Jonathan Franzen recently reentered the public sphere with a jeremiad about the evils of self-promotion and that great 21st-century Moloch—the Internet. And he did so on the Guardian’s website with a 6,500-word promotional piece from his upcoming book. So remember when Kim Kardashian complained to her trusty cameraman—who was filming her Pilates class—that the paparazzi were so intrusive that she couldn’t attend a simple Pilates class without being caught on tape. Yeah, Franzen’s piece is kind of like that but with fewer single leg stretches. He’s incapable of admitting that he’s part of the very machine he’s criticizing.
Franzen—with his horned-rim glasses and punch-me smirk—appears to believe he inhabits some parallel economy untethered to the modern world. Adam Smith’s invisible hand apparently can’t reach Santa Cruz, CA. Who knew? Although he bemoans the passing of an age in which real writers didn’t have to self-publicize and were left alone to contemplate mortality and screw undergraduates, he doesn’t seem to understand that (a) this reality only existed for a very small segment of the literary world (i.e., a very white and very male segment) and (b) that it was brought about by the same forces of capitalist development that he abhors.
I may be a hardened lefty, but I do know that you don’t become a wealthy author because independent bookstores hand-sell copies of your work to eager, bespeckled readers of The Paris Review. You become a wealthy author because a publicity team at Farrar Straus Giroux funnels millions of copies of The Corrections and Freedom to big box chains who sell them at discounts that pummel the independent bookstores, leaving little shelf space for other deserving authors whose race or gender disqualifies them from becoming “the face of literary greatness.” So Franzen isn’t some quasi-socialist saint speaking truth to power. He’s an IKEA couch.Now, I’m not suggesting that he’s an IKEA couch incapable of writing. Although his fiction reads like a personal essay in search of a character, his digressive, maddening nonfiction is often quite good. But it’s usually good because he uses personal experience to illuminate a larger truth. In this Guardian piece, he instead uses the larger truth of technocapitalism to illuminate his personal grudge against tweeting. I imagine that someone at FSG said, “Hey, you want us to publish an annotated translation of an obscure Viennese philosopher—and pay you a sizable advance to do so. Fine, but perhaps you should help us, say, market this because we’ve recently laid off 75% of our marketing department. I hear Salman Rushdie is on Twitter.” And the great writer was displeased. He’s been asked to climb down from his lofty perch into the murky cesspool most of us call modern life, and he’s having none of it.
He’s apparently not used to being inconvenienced. Because not only is Franzen—as he himself states—a wealthy, straight, white man, who didn’t experience anger until the age of 22 but he’s also never had a job that didn’t revolve around his ineffable brilliance. Unlike most young writers who’ve actually worked in publishing, he doesn’t seem to know how the sausage is made. Spoiler alert: it’s heavy on P&L statements and a bit sparing with the craft.
While I mostly agree with Franzen’s contention that Amazon and its ilk are willfully impoverishing a generation of writers, I feel the need to point out that it was pretty hard for a writer to make a living before the advent of Kindle Singles. Search the autobiographies of renowned authors, and you’ll find about ten tales of financial success. And two of them are Mark Twain. If you seek out financially successful female or nonwhite literary writers, the list will become less a list and more a Google error message. You’ll find squalor, a few inheritances, and lots of writers living with their mothers. But you’ll discover that the wealthy literary novelist has always been a humanities unicorn—right up there with the myth of the tenure-track position at that well-funded English department. It’s not a real thing.
Franzen’s critical and commercial success is then not a standard we’ve lost. It’s an anomaly brought about by the marriage of big box stores and globalized culture. The Corrections and Freedom were easily movable products. They had all the trappings of literary significance: they’re written by a white man, they’re both about 600 pages long, and they supposedly tell the story of America. But they’re also easy to read. There’s nothing wrong with this. I, for one, would usually much rather read a page-turner than a novel ensnared in self-importance and subordinate clauses. But Franzen can’t benefit from a system and then turn around and mock self-promoting authors who don’t have his industry privileges. And he can’t pretend that these privileges were created by socialist bunnies.
So what Franzen is mourning isn’t so much the death of literary culture as the death of his literary culture. Barnes and Noble is failing. Borders is a footnote. And Wal-Mart only stocks books that reference Duck Dynasty at least once. In other words, writers like Franzen now have to scramble like everyone else. I don’t think this scrambling is necessarily a good thing, but I also didn’t adore the model that made Franzen famous. At least Twitter allows authors of every stripe to connect with a wider community of potential readers—including those who don’t have a subscription to The New Yorker. There are serious problems with publishing right now. But, I’m sorry, Mr. Franzen. Twitter isn’t one of them.