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.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It’s Not Just Words.

It’s Not Just Words.

Back in the day, almost as far back as when man was first learning to harness fire for his benefit, I used to write screenplays. I started my writing career with a stage play, then immediately switched to writing movies (yes, the play was that terrible). I wrote movies for many years. Had some very small successes, many huge failures, but I loved the heck out of it.

Now I write books. My debut novel, Untold Damage, came out on April 8th of this year. Next April will see the second Mark Mallen novel, Critical Damage.  A lot of people liked my debut novel, and that is super-duper awesome as it took me about ten years to learn my craft, get an agent, and then get a publishing deal. One thing that everyone who reads the book agrees on, outside of liking Mallen (which bodes well for a series, right?), is that the book is very visual. And that’s where we come to the point of this post: writing with a visual style.

And just how do you do that, you ask?

You write in all forms.

Screenplays. Plays. Even poetry can teach you something. Screenplays are all about movement and action, with as little dialog as possible. Plays are the opposite, they’re mostly dialog, BUT, you also have to have a sense of where you want the actors, what you want them to do as they’re talking. That’s great practice for setting your scenes and writing about things as simple as a character moving from one room to the next. Poetry can teach you how to find the right metaphors, find the BEST possible word to draw your word picture.

You can find screenplays all over the Internet. It’s not a hard form to get the hang of, but it’s a very difficult form to master. Very few ever do. Obviously you can also find plays everywhere on the ‘net. Through writing screenplays, I learned not only how to write in a visual manner, but also how to tell a story that contains a strong forward movement and pacing. Through writing the one stage play that I mentioned earlier I learned SO MUCH regarding what good dialog is, and isn’t. (mostly isn’t). Through writing poetry, I learned how to better use metaphors to make the scene in my head match the scene I was writing.

I’m being very serious here, if not a bit convoluted, hahaha. Bottom line: If you want to be the best, most visual writer you can be, open yourself up to writing in different forms. Heck, even spend some time writing Haiku. Writing a Haiku REALLY shows the power of just the right word.

It’s this looking at words, sentences, and the story form in entirely new ways that will take you far. 

Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. He is a contributor to Macmillan's crime fiction fansite, Criminal Element. Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers Association. Untold Damage is his first novel. Visit him online at and at