Dispatches | September 16, 2013

Last Friday, The Guardian posted a new essay by Jonathan Franzen that immediately upset the online literati. To summarize, Franzen uses the apocalyptic essays of 20th century Austrian writer Karl Kraus as a springboard into an argument that the world is drifting toward disaster because of our insatiable technoconsumerism. Kraus was a known crank, so is Franzen, consequently, there is a link here. Oh, and also, Franzen has a new book translating Kraus’s work that will be available from FSG in a few weeks. That might have something to do with the timing of this essay, too. You can, and should, read the entire piece here.

The response from the literary community was scathing. Everyone hates this guy. But you sorta get the sense that no one actually bothered to read his essay.

Perhaps the anger was due to the fact that Franzen was criticizing technoconsumerism even though the only way anyone was reading his essay was due to The Guardian having an online presence and its readers having high-speed Internet access. Perhaps the anger was because it is not a particularly well-written essay. The paragraph transitions are sloppy at best, Franzen has a tin ear for humor, interesting ideas are buried under incomplete rhetoric, and there is a curmudgeonly attitude toward the world that exhibits zero charm.

But mostly, the anger was because the author of the essay was Jonathan Franzen. I’ve read all of his novels, and enjoyed them immensely. I’ve read many of his essays, and think most of them are mediocre. A few years ago, he graced the cover of Time Magazine, and the literary community, rather than respond with delight that a novelist (of all types!) was on the cover of the country’s best known newsweekly, was enraged that grumpy old Jonathan Franzen was anointed.

I won’t pretend that I’m puzzled by this. Unlike other writers who have become famous, Franzen seems uncomfortable with the attention; or, perhaps, he is pretending to be uncomfortable and secretly pleased with the attention. Most seem to think the latter. He isn’t particularly adroit at making the brand “Jonathan Franzen” likable or engaging. He is a middle class white American male and, by no fault of his own, has been crowned the Great American Novelist by the publishing world and literary critics, which many claim smacks of patriarchy and elitism.

There’s this wonderful quote that, in my mind, was said by Zadie Smith. In one of her graduate classes at Columbia University, she told one of her students “You have to be a better person.” I don’t remember where I read this anecdote, or if it’s even true, but it’s a thought that enters my mind from time to time when I’m reading work, fiction or nonfiction or poetry, that just seems a little off. Some element crucial to elevating a piece of writing from good to great is absent and, more often than not, indicates a defect in the author’s character.

This is, perhaps, dangerous territory. We’ve heard it before: it’s about the writing, not the writer. But for a generation (or two) trained in the writing workshop environment, it would be hard to escape how often this learning environment slips into the language and ethos of the self-help industry, a therapy session of grievances and complaints where we are told what to think and feel and why to think and feel … well, whatever it is that we are too stunted to figure out on our own.

I’m skating off-track, so here’s a bit of rhetorical sidestepping to get back to what is (I think) my point: how would you respond to an essay extrapolating the writings of a 20th century Austrian writer into a criticism of a consumerist world that strips us of our humanity if it was written by Geoff Dyer? Or Margaret Atwood? Or Nicholson Baker? Or Cynthia Ozick? Or Daniel Mendelsohn? Or Roxane Gay?

Differently. Possibly better. Possibly worse, perhaps even much worse. But what appeals to me, particularly in nonfiction, is the intelligence and character of the writer. And I couldn’t help reading Franzen’s essay and thinking that in the hands of one of those other writers, this material would exhibit an intellect and curiosity better suited to an honest and insightful look at our human condition.

Maybe it’s that simple: I wish this was written by someone else, not because of any feelings against Franzen, but because someone else handles this particular material for an essay in a more compelling fashion. There are essays, perhaps still unwritten, about disconnection and consumerism in the modern world that I would love to read and think about. Too bad the essay on The Guardian isn’t one of them.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye