Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen and the privilege of technophobia

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

“Jonathan Franzen is Having More Fun Than His Critics,” reads the headline of Laura Miller’s rave review of the author’s latest tome, Purity. In the review, and in a later podcast, Miller insists that there is little to be gleaned from trying to understand Franzen’s oeuvre in the context of, she suggests, scoffingly equating the three, “reviews or gossip or interviews that the author’s done.” “It’s a lot more convenient to form an opinion on the basis of something like that. We can congratulate ourselves that we have a position on it,” she says.

An alternative view of criticism generally holds that an understanding of author as person is fundamental to our reading of his or her work. “My literary tastes are…deeply intertwined with my responses, as a person, to the person of the author,” such a critic might declare. “I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments.” This approach is worth considering when it comes to Franzen because, if I may be so audacious as to take him at his word, it is one employed by the author himself.

Franzen wrote the above in early 2012 in an analysis of Edith Wharton, an artist who, he argues, forces us to “confront the problem of sympathy.” “Without sympathy…a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering,” he writes. “But privilege like [Wharton's]…isn’t easy to like.” “She did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage,” he later allows. “She wasn’t pretty.” Franzen’s obsession with privilege as an obstacle to be overcome in the literary world borders on pathological. In a recent interview with the Guardian‘s Emma Brockes he suggests that it has damned him for those who took issue with, amongst other things, his assessment of Wharton. “A villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male.” He raises the idea again in describing a 2001 kerfuffle with Oprah, “I think the fact that I was a white guy made that harder…she was sensitive to any suggestion that I might be dissing her. And, of course, then I did.”

Brockes, like Miller, bends over backward to paint Franzen favorably. Oprah “couldn’t break persona for him,” she offers. “Inevitably, he fought back,” at New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who panned Franzen’s memoir in 2006, she writes, “and called Kakutani ‘tone deaf and humourless.’” In describing the National Audubon Society’s well-researched and argued, albeit sassy, response to a Franzen article, she paraphrases, “The society accused him of ‘intellectual dishonesty,’ and its members attacked him online.” At every turn, Franzen’s fumbles are inevitable. He is merely the victim of the “’totalitarianism’ of online culture, wherein retribution by the mob can be vast, swift and violently misinformed.”

The issue of privilege is, indeed, inseparable from Franzen’s now infamous technophobia. Yet somehow Franzen manages to fall prey to virtually every societal ail whose cause he diagnoses as technology, all while proudly disavowing its use. In the author’s 2011 commencement speech at Kenyon, adapted into a New York Times op-ed titled “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” he warns that “the ultimate goal of technology is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes…with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be…[an] extension of the self.”

“I feel that it hurts me that I don’t engage,” Franzen told Brockes. “The thing for me to do would’ve been to get online and fire back. And call names.” Both author and interviewer neglect to mention that Franzen’s “inevitable” responses also involve his share of name-calling, referring to Kakutani, for example, as “the stupidest person in New York City.” He managed to level the insult without a Twitter handle, yet another imagined strike against his quest for sympathy. “Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations…Why would I want to feed that machine?” This, from the man who four years ago implored recent graduates not to become “a narcissist – a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore…withdraws from human contact.”

Mob violence, of course, predates Twitter. (The term wasn’t always used figuratively.) Those who think that it is a technology-related problem simply find it especially tragic when its victims are especially privileged. There is no evidence that Franzen’s world is any less of an echo chamber than Twitter, or that ostensibly high-minded institutions are any less susceptible to a herd mentality. In a recent interview with Slate, New Yorker literary critic James Wood was asked “If you wanted to write something really vicious about [Purity]…is there a way in which you are inhibited because the institution you write for is the home to Franzen and so many of today’s great fiction writers?”

“I think there probably is actually an institutional block there. And yeah, I think that is an inhibition,” Wood agrees. There only difference between the two forms of groupthink is that this institutional bias favors Franzen.

Yet it is Oprah, Franzen insists, who was overly sensitive to perceived slights from because she was used to being spoken to a certain way. “I didn’t scream when Oprah called me,” he told Brockes. “And she didn’t know what to do with that.” It might have never occurred to Franzen that his status, conferred upon him in no small part because of his white guyness, means that he is used to being spoken to a certain way as well. That he too exists in an environment that has been shaped to ensure his comfort, one of sycophantic interviewers who take pains not just to represent, but to actively champion, his point of view. The insularity of that dominant conversation has profound negative implications, and it existed long before Facebook.

If I will concede one major failing of technology it is that the wedding of people to their ideas, and the heightened accountability that results, also causes us to revel in hypocrisy. Franzen is such a target because, in this realm, he provides plenty of fodder. But being hypocritical isn’t the same thing as being wrong. There exists, perhaps, some moral failing, as Franzen himself concedes in his reading of Wharton, in cultural consumption clouded by our perception of the man or woman who created it.

But there also exists the reality that those who, according to Franzen, lack the demographics needed to garner sympathy from readers, are no more coolly detached, hyper-rational observers than their minority female counterparts are hysterical and emotional ones. They are as vested in maintaining the existing social order as their detractors are in disrupting it. They are no more impartial, their worldviews no less encumbered by their personal lived experience.

Consider the analysis of Wharton that elicited, in his view, undeserving criticism. The problem was less the subjective judgment that Wharton was unattractive than his constant use of incendiary language in the tone of truism, failing to fully grasp the nuances of the myriad issues surrounding gender and societal conventions of attractiveness. That she and Teddy Wharton’s marriage was “almost entirely sexless was perhaps less a function of her looks than her sexual ignorance,” he generously grants. Praising her for being “a doer, an explorer, a bestower, a thinker,” he concludes that she “became, in every sense but one, the man of her house.” He later describes a female character’s good looks as having “authentic value in the natural scheme of human reproduction…The emblematically attractive female…ought, by natural right, to thrive.” These statements would be less damning if these troublesome issues surrounding female beauty weren’t so problematically evident in Franzen’s own fictional work. The two are not unrelated.The very norms which resulted in Wharton’s tragic alienation are still being reinforced by the nation’s preeminent novelist a century later.

“It seems pointless and a shade desperate to read sweeping social commentary into anything that happens to these people,” Miller writes of Purity‘s Tom and Anabel, a couple that has been, as she describes, “obtusely…interpreted by some readers as a rebuke to feminism.” Yet it is Franzen, not his readers, who brazenly blurs the line between his persona and his art. “There’s a certain degree of glee in putting that stuff in the book,” Franzen tells Brockes, admitting that the couple represents precisely what Miller asserts they must not. “It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section is that he’s really trying to not be male.”

Miller goes on to delightfully dismiss even less thinly-veiled (yes, it is possible) fictional references to real world criticism as “sheer impishness,” suggesting that to harp on them is “a miserable way to read a book as energetic as this.” Franzen is having more fun than his critics, she proclaims, as though this were somehow a credit to him. (Nine years ago, Katukani aptly diagnosed, in the piece that provoked Franzen’s ire, “something oddly preening about his self-inventory of sins, as though he actually reveled in being so disagreeable.”) But if there existed some rapturous delight in the technology-driven takedown that would bolster Franzen’s philosophies. Instead, it underscores that, far from being hell bent on burning him in effigy, Franzen’s “haters” are instead wounded by their callous treatment at the hands of a writer clearly capable of rendering fictional characters with remarkable sensitivity.

“I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry,” Franzen tells Brockes of “the younger generation.” Perhaps Miller is right that contextualizing a novel makes it less enjoyable, is “a miserable way to read a book as energetic as this!” The exercise is, when it comes to the work of Franzen, inevitably an angry one. It is also fundamentally idealistic to take sincerely held beliefs seriously, so much so that it is genuinely distressing when a cultural icon refuses to engage with them in good faith and instead dismisses them out of hand. When he uses technology as a scapegoat for his refusal to grapple with his own fallibility. To think that, as Franzen is so fond of putting it, “serious art and literature” is an appropriate venue for politics — not in the high-minded sense of the word, but in the petty and personal one. It might be a great deal of fun. But what a cynical, dare I say cowardly, way to write in an era as lively as this one!

Header image credit: Graham Turner/Guardian

Silpa Kovvali is a New York based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Salon, amongst others.

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