It is going to be our generation’s contribution to the colloquial cliche; equivalent to Catch 22. Maria Bustillos makes the best case, in the fewest and least heavy words. for a great writer to change his mind. She is compelling. But he is an activist for a good cause, so we must be in his corner, even if it is just wiping the sweat:
Jonathan Franzen has a real gift for getting people into a tizzy. This time, the fracas was occasioned by a September 13th essay he wrote for the Guardian (“What’s Wrong With the Modern World”) excoriating our “media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment” and lauding the early-twentieth-century Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, whose essays Franzen reveres, as a prophet for our own times. Though the essay’s specific criticisms are so familiar as to be unremarkable—he writes that Salman Rushdie “ought to have known better” than to “succumb” to Twitter, and rages against Amazon’s depredations of the book trade and the various hegemonies of Apple—in the few days since its publication, the author has been accused of irrelevance and cane-shaking, his sex life and his digestion have been impugned, and Rushdie told him to “enjoy [his] ivory tower”; he’s been called “an old windbag,” “a whingeing miseryguts,” and a “Chardonnay bore,” and has been generally dragged through the digital mud.
The whole thing struck me as eminently silly in the first place, since the most pointed of Franzen’s claims in the essay are so obviously true, or, at the very least, worthy of serious consideration. What on earth are people so furious with him about? Can it be his description of America in 2013?
[A] weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear.Or perhaps his decoction of American politics?
Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction.Pretty much! Or this?
We spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem.Yes, alas! Or possibly this?
Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.Hells to the yeah! As we say in the Twitterverse.
Franzen is a nostalgist, and he wants to preserve the traditional values and practices of the book world at all costs, and can therefore come off sounding pompous about “high culture.” Plus, he is, as he admits in the essay, a little off when he characterizes certain matters of contemporary coolness; he doesn’t seem to know, for example, that every hipster kid halfway worthy of the name is in Berlin right now, not Paris. Nor are his belabored Apple/Windows analogies too persuasive. And I say this as a fellow-hater who agrees entirely with Franzen about the odiousness of those Apple commercials featuring Justin Long (“a personified Mac … of such insufferable smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison”). But comparing Windows Vista to Vienna before the First World War is something of a stretch. One could wish for Franzen to forget all about what is hip, unless he can do more than affect to care about it. The whole idea of “coolness” appears to annoy rather than really interest him.
These little infelicities shrink to nothing beside the incontrovertibility and importance of Franzen’s principal arguments. In fact, they are kind of endearingly weird. I feel the same way about the author’s novels, especially “Freedom” and “The Corrections,” which combined represent an achievement so great, of such an order of magnitude above the common run of contemporary fiction, that their defects are merely little points of interest to mix in with the admiration, like a pleasing dusting of freckles on a beautiful face. To be more specific: Franzen is the only American novelist of my generation (that I know of) who writes with absolute clarity, conviction, and meaning about the world I live in every day. I believe that’s what fascinates people the most about his work. He may be a dork, but he’s absolutely and preëminently and kind of magnificently our dork.
How come everyone got so sore, then? I believe part of the answer is that Franzen’s critics, cool kids almost to a man, from Mic Wright in the Telegraph to Dustin Kurtz at Melville House, were hit in a tender spot by this essay. Because what Franzen is railing against is not mere tech obsession but, rather, the intellectual and spiritual poverty, the weakness and the obedience, of soi-disant “creatives” who buy what they’re told rather than rage against the machine, who are too infatuated with their wonderful little toys even to look up from them while the world burns. Very few of us aren’t at least a little guilty of that. Or a lot guilty…
Read the whole post here.