Dear Internet: Jonathan Franzen Is Not Your Enemy

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 10:20 AM

Dear Internet: Jonathan Franzen Is Not Your Enemy

His strange new book is essentially a multiauthor blog.

(Continued from Page 1)

Here is Kraus ranting about techno-optimism in “Nestroy and Posterity”:

… Repellent in spirit, perfect just the way they are, these times of ours are hoping to be overtaken by the times ahead, and hoping that the children, spawned by the union of sport and machine and nourished by newspaper, will be able to laugh even better then. There’s no scaring them; if a spirit comes along, the word is: we’ve already got everything we need. Science is set up to guarantee their hermetic isolation from anything from the beyond.

Here is Franzen, striking the same chord in a footnote to “Heine and the Consequences”:

… 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 pauperization of freelance writers. Or when good lefty professors who once resisted alienation—who criticized capitalism for its restless assault on every tradition and every community that gets in its way—start calling the corporatized Internet “revolutionary,” happily embrace Apple computers, and persist in gushing about their virtues.
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And here is Franzen, in a similar mode, but writing as the fictional character Walter Berglund, in Freedom:

… To Walter the message of every single radio station was that nobody else in America was thinking about the planet’s ruination. The God stations and the country stations and the Limbaugh stations were all, of course, actively cheering the ruination; the classic-rock and news-network stations continually made much ado about absolutely nothing; and National Public Radio was, for Walter, even worse … The NPR news unit, once upon a time fairly liberal, had become just another voice of center-right free-market ideology, describing even the slightest slowing of the nation’s economic growth rate as “bad news…”
Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen.

Shelby Graham

Elsewhere in Freedom, another central character, Richard Katz, a rock musician, rants about Apple products, consumerism, and the fake rebelliousness of his fellow troubadours. In The Corrections, Alfred Lambert rants inwardly about the deterioration of America’s transportation infrastructure, which parallels the deterioration of its morals; his son, Chip, rants about consumerism; Enid Lambert, Chip’s mother and Alfred’s wife, rants to herself about Alfred’s foolishness as an investor. Like Kraus essays, these rants build lyrical momentum as they draw the reader deeper and deeper into a pit of rage. Like The Kraus Project, and like the very best blogs, Franzen’s novels constellate their characters’ essayistic rants in such a way that the rants resonate with one another and achieve a greater meaning in concert than they could separately.

It’s sad, then, that so many bloggers view Franzen as an enemy. New York’s culture blog, Vulture, asserts that Franzen is “coming down on everybody else for liking their computers.” But in The Kraus Project, Franzen explicitly states that he likes his new Lenovo laptop and that computerized word-processing is essential to his writing process. Slate’s XX Factor blog alleges, in a headline for a post about The Kraus Project, that “Jonathan Franzen Misses the Old Days, When Women Couldn’t Tweet Back,” even though Franzen never connects Twitter to women, and explicitly rejects the notion that the Web should be thought of as female. There is no better affirmation of Franzen’s fears about what the Web has done to reading than the sloppiness with which his critics read him.

It seems the principal reason intelligent bloggers rush to judgment about The Kraus Project, and Franzen generally, is that Franzen attacks Twitter. He only does it for a few paragraphs, but this fragment of the book has been so discussed, in various interlarding blogs and tweets, that it has come to sound like Franzen’s single obsession. Thereby Franzen comes to be perceived as a famous, acclaimed writer raging at a form in which nonfamous, nonacclaimed writers often seek to prove and promote themselves, a big writer stomping on smaller ones. (To be fair, Franzen can be as careless as his critics: The n +1 piece he mentions in the quote above actually mocks the notion that the Internet is female.)

Like Kraus, Franzen both loves and hates the journalism of his time, which is why, like Kraus, he writes about it. Kraus once said, “I have nothing to say about Hitler,” because he directed his criticism only at educable, comprehensible subjects—worthy subjects. Franzen has said you must love your fictional characters but you must also be hard on them, and his harshness toward contemporary journalism is compatible with love.

It’s natural that bloggers who are more optimistic about Twitter than Franzen should return fire. I only wish they would read his books, not just the excerpts that make it online, or his quotes from interviews. They might discover an unlikely ally.

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The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen and Karl Kraus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Benjamin Nugent’s short story “God” appears in the current issue of the Paris Review. He is the author of the novel Good Kids and Director of Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.

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