That Guy You Love to Hate

This week, I learned something about myself: I am the only person on the face of the e-earth who doesn’t hate Jonathan Franzen. I’ve written about J-Franz before when Freedom was released in 2010, but after a year of a post-publication quiet, The Franzen is back with a vengeance in 2012.

After just coming off He-Called-Edith-Wharton-Ugly Gate, he had this to say about Twitter:

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring “The Metamorphosis.” Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter “P”… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.”

Now, I love Twitter. During the week, I use it to talk about publishing news, queries I receive, writing tips, and Doctor Who. I started using Twitter to fit my role of literary agent, so I never get too personal. (Likes, dislikes, and political leanings are about as deep as I go. Hopes and dreams are for offline friends.) Of course, there are those who use Twitter as an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Perhaps these are the people Jonathan Franzen finds irritating. Or maybe he hates me too. Who knows?

If you asked me three years ago what I thought about Twitter, my response would not have been too far from Franzen’s. I didn’t get it. It was glorified Facebook statuses at best, and a complete waste of brain cells at worst. Then I found my niche, gained some followers, and learned that if it’s used effectively, it’s more about communication than it is about self-promotion. I’ve even made real-life friends out of people who were once only avatars, and have made contacts in my industry that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. For an introvert who skips every networking event I can, this was a big deal.

As a converted fan of Twitter, I read Franzen’s comment with the same level of attention I give my grandmother when she complains about Madonna being a floozy. I shrugged it off, and reasoned that it’s no surprise that guy who said ebooks are “damaging society” doesn’t really care for social media. My only real problem with Franzen’s quote is how melodramatic it is. 
Apparently, a lot of people had deeper problems with it. Twitter (of course) exploded with anti-Franzen sentiment and started the (often hilarious) hashtag #JonathanFranzenHates, which included “your mom” and “pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.” There were also a lot of “get off my lawn” jokes. Yes, Franzen is behind the times and is perhaps yelling about things he doesn’t understand. But why do we care? We use Twitter; he doesn’t. Lots of people don’t. If Franzen wants to go all Andy Rooney about it, then why can’t we just let him? 

The thing about Jonathan Franzen is that he’s an extremely talented writer, and one of the last of his generation of white male literary novelists who still use typewriters. Whether you read literary fiction or not, it’s hard not to respect him as an author. If he wasn’t a Great American Novelist, then no one would pay attention when he speaks. But now it seems we’ve reached a point where we’re looking for reasons to pay attention, when in reality we can probably just ignore him until his next book is published.
I don’t understand the scrutiny of Franzen’s remarks or the notion that it’s actually people like Franzen who are destroying society. No, they’re not. He’s not telling us not to use social media. He’s stating his opinion on it. In his usual style, it comes off as judgmental and harsh, but it’s not meant to be divisive. We’re doing that. And the irony is, Franzen doesn’t even know we’re doing it because he doesn’t use the Internet.

At some point between The Corrections and now, there’s been a collective glee in taking Franzen down a notch, but no one will explain why it means so much to them to destroy this man. If he misspeaks in the media, his haters not only make sure the story doesn’t die, but will take things out of context so he seems like even more of a monster. The worse he looks, the better they feel. 

It’s hard to pinpoint when Franzenfreude first started. Was it when he dissed Oprah? Was it that Time cover? Or perhaps the “feud” he had with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Piccoult, that was unbeknownst to him? I’m not defending Franzen’s personality. He seems exhausting, but he’s not unlike most other literary authors who have an inflated sense of self-importance. As I described him in my 2010 post, he’s pompous, sure, but he’s also socially awkward (which can lead to saying the wrong thing) and resistant to change (which often comes with choosing a field that’s mostly solitary). In simpler terms, he’s just kind of a dick. But is he a bad person? A purposely vindictive character in our literary world? No. 
Jonathan Franzen is the literary world’s Gwyneth Paltrow. (Until she decides to conquer our world too.) One wears a cloak; the other wears a cape. Gwyneth is not a bad person. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say she’s probably a very good person. The problem with Gwyneth is that she’s severely out of touch with reality, undeniably privileged, and doesn’t understand why everybody can’t buy the same $450 moisturizer she uses. She is very easy to roll your eyes at, and even more fun to flat out hate. She’s a symbol of privilege, a walking Monty Python sketch, but she isn’t someone who deliberately causes harm. 
Like the people who subscribe to Goop ironically, every time Franzen says something like his Twitter rant, I’m more amused than outraged. Oh Franzen, I’ll say to myself, You so crazy. Then I go on about my day. But when I see the indignation from people who seem to forget that he’s completely predictable, my inner monologue tends to sound more like this.

So, let’s all calm down and keep things in perspective. Maybe Franzen does think women are ugly subordinates (he doesn’t). There are real attacks on women going on in this country right now. As a feminist, I don’t want to waste my efforts on a man who may or may not think he’s a better writer than I am based solely on my gender. If there are men who think that, then that only speaks to a larger issue in our society that needs attention.

Similarly, there are real implications of resisting change. We do need to adapt and modernize and understand what’s necessary to survive. Using social media to complain about a guy who doesn’t use social media is not in our best interest. It only proves him right.

Social media is for connecting with others, giving ourselves a platform, and showing people like Franzen that it can be useful without attacking them for not joining in.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s for talking about Doctor Who.

Release the Franzen

This week has been officially claimed in the name of Franzen. In case you hadn’t heard, he wrote a new Great American Novel, as has been talked about at exhausting length by journalists, bloggers, and other authors. On Tuesday, when his latest opus dropped, I ran out to buy it, partly out of obligation, partly out of curiosity, and mostly because I thought that even if it’s not brilliant, it’ll probably still be good. I started reading it on the subway ride home, and thought to myself after reading the first page, Damn you, media. This might actually live up to your crazy hype! I haven’t opened up the book since Tuesday, but its sitting on my coffee table, looking smug… and waiting.

Lev Grossman wrote a really great profile on Franzen in the now-famous Great American Novelist cover story. The article was written well enough to make me think that Franzen is like most other writers: socially awkward, reluctant to new technology, and is his own harshest critic. The underlying message of the article, of course (once you get past the heavy-handed bird metaphor), is that while Franzen is just a regular guy, he is a better writer than you will ever be. Ever. So why are you still trying?

Another story to come out of Franzen Mania Week that I found particularly important took a different approach in addressing the Franzen Is Our New Literary Master theory. Jason Pinter’s interview with commercial authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult spoke to a larger problem in what is considered “great,” at least commercially, which is that women writers are usually out of the running. While I didn’t agree with everything they claimed, I thought they made a valid point in saying writers like Nick Hornby and Carl Hiaasen, who write what I consider the equivalent of “dude lit,” are generally more respected, reviewed, and receive more media attention when their books are published. (This seems especially true in the case of Hornby; maybe because he’s British.) Women who write commercial fiction, meanwhile, are subtly denigrated by labels like “chick lit” and “beach reads.” In other words, books you wouldn’t mind seeing taken away by the tide. 

To me, the double standard in commercial fiction is blatant sexism and it degrades women by saying that if a large number of women buy something (hello, Elizabeth Gilbert), it must not be very serious or of high quality. Yet, while this occurs in the commercial world, how does it translate to literary writers? No one would call Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Mona Simpson “chick lit,” or try to downplay their abilities as serious writers. Even so, the literary world is still very much a boy’s club. Surprisingly, with my identification as both a feminist and a writer, I’m not too offended by this.

Would I love to see a pensive-looking Lorrie Moore on the cover of TIME with a Franzen-esque boastful headline? Of course. It is undoubtedly appalling that white men are still leading this fray. (Where’s Colson Whitehead, TIME!?) However, it makes sense to me that Franzen is being chosen as the natural successor to literary “lions” like Updike and Mailer. They’re just picking the next great white guy the same way the media used to call Denzel Washington the next Sidney Poitier, and not, say, the next Jimmy Stewart. This is one of those dumb realities that I’ve come to accept. The emphasis, obviously, is on the word dumb, but to me there’s no point in getting up in arms about it. Still, if anyone tries to call Toni Morrison’s next novel a “beach read,” I’m going to have to fight someone.

What Jonathan Franzen did more than simply writing what Mr. Bransford called a “blockbuster” is he got people talking about what it means to be successful. With great power comes great backlash. The Twitter account @EmperorFranzen and the hashtag #franzenfreude are evidence of the real Jonathan Franzen’s relevance. Personally, I’m just happy a literary writer is finally being hated and talked about as much as a commercial writer. (Take that, Dan Brown!)

Will Freedom change my life? Probably not. Will it change the way literary fiction is received by the masses? I’m going to say no. Will women ever get respect as writers without having to settle for gender-specific labels? Sigh… I’ll leave that one for another time.

Hope you all have a good Labor Day weekend. Anyone going to see what the Freedom buzz is about on your day off? Or maybe you’d like to pick up Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood instead… you’ll probably be going to the beach anyway, right?