The not so social #jonathanfranzen

Instead of reviewing only comic books and TV-series, I would like to add a little controversial touch to my new blog. This entry, for example, centers around a recent dispute between American author Jonathan Franzen and the English-speaking twitter-community. In order to fit in the quotes more smoothly and to join an on-going debate, I will switch to English this time.

But before jumping head-start into the discussion, let’s get the facts straight:

On March 5th fan-favorite writer Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections and Freedom) held a talk at the Tulane University, during which he mentioned his recent encounter with Facebook and Twitter. He used the social media-channels for his research and was quite irritated by it. The web-community was irritated as well, but rather by his comments.

Instead of summarizing Franzen’s comments, I would like to quote the man directly. Thankfully, writer Jami Attenberg was present at the talk and posted passages by Franzen on his blog Whatever-whenever:

“I personally was on Facebook for two weeks as part of a piece of journalism I was writing — it seemed sort of dumb to me. Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.”

According to Attenberg, Franzen continued:

„People I care about are readers… particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

The resulting irritation was reciprocal. While listeners applauded and agreed, the Twitter-community on the other hand reacted harshly. Feeling offend by the author, they created #jonathanfranzenhates. Since then they used the hashtag to post Chuck Norris-like hate-tweets about Franzen. I will not go into quoting these tweets. Just look them up on Twitter yourself. Surely, Franzen felt his opinions confirmed by these “attacks”. The Guardian’s coverage on Storify did neither help the debate to get rid of the shitstorm, nor did it really deal with Franzen’s superficial critique of social media.

Let’s take a closer look at Franzen and his opinions. Franzen is a promising American author, whose books are often praised for finally filling the empty space of the great American novel. Having read The Corrections, I have to admit that his fiction is quite a well-arranged mix of understandable and challenging prose. He dips into irony, presents the traditional American values ambiguously. Franzen paints the picture of an America that longs for peace, longs for hope, but continuously embarrasses itself on the way. His fiction speaks for himself.

One problem in American fiction: Writers are constantly invited by universities, such as Tulane, to talk about their writing. The university pays money for the author’s views and Franzen gladly takes the opportunity to present his dislikes. He likes to fashion himself as a highbrow-writer, who despises eBooks, criticizes Facebook and Twitter and mingles instead with „serious“ readers only, who “don’t yak about oneself”. Point taken, Mr. Franzen.

But what about the other Jonathan Franzen, who constantly „yaks“ about himself, about his fiction, about other people’s fiction, about the seriousness of fiction? I encountered this #otherfranzen in my dissertation. I am writing about the less known American author, namely William Gaddis. An author, who does not yak at all. In his essay for The New Yorker, Franzen calls Gaddis “Mr.Difficult”. Too complex is the fiction of the deceased author, too challenging his fiction. In the essay, Franzen puts authors in two camps: Writers like Gaddis belong to the status-camp, who write postmodern fiction, which excludes the reader and reduces the actual pleasure of reading. Franzen puts himself in the field of contract, which he “signed” with the reader. His fiction recognizes the reader and does not try to deny the pleasure to the reader.

Franzen seems to have a very precise view of what kind of reader he is writing for. He actively restricts his own readership to a mid-level of sophistication. Not too intelligent to encounter complex connections, but patient enough to read his novels instead of a 140 character-tweet. Franzen’s self-marketing-strategy seems to work out, he is in the media again, trying to create some interest in his work.

Dear Mr. Franzen, sometimes yaking about oneself can extend 140 characters. Why don’t you just let readers decide what and how they read, because some people are able to challenge the difficulty of William Gaddis and still cherish interesting threads and tweets on Twitter and Facebook. Looking forward to your next novel.

  • In agreeing with your argument, here – and you may know this already – are a few words on the status/contract divide by Dave Eggers, who agrees:

    „[…] there has existed a silent legion of readers, perhaps the majority of readers of literary fiction, who don’t mind a little bit of both. They believe, though not too vocally, that so-called difficult books can exist next to, can even rub bindings suggestively with, more welcoming fiction. These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week. There might even be […] readers who can have fun with Jonathan Franzen in the morning while wrestling with William Gaddis at night.“