Sorry that I am just getting to Jonathan Franzen’s “What’s Wrong with the Modern World” essay now. It was published almost a month ago in The Guardian. Bloggers from Slate, The Daily Beast, New Yorker, and New Republic have already blasted it for Franzen’s trademark arrogance. My posting late on a trending topic is inexcusable. It defeats the whole purpose of blogging. It defeats the whole purpose of the Internet. Taking a month to read, digest, and respond to something is reserved for four-color, glossy print. 4G LTE technology is for instantaneous shit-talk, so here I go…
Franzen fancies himself a culture critic. He’s always waxing sociological in his essays, novels, and interviews. Personally, I never find his insights all that profound. Franzen has tone though, and it’s an oxymoronic tone of smug dissatisfaction.
I did however respect his 1996 Harper’s essay about the novel’s role in an increasingly electronic mediascape, but since his smash hit The Corrections, Franzen’s career has been stunted by a raging case of oedipalized shrinkage. He is at his best when talking about fathers. Franzen’s got daddy issues, and not just his biological daddy, who is often the subject of his essays and fiction. I’m also talking about his literary father, Don DeLillo. Franzen is in the man’s shadow. He’s no DeLillo. He’s not even a Roth, Pynchon, McCarthy, Salter, Banks, Oates, Winterson, Hempel, or Munro. He’s an angry best-seller who probably won’t go down in history. Poor Jonathan.
I cut and pasted the article from The Guardian onto my laptop. It took me two weeks to get through all eleven pages. Eleven pages of Franzen comparing himself to yet another father figure, Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, who Franzen describes as “the scourge of throwaway journalism.” Like Kraus, Franzen is angry at the throwaway nature of electronic media. He is also angry for never having fought with his own father. He is especially angry because many moons ago some “unbelievable pretty girl” wouldn’t sleep with him. A proud Masshole myself, I couldn’t take any of this Mid-Western anger seriously, particularly the bit about the “unbelievably pretty girl.”
Real anger, anger as a way of life, was foreign to me until one particular afternoon in April 1982. I was on a deserted train platform in Hanover. I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform…I’d recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part.
The entire story is unbelievable, not just the girl’s looks (also, who refers to women as girls? Patriarchal literary snobs that’s who). Franzen’s is the most unimpressive anger I have ever come across. Then there is the weird cop out about his not getting laid, how it was a “decision” on his part. Dude, what does that even mean? Did you fear that she was too much woman for you? Were you afraid of STDs? Was she your buddy’s wife? Were you pissed off at yourself for not going through with gratuitous sex? There’s a story there that I find way more interesting than eleven pages on the origins of your privileged white male ennui.
Spare yourself the time and don’t read Franzen’s essay. It’s long, boring, and pointless. I had to force myself to read it, and I read literary theory for fun. Why did I bother reading “What’s Wrong with the Modern World”? Because Franzen is supposed to be literarily important and I paid a lot of money for my MFA. If I don’t value his opinions and standing as one of the country’s most important literary voices then my student loan payments every month really are for nothing. In the grand scheme of American culture, Jonathan Franzen is irrelevant. Literature is irrelevant. My MFA barely earns me a livable wage. As a source of entertainment, literature is well below YouTube, and one or two rungs above a coin-fed vibrating chair at the mall. Personally, I blame this on the mainstream publishing world for catering to rich white women who have given birth to the Jonathan Franzens of America. They have landlocked a demographic for themselves that promises the highest rate of return.
But back to Franzen. He is angry about Twitter, Amazon, and some German woman he couldn’t pull. “What’s Wrong with the Modern World” is a return to his Harper’s essay, and Franzen still misses the point. The novel isn’t quite dead. It’s in a coma, and perhaps Twitter and new electronic forms of media will be the thing to revive it. Do storytellers really need paper and ink to be artful? I don’t think so. It’s our job as artists (yes I view writing as an art form not a craft) to find new ways of incorporating culture (technology is a part of our culture) while we create literature, whether it’s poetry in the form of 140 characters, or maybe an episode of This American Life, or an eBook with audio and visual components. Who the hell knows? Who the hell cares? Jonathan Franzen does. He laments the loss of printed book reviews because his sales are based upon them. His entire persona and iconography is reliant on print media where his close friends and colleagues convince the miniscule literary world of his significance. David Foster Wallace was his own harshest critic to the very end. I wonder what he really thought of his good friend Franzen.
Franzen had his fifteen minutes with Oprah. He won’t be relevant again, especially with the topic of his so-called anger. His anger is more like frustrated arrogance. He thinks he is our Schopenhauer, but Franzen isn’t cool enough to be angry. He’s not important enough for his anger to count for anything. In The Guardian essay, Franzen brings up comedian/actor John Hodgman of The Daily Show and Apple ads…
Characters in novels need to have actual desires; and the character in the Apple ads who had desires was the PC, played by John Hodgman. His attempts to defend himself and to pass himself off as cool were funny, and he suffered, like a human being.
Franzen’s attempts of coming across as angry are as funny as Hodgman’s attempts to come across as cool. I would laugh at the sight of either man throwing a temper tantrum, but aside from being ridiculous, Franzen’s anger is errant. Electronic media doesn’t have to be the downfall of literature. If anything, it should inspire artistic ways to improve upon the craft of storytelling. As Marshall McLuhan once pointed out, typewriters were seen as potentially impacting the crafting of poetry in a negative way, but along came Gerard Manly Hopkins and his “sprung rhythm” from the thumping of fingers on keys. If the typewriter can have such a beautiful effect on meter why can’t Twitter bring something wonderful to a sentence?
Franzen’s anger is white noise as defined by Baudrillard and illustrated by DeLillo. His novels will become white noise too. The average American doesn’t want sprawling sociological illustrations from their storytelling, not anymore. Even DeLillo has retired from writing such works. It’s easy to accuse Americans of being too dumb to appreciate literature, but I think Americans have become too sophisticated for low-tech storytelling. Author readings are boring, the majority of which are delivered in a kindergarten teacher tone. People tune out. They don’t want to be patronized. They don’t want to be bored. Adrian Zuniga has figured this out in his international reading series, Literary Death Match. While most bookstores are lucky to draw a double-digit audience to a reading despite free wine and cheese, Zuniga is charging people decent money to sit and listen to fiction, and his shows consistently sell out. The stories at Literary Death Match are as “literary” as ever, but the platform is different. It entertains. It has fun. It doesn’t condescend and bore.
The medium is the ultimate message. Franzen is still painting in oils while other artists are suspending sharks in tanks of formaldehyde. Franzen is a dull copy of a copy, but not quite a simulacrum because the original has not been lost or forgotten. We don’t we need lesser versions when we still haven’t wrapped our heads around White Noise, Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, or J R. The next great “author” will be the person who finds a way to convey narratives in new electronic forms. To quote McLuhan, “Man makes his tools and after his tools make him.”
Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University’s Piper Studio. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Solstice Literary Magazine, and dozens more.