A Rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen's Essay, The Little Prince, and a Travel Meme (sort of) from Denise Covey

I've finally taken the time to read Jonathan Franzen's essay "What's Wrong With the Modern World" which appeared in The Guardian on 13 September.

(I've refuted Franzen on this blog before (in my pre-Twitter days!), and am about to do so again!)

I also read Jennifer Weiner's response, a self-published author's rebuttal, a more friendly piece in The New Yorker (which I mostly agreed with, except for the bit where they praise his novels), and Nathan Bransford's well-formulated response (I'll be quoting a bit from this).

To begin with, I admit to not being a fan of Franzen's writing. I read The Corrections for book club two years ago and couldn't stand it. I posted a mini-review on the Compuserve Books and Writers Community that went like this:
"...it was the characters and story that left me cold.
How shall I phrase this? When I read about helpless characters in (for instance) Steinbeck, I do not have the constant impulse to fling the book against the wall.
With Franzen's characters, it was all I could do to rein in that impulse. I can not abide indecisive lily-livered people in real life, and certainly cannot bring myself to empathise with an entire book full of them. Characters who constantly refuse to speak up about their own desires, who constantly subvert the hopes and thoughts of others, and who leave a wasteland of pointlessness behind them. Ick.
I realise that all this only goes to show that despite myself, Franzen's writing drew me in. But I'm not sure that's accurate - I certainly never would have picked up, let alone finished, this book if it hadn't been a book club choice.
As an example, one of my book club choices was Steve Martin's The Object of Beauty. Another set of odd characters who might not necessarily have been the kindest or 'goodest', but I quite liked being in their world. Franzen's world made me want to kick his characters in the kiester.
The one line, the absolute only one line, that sticks with me as an example of brilliant imagery, was the observation he gave to one of the characters that the flowers planted around officce buildings are too weak to support us, that you "couldn't turn to them" in moments of crisis. (sorry, not at home and can't quote directly)
I guess that's sort of an apt metaphor for how I feel about his writing - it has its place, but I wouldn't turn to his world view, and especially not his characters, in moments of crisis."
The essay in The Guardian was excerpted from Franzen's latest book and, in a nutshell, compares our current decade to the pre-World War I (inexplicably written in lower case letters in The Guardian) era in which satirist Karl Kraus was busy denouncing inter alia Romantic trappings in favour of German sobriety.

First, to criticise Franzen's style. The best way I can do this is simply by saying he is no Julian Barnes. I have a lot of empathy for the alienated individualist who becomes enamoured of another culture (in Barnes' case, France, in mine, the United Kingdom), and Franzen seems to fit that mould, especially when he finally comes around to revealing, through personal anecdote, how German ideologies drew him in. Even though I often disagree with Barnes, I can empathise with him. Franzen does not achieve this, and a lot of his failing in this aspect is due to his writing style. He should have opened with that personal anecdote. And he certainly shouldn't, as Bransford so pithily put it, toss off "irresponsible throwaway lines that show his unwillingness to grapple with the dark underside of the world he wants for us".

Second, let's address some of these throwaway lines. Read this:

"Although Kraus would probably have hated blogs, Die Fackel was like a blog that everybody who mattered in the German-speaking world, from Freud to Kafka to Walter Benjamin, found it necessary to read and have an attitude toward."

How does anything in that sentence explain how the magazine Die Fackel was "like a blog"?

(I also thought it was telling that he slipped in the line "characters in novels need to have actual desires" when, to me, it seems as though none of the characters in The Corrections has such a desire. They plod along, doing what's expected of them, and reacting to, rather than instigating, events.)

I'm also not sure what his point was in suggesting that it's a new phenomenon to "take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking" - haven't we been doing this since at least the Enlightenment and probably since Shakespeare's day or earlier? Ancient Greece? Art has been around for a long, long time.

Then there's this: he quotes Klaus: "Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads."

Then he says "You're not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays." Which is an odd footnote, coming from someone who, a few paragraphs earlier, threw out the blanket statement: "Even now, Germany insists on content over form."

I haven't come down one way or the other in favour of either Romanticism or Germanic art and culture (maybe one of the great things about the 21st Century is that we don't need to choose between those two anymore), so as soon as I read Franzen saying "Romance culture makes everyman a poet. Art's a piece of cake" all I can think of is Amanda Palmer's Ukulele Anthem and the line "stop pretending art is hard."

Franzen goes on to say this: "To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress." I might not have disagreed with such a statement. To my mind, this has been the case for a long time. Add greed, and you've encapsulated the human condition. But then Franzen adds: "A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting "Whoa!""

Yes, it's very easy to take potshots at the dumbest YouTube videos. But let us not forget that it was the writers and scientists of the generation Franzen was born into that promised us we'd have flying cars and cities on the moon by now. I'd rather have Twitter than a flying car, any day.

Which brings us to, third, Franzen's attack on the current generations. He follows on from the thoughts above by noting that "The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability -- and who wouldn't want them? -- we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety."

However, I'm pretty sure the job instability came first, and by choice. Most of Generations X and Y have seen their parents throw away 40 years of their lives on job stability and a dearth of dreams and willingly decided that this wasn't what they wanted.

Franzen adds a few comments about not being a Luddite because he happens to use a computer for work. Okay. I don't pay attention to any advertising, and have a cheap-y basic cellphone. But I bought an iPad so I could use Scrivener, the best writing software in the world. I still have a pc. And I love Twitter.

What I'm getting at is, to each his own. I don't care what kind of computer he uses (or the fact that he doesn't use an old Remington typewriter or something equally quaint), so why does the fact some authors are on Twitter disturb him so much? There are plenty of other authors out there who aren't on social media - Julian Barnes, to name him again. Paul Auster. I don't need to go on. People use the software and features they're comfortable with. If some are doing it out of the usual misplaced 'keeping up with the Joneses' that's their problem.

As if that wasn't enough, Franzen goes on, quoting Kraus to back him up: "'This velocity doesn't realize that its achievement is important only in escaping itself. Present in body, repellent in spirit, perfect just the way they are, these times of ours are hoping to be overtaken by the times ahead, and that the children, spawned by the union of sport and machine and nourished by newspaper, will be able to laugh even better...'"

Quoting a turn-of-the-last-century satirist who was railing against newspapers, in one's argument against Twitter et al, just starts sounding like the recurring "O! Tempora, O! Mores" cry, echoed down the years from when Cicero first proclaimed it. It's been done.

Not that we don't need constant self-reflection, if we're to evade the 'divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress'. Louis C. K. was on Conan O'Brien the other day talking about this sort of thing, about how we need to stop reaching for our cellphones every time we're alone or sad (especially when listening to Springsteen!), and just need to... Well, the trouble is, what he meant to say was "we need a good cry once in a while." But it seems like no one reads the right books anymore. Any fan of classic YA and MG knows what a good cry is. Stephen King uses the phrase aptly in The Stand. (He's my second recommendation to Franzen. Julian Barnes, and now Stephen King. One more to come.)

A fourth point is that if I was a software creator, I'd be a little miffed right about now. All the people who invented Twitter and Instagram and so on actually created something neat and interesting. To deride them all in one go as "techno-boosters" would be like denying Nikola Tesla the recognition he deserves - oh, wait. Franzen's also conflating the medium with the message, by which I mean that Twitter (for instance) may have been created by a handful of people, but there are millions of users on there tweaking the medium for their own ends. We've got satirists, recreated historical figures, protesters, stupid people, authors and musicians and all sorts of other creators, readers, activists, and so on. And on. And some people don't like it, that's fine. They use Facebook instead. Or blog. Or keep their own private journals. Or have fun sorting images on Pinterest (as an aside, J. Simmons has a brilliant series of essays on The Uses of Freedom, commenting on Pinterest and so on). Last I checked, Wikipedia has only 175 staff members and all its editors are volunteers. Not sure how that qualifies as "a global corporate system of control." Franzen actually suggests that "Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes." Obviously he's exposing his ignorance here - anyone remember AngelFire blogs? GeoCities? Hangouts may change. But that doesn't mean the act of being online should be equated with smoking.

(Now I'm going to pick at two personal items. "As a wedding present, three months after I returned from Berlin": this, coming on the heels of a story of how a girl in Germany rejected him (though it was "his decision") makes me wonder, as does "For some reason – perhaps to reassure myself that other people, too, were getting married – I read the nuptials pages religiously", why did he get married if he didn't want to? And finally, "I did the work [on the essays] late in the afternoon, after six or seven hours of writing short stories" - but what did they live on? Did his wife, perhaps, support him at this stage? But Bransford has already brilliantly addressed the attitude towards women in Franzen's essay: "Even if you accept that it's harder for freelance writers to make a living these days than it was in the past (Franzen doesn't provide evidence), he seems unwilling to accept a tradeoff between a world where female voices have greater prominence for one where it's harder for writers to make money.")

Two final points. While I am still hoping to be published traditionally, I aim for this simply because of that tradition. I'm old-fashioned that way. Franzen talks about back "when publication still assured some kind of quality control" and I both agree and disagree with him in the same breath. I do think there was maybe a certain level of quality back in the day. And yet, how to explain the absolute dreck that has been published alongside good books since Gutenberg and Caxton first set their hands to moveable type? The 21st Century doesn't have a monopoly on crappy books. And what about small-town drugstores that sell only torn-cover paperbacks off a rotating rack and the only library is in the next town? Surely having books and authors galore all over the internet is a wonderful thing compared to such limited choice.

Finally, the generational considerations once more, and this is where Franzen lost me completely. He has the gall to say all this:
"I could, it's true, make a larger apocalyptic argument about the logic of the machine, which has now gone global and is accelerating the denaturisation of the planet and sterilisation of its oceans. I could point to the transformation of Canada's boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sands byproducts, the levelling of Asia's remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot, the damming of the Amazon and the endgame clear-cutting of its forests for beef and mineral production, the whole mindset of "Screw the consequences, we want to buy a lot of crap and we want to buy it cheap, with overnight free shipping." And meanwhile the overheating of the atmosphere, meanwhile the calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness, meanwhile the widespread tinkering with cell nucleii, which may well prove to be as disastrous as tinkering with atomic nucleii."
As if this all started with the rise of the internet. It started in his parents' generation! Who was it that cared so little for the planet they thought DDT was a great thing? Who derided Rachel Carson for speaking out? Who used to throw garbage - and cigarette butts - out the window while cruising and idling in gas guzzling monster cars?

The trouble is, Franzen says that he was "born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows."

Bransford has already noted how mistaken this view is, and on how many fronts:
"Yes, Franzen actually points to the '50s as a bastion of intellectual vigor and environmental stewardship. (I guess DDT and acid rain and Ozone depletion and pre-Clean Air Act pollution didn't count. Oh, and antibiotics for livestock were approved by the FDA in 1951.) It was a wondrously enlightened world, except for the whole segregated swimming pool thing.

Oh yeah, except for that."
(see Bransford's page for supporting links)
Bransford could have added a list of all the books that were banned in that era of the 'robust books section', including J. D. Salinger and D. H. Lawrence. (When I read Franzen's comment that "If I'd been born in 1159, when the world was steadier," I laughed out loud. Talk about glamourising history!)

But his rose-coloured glasses towards 1959 are misleading for an entirely different reason. Franzen was born in 1959. He's not a product of the 50s; he was a teenager in the 1970s. He turned 21 in 1980. Hello, MTV!

So when he says "Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings" he could just as easily look back and deride his own adulthood in the 1980s and the world created by those human beings. (Franzen should listen to the Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible, celebrating its 20th anniversary next year.)

Change the word 'modernity' to 'humanity', and his closing line might carry some weight: " As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity." Because it's not "the experience of each succeeding generation" and its difference that matters, any more than whatever level of change and technology a person is comfortable with; the real issue is and always has been the same: how much we can learn from history, and what we do with these changes; how we treat others in the 'last days' is all that matters.

Franzen is the same age as Neil Gaiman. I'd like to see those two discussing these issues at a book festival panel sometime.

***
Meanwhile, it's the 70th anniversary of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)!



Here's a website that includes excerpts in the 220 (!) languages into which The Little Prince has been translated.

***
I'm borrowing a meme from Denise, all about travel!

What's your favourite place to visit in your own country?

There're a lot of places I haven't seen yet! The Yukon, the extreme north of Quebec, Gaspé, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island! So far I've enjoyed visiting Fredericton, New Brunswick, and all along the St Lawrence Seaway.

As for Turkey, I love every place along the Aegean Sea.

What about your favourite place overseas?

Wales and Yorkshire. And probably the Scottish Highlands, but I haven't been there yet!

What's the best thing you've ever eaten overseas?

Besides pide in Turkey?

Where are you off to next?
Hopefully Plattsburgh for shopping in November, and New York City! And maybe England at Christmas!

Do you have a bucket list destination?
Do I ever! *deepbreath* Highlands, Shetlands, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Russia, Trans-Siberian Railway, Yukon, northern Quebec, Gaspé, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the 35 or so US States I haven't visited yet, the rest of England and Wales, eastern Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia, and -- maybe I should stop here...

What's the worst place you've stayed?
Well, it was my own fault. I wanted to see what my childhood summer place near Izmir was like in the wintertime. But our house was boarded up, so we had to stay at a pansiyon. And they hadn't been expecting guests, so the heat was off. It was cold. It was damp. Brr!

On the plus side, we made a fort out of all the blankets and had a huge pile of snacks, and eventually warmed up enough to fall asleep.

Big city hotel, bnb, igloo, tent...?
Bed and breakfast in a big city! Or a renovated farmhouse in the country - funnily enough, I shared the photos from my last such stay in the same post where I dissected Franzen.

Linton on Craven, Yorkshire

Is there anything you can't travel without?
Camera. And pen and paper, natch!

What has travel taught you?
Actually, there's a lot more I could learn. I still haven't ever visited a country where I don't speak the language and am entirely out of my element. Now that would be an experience!


Have you read Franzen's essay, or his novels? D'you want to wade in to the discussion?

Don't you just love the little Prince?

Feel free to pick up the travel meme!

Comments

Deniz Bevan said…
Ah, no, I forgot it was IWSG day! Well, hopefully this long essay has distracted you from your own writerly worries!
LOL you should read Nathan Bradsford's response to Franzen.
S.P. Bowers said…
Wow, that was a long post, I'll have to come back and dissect it a bit later.

I love The Little Prince though. Hubby hates it and we often have spirited discussions.
Crystal Collier said…
What can't I travel without? My husband. That may sound clingy and terribly needy, but he feels the same way about me. =)
M Pax said…
Franzen and Gaiman would be an awesome panel. The modern world is awesome. I can research without leaving my desk.
Donna Hole said…
I'll skip the discussion Deniz; but wow, way to put yourself out there on this :) Ok, you can step away from the coffee now, lol.

Loved your travel meme. So much of the world to see, so little money and time. That Yorkshire picture is inviting.

........dhole
Michael Di Gesu said…
Hi, Deniz,

I agree with MPAX... That would be quite the match....

That was SOOOOOME RANT.... LOL. You certainly made some amazing points. Touche'. I loved your passion in this post!
Editors At Work said…
A very interesting, varied and long post. Fortunately I had the time to read through the whole post!

Thanks Deniz.

Nas
Medeia Sharif said…
I read The Corrections. I didn't like the middle at all.

He's quite opinionated, isn't he?

I can't remember if I read The Little Prince or not.
Glynis said…
Gosh, a powerful post, Deniz!

Arrogance, and full of self-importance are traits I do not like in folk, and Franzen appears to have both!

Scotland is on my bucket list! :)
Damyanti said…
Good going, Denise. Franzen isn't a likeable writer, is he?

Gaiman and Franzen on a panel-- now I'd love to be in that audience!
Trisha F said…
This Franzen dude definitely comes across as pretty haughty! Not a very appealing trait.
Deniz Bevan said…
I did Michael! I thought Nathan had some great-gender related points. But it was the generational thing that really got my goat :-)

Interesting, Sara! Why does he hate it?

Nah, I feel the same way Crystal :-)

I love researching at my desk, M!

Aww, I wish I was back in Yorkshire right now, Donna! Yesterday was the late James Herriot's birthday!

Aw, thanks Michael :-)

Thanks Nas!

It's really short, Medeia - you could read it again!

Hi Glynis and Damyanti and Trisha! If Franzen's writing style didn't bug me so much, I doubt I would have ranted this long... But once he started going on about how perfect the 50s were (and he was only a little kid then!), well, I had to say something...
Tammy Theriault said…
May I say...*SMACK* upside the head
Deniz Bevan said…
Ha ha! Thanks Tammy!
Denise Covey said…
Hi Deniz. I read this as soon as you'd posted, but as I'm travelling I'm mainly using my smart phone to do blog reading/comments, but it will not let me comment at the moment, grr.

I enjoyed reading your rebuttal; very well considered and expressed, but being a travel nut, I especially enjoyed your travel meme. Great stuff. I'm delighted you used it and I hope others pick it up.

Denise
Arlee Bird said…
Wow, that was intense and in depth. Like 10 posts in one long one.

Since I didn't follow all the links I missed out on a lot of the content here but I must admire fortitude in pursuing all of this.

I've never read Franzen but have one book by him that I acquired cheap when Borders went under. From what I know about him, I don't think I would like his work too much. I think he may have made some good points in his essay, but obviously refutable ones as well. A debate with him and Gaiman and others would be an interesting discussion I'm sure.

I for one am somewhat enamoured by the 50's even though I was only a kid then. But I see the negative points of the era just as I see many negative, and potentially much more destructive, points about the modern age. We may be in the most dangerous times ever with the repercussions to be seen sometime in the next decade. I love much of the technology of now, but we may be getting set up for a scary plunge into a hellish future. But that the apocalyptic side of me showing I suppose.

That being said, I commend you on the time and effort you put into this post.

Lee
Wrote By Rote
Hi Deniz .. I'm with Lee - very uneducated in this direction .. but so good you as the others said 'put it out there' ...

As to travel - I would love to do most of the countries you mention - though Britain has some pretty special places .. where I need to stop and smell the roses, sometime!

So much has changed since WWII .. but the differences from WWI to now - that 100 years is incredible.

I'd learn so much spending time with you - perhaps my holiday should be at your house?! Cheers Hilary
"To each his own" -- a sentiment Nana Fowler has always lived by, and she's my only grandparent still living! Italy, definitely someday -- and maybe the walking tour of Middle Earth in New Zealand...
Deniz Bevan said…
Let's see of this works... Here're some comments on this on Twitter that I liked:

John Scalzi ‏@scalzi
Wait, what are we all angry with Jonathan Franzen about, now? I was away from the Internet for most of the weekend.

Joe Hill ‏@joe_hill
15 Sep
@OwenKingwriter I think there's a grain of something true in his criticism. But it's lost in falsely idyllic ideas of a better literary past

Joe Hill ‏@joe_hill
15 Sep
@OwenKingwriter Well, @neilhimself is himself, but could be viewed as a modern C.S.Lewis/Tolkien/Bradbury figure & has a million followers.

Joe Hill ‏@joe_hill
15 Sep
I bought Hemingway's letters with joy. Isn't it possible there'll be people interested in reading @neilhimself's tweets later?

Joe Hill ‏@joe_hill
15 Sep
I promise Twain would've had a million followers on Twitter, and would've found prime comic fodder in Franzen's self-seriousness.

Deniz Bevan said…
Aww, thanks for coming by Denise! I love dreaming about places to travel.

Thanks very much Arlee. It might be easier for me to criticise since I'm entirely outside of both aspects - the 50s and America. I'd like to read some more essays about the 1970s and 1980s and see if any of the events and images spark memories from my own childhood.

I'd love to meet you too Hilary! Montreal is a lovely place to visit - though I wouldn't necessarily come in the wintertime...

I agree, Milo! That's why I think that panel discussion would be so interesting.
I'd love to do that Middle Earth walking tour too!

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