by Abbas A.
Jonathan Franzen is coming out with a new book. It is a book of essays that will probably be the same as his last book of essays. There will be complaints about the state of American letters, which is a problem Franzen contributes to, some more revelations about his remarkably boring family, a letter from Delilio, and numerous moments when Franzen will be a dick.
The truth is that Franzen is really good at being an asshole. He is a contradictory personality, one that begs for constant attention, but pretends to eschew it when he receives on terms that don’t suit his liking. His clash with Oprah is a perfect example, where he takes something that is mostly innocuous and renders it toxic, perhaps due to his ego. Franzen is a widely regarded asshole, a whiner, someone who is so absorbed in his own myopia that he contends that everyone suffers from the same near-sightedness that he does. He courts controversy with everything he says, but most things he says are completely meaningless.
For example, he calls Twitter an “irresponsible medium” which doesn’t allow for “facts” and “arguments.” Must a responsible medium of communication always rely on facts and arguments? Does the novel, in all of its history, rely solely on facts? Does painting? Does any art?
But Twitter can hardly be considered an art. It is simply a bulletin board of scrolling information, but Franzen’s understanding of it is probably tempered by his need for the grandiose, the verbose. Franzen styles himself as a novelist concerned with the Great American Novel, meaning that Franzen is concerned with writing big, didactic novels that encapsulate a zeitgeist. The irony is that Franzen often chooses the thinnest slices of middle class ennui, and then projects that ennui onto the whole country. He’s only concerned with white, middle-class suburbia, and if you aren’t apart of that group, for Franzen, you may as well not exist.
Twitter is the anti-Franzen. It is terse and direct. The arguments are merely links to other websites. Everyone has a chance to speak. Franzen’s ability, or more accurately, his authoritarian desire, to speak for people he’s never encountered is thwarted by the ability of those people to speak for themselves. It certainly isn’t an “irresponsible medium,” as he puts it. What is irresponsible is being so cocksure that you ignore the endless possibilities this technology allows (The Arab Spring and The Iranian Uprising in 2009 being excellent examples, though the future of political communication has been thrown into doubt). What Franzen hates is the inability of Twitter to accommodate churlish ramblings about issues no one needs his opinion on. A form as concise as Twitter would be a guillotine for a writer like Franzen, who needs space to express his pointless opinions.
I should retreat now, and say that there is nothing wrong with portraying small slices of American life. But there is plenty wrong (and dickish) about portraying small slices of American life, such as white, middle-class suburbia, and then say that that particular situation is an accurate cross-section of what it means to be American.
I often read Franzen’s novels with perplexity, as I never understand what the stakes are. I don’t understand why Franzen’s characters feel the way they do. I don’t understand middle-class ennui, because I’m desperate to be middle-class. In truth, most of the developing world would love to be American middle-class. I don’t understand the sense of desperation that Franzen tries to portray. Why do these characters feel this way? Are they stupid? Are they so self-obsessed, like their creator, that they remain in a loop of circular perspective, where each epiphany is a self-fulfilling prophecy that isn’t an epiphany at all? What I mean is that I’m confused as to why Franzen’s characters have almost an inhuman absence of self-awareness; they are stupid people.
In addition, Franzen’s novels pose a real question of identity to me: Am I outside the radius of what can encompass The Great American Novel? Does its circumference only enclose the shrinking group of people for whom boredom is a curse?
The questions Franzen poses are concerning to me because I find his answers baffling. Most of all I find him baffling. He’s an author that asks us at all times to take him at his word about events of his personal life, yet seems immune from criticism about it. Franzen is noted for his cantankerous attitude, as well as his obsession with the decay of the American family, and the decay of St. Louis. Mostly, he seems like a writer who has whined his way to fame, actively seeking it, but verbally eschewing notoriety when it comes his way. On a language level, I’ve never found his work particularly moving, though I haven’t paid close attention to his language, because he doesn’t ask you to pay attention to it. In contrast, take Ulysses, a novel Franzen has criticized for its obscurity, which forces you to pay attention to its language at a much closer level. That level of subtlety is beyond Franzen’s reach. The best example of this is the hilariously executed subplot in The Corrections involving Chip, who somehow ends up in a “nameless” Eastern European country, where a farcical set of events happen in a fairly quick, yet insanely stupid order. Somehow the commentary for Franzen was on the changing nature of Eastern European politics, but his execution of its complexity is sophomoric. He doesn’t respect the reader at any level, which is why most of his novels feel spoon-fed. He is a limited writer, but he seems to know he’s a limited writer.
Franzen’s persona poses a larger, more important question. As the cult of the author is dying (thankfully), what place in American society do authors have? They can always exist quite comfortably in the periphery of the academic landscape, where they are criticized for a lack of rigor (whatever that means), but Franzen represents the last of the old guard of authors who believed, at one point or another, that they were able to speak with authority on issues that affected many Americans.
Not anymore, as technology has democratized us, in such a way that traditional publishing, the bulwark against populism, is dying as well. We can hear any opinion we want, and most importantly, we can tune out any opinion. We don’t have to listen to dicks like Franzen, and maybe the only surprising thing is that he keeps talking.
Or maybe the most surprising thing is the universal agreement, the alliance of nodding heads that occur when you say, out loud, at a gathering, that Jonathan Franzen is a dick.