Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What Jonathan Franzen is really angry about

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
One interesting response came from Amanda Hess in Slate. In her analysis of Franzen’s ode to the 1950s and ‘60s (except the nasty bits like Jim Crow), Hess writes: “But Franzen fails to draw any connection between the segregated swimming pools of his youth and his own ability to ‘find my place’ as a writer in the long tail of that old world.” This seems spot on, for Franzen’s reaction to the changing literary landscape is conservative in several senses of the word, but Hess goes far enough.

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!)

Salman Rushdie
Then, when Franzen turns his attention to the baleful phenomenon of self-promotion, the man he singles out is Salman Rushdie with his ungodly 2,525 tweets. As Jennifer Weiner wonders, why not Nicholson Barker or Jeffrey Eugenides? Weiner attributes Franzen’s decision to give Eugenides a pass to their friendship, but that can’t be the entire story.

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.


  1. Love this, esp as I've been steaming over David Gilmour's essay in which he cheerfully announces that no woman (or Chinese!) author is good enough for him to teach, other than Woolf randomly. Like Franzen, he only wants white guys (straight ones, Gilmour is quick to point out) in his world, too.

  2. This is the snob who didn't want to be an Oprah pick, too, because he thought it was too demeaning or something (or maybe it was closet sexism/racism even back then, who knows?). I read his first book - got it on one of those discount tables for $1. *snickering* Didn't like it; thought the writing was muddy, rambling and confused and not one of his characters was likable.

    I'm sure there are some people who think he's a marvelous writer and almost as smart as he thinks he is. But it sounds to me like he's as deluded as the people who send wedding presents to their favorite soap couple - because the 50's was some golden era of publishing in his head, doesn't make it so in reality.

  3. The Golden Age often refers to who is rolling in the "gold" at the time: tycoons, gatekeepers. Today's indie publishers are redefining the golden age as a time of opportunity. Many of us are not rolling in the gold. But we are rolling in ideas and freedom and that can only create a more robust book world. We laugh at snobbery. We welcome everyone. I am president of the Midwest Independent Publishers Association and an indie publisher. I see people every day trying to create the best books they can. Stop moaning. Instead, write and review and talk about books.

  4. Not sure if I agree with the thesis here. The fact that self-published literature is almost universally terrible suggests that Franzen is a snob for literature instead of white dudes. I would have to see a lot more evidence of Franzen slamming on minorities and celebrating dead white dudes to sign off on such interpretation.

  5. Very fascinating discussion of his essay!