wants to experiment, or try something new, "art," different from what the publishers and agents are used to making money at.
Thanks, as always, for your insightful post.

Anonymous said...

I love this post so much :)

You may or may not be amazed to hear that there are authors in small genres that do the very same thing and their readers just love it.

Tony said...

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all is that these trolls are becoming celebrities for nothing. And Troll Trump could be next president! What has happened to this country?

Kentish Janner said...

Nathan.... I can't believe you missed the opportunity to rename Jonathan Franzen 'Freezus!' ;)

But yeah, you're right, he's kind of like old Testament Troll. And I have to be honest, even though I'm in the UK (and your presidential elections therefore have nothing to do with me) if I was given a choice between Kanye West and Donald Trump... I'd go Kanye all the way.

WestSide said...

haha trolling rolling, nice, i also wrote an article about Kanye, its about how to date with him its funny!chek it out!

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