by Sam Thomas
By now, Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “What’s Wrong with the Modern World,” (a.k.a. “Hey you kids, get off my literature!”) has made a couple of trips around the internet, and excited quite a bit of commentary.
|Even at this moment, Johan Franzen |
is not as angry as Jonathan Franzen
According to Franzen, back in the Good Old Days, “every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers... who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control.”
There are a number of way to respond to Franzen’s portrayal of a prelapsarian literary world. First, we could actually have a look at it. While there are works of which Franzen might approve, they are outnumbered by authors along the lines of Stephen King and Clive Cussler; authors whom I loved, but probably do not pass muster with Franzen. And as Sara Gran pointed out (on Facebook, no less), wandering through the ten-cent paperback section of a used bookstore will quickly dispel any illusions of the past’s literary superiority.
As is so often the case, the Golden Age wasn’t.
But I think the more problematic element of Franzen’s lament is that it boils down to this: Literature and literary culture have become more democratic. The advent of self-publishing means that there is no quality control over what finds its way into print, and thanks to Amazon, GoodReads, and the decline of print journalism, “responsible book reviewers go extinct.” (It might be more accurate to say, “responsible book reviewers blog,” but never mind.)
What has happened, of course, is that power has passed out of the hands of the literary and publishing establishment and into the hands of the hoi polloi. This is the true revolution in publishing, and this is what Franzen cannot abide.
To be blunt, serious problems arise when we consider the place of gender and race in Franzen’s complaint. The old order that Franzen is hell-bent on defending was overwhelmingly white, male, and the product of established economic privilege. And with the exception of Bezos, who is only now becoming an establishment figure, the objects of Franzen’s rage are neither white nor male.
This is most obvious in the misogyny that drips from Franzen’s every word, as he attacks Jennifer Weiner, impoverished and elderly German women, and traces the roots of his anger to a woman with whom he didn’t sleep. (Ironically, Franzen resisted this Eve’s temptation, but he nevertheless found himself expelled from the Garden. No wonder he’s so angry!)
The fact is that as white men, neither Barker nor Eugenides challenge the established order, and as a result Franzen allows them to flog their books in public. But when Rushdie – and Weiner – do this, they are “yakkers and tweeters and braggers.” The demographics of this double standard are difficult to miss.
As a final observation, it is striking that Franzen’s lament is very much of a piece with conservative rhetoric since 2008. Both Franzen and the Republicans are baffled and alarmed by the rising power of women and minorities, and both have ceded the youth-oriented ground of social media to the enemy.
Like the Romney campaign in 2012, Franzen has no idea how to relate to those who are not like him. And both the Republican Party and Franzen have made it clear that the world would be a better place if these interlopers would go away. If they did, America could return to a time when white men monopolized political power and acted as both producers and arbiters of literary culture.