Franzen and His Enemies

[I wrote this almost two years ago, in September of 2013, and posted it to Tumblr in response to the waves of Franzenfreude then breaking over the Internet, occasioned by the publication of excerpts from The Kraus Project (which I have browsed through but never read cover to cover). As the tides swell again, I thought it might be useful, if blog entries are useful, to repost it here, very lightly edited, as I patiently wait for Purity to appear on my apartment’s mail ledge.]

I don’t mean to be a passionate Franzen defender.  I’m ambivalent about the man—and about the controversial essay.  In fact, I’ve derogated him in print, at the conclusion to my review of Blake Butler’s wretched Sky Saw (not online but available here on paper). In my view, Franzen’s investment in the social novel is a betrayal of his natural talent, leading him to follow his realist models in producing overly long books full of ephemeral details (e.g., the references to Bright Eyes from Freedom) that bury his brilliant portrayal of characters in conflict.

As for the controversial essay, well, for one thing, I’m not even remotely persuaded of his claim for Latin/Germanic split with regard to Mac vs. PC—surely, if we’re just going to accede to these ancient stereotypes, then Mac represents Germanic efficiency and Nordic design streamlining (e.g. Helvetica, Ikea, etc.) rather than Franco-Italian baroque and sunny opulence.  Mac vs. PC is probably two anti-aesthetic hyper-ascetic North Atlantic visions duking it out, rather like capitalism vs. Marxism in their pure (murderous, soul-killing) forms.  Perhaps we have not yet seen a Mediterranean machine.

On the larger question, is his animus against the Internet overblown? To a point—I like blogs and Tumblr, loathe and detest Twitter, don’t much like Facebook but don’t see the big deal about it either, and don’t especially like smart phones or e-readers but think they can have their place. What really tends to lend support to Franzen’s hatred of the Internet, though, is the Internet’s response to Franzen.

The exaggerated reaction to his essay encapsulates a tendency of Internet debate, especially among the Twitterati and those invested in the very concept thereof, to fall into careless reading, knee-jerk condemnation of pre-approved enemies, and those grating excesses of satirical and sarcastic venom that effectively strip the critical object of any claim on seriousness. What’s wrong with these traits? Why take a complex and earnest but sometimes faulty argument seriously at all? Let’s just righteously mock it! But if Franzen’s critics will permit me to quote another “German essayist who is now dead,” here is Erich Auerbach, chased out of Germany by the Nazis, explaining how Voltaire’s very proto-Internet rhetorical tendencies in the eighteenth century conduce toward a fascist worldview (from Mimesis, chapter 16):

[Voltaire’s satirical technique] might be called the searchlight device.  It consists in overilluminating one small part of an extensive complex, while everything which might explain, derive, and possibly counterbalance the thing emphasized is left in the dark so that apparently the truth is stated, for what is said cannot be denied; and yet everything is falsified, for truth requires the whole truth and the proper interrelation of its elements.  Especially in times of excited passions, the public is again and again taken in by such tricks, and everybody knows more than enough examples from the very recent past [i.e., the WWII era].


But he is always inclined to simplify, and his simplification is always handled in such a way that the role of sole standard of judgment is assigned to sound, practical common sense (the type of enlightened reason which began to come to the fore during his time and under his influence) and that from among the conditions which determine the course of human lives none but the material and natural are given serious consideration.  Everything historical and spiritual he despises and neglects.

Compare that to this:

Think of all the women who have never slept with Jonathan Franzen. His anger must grow by the day. Soon it will envelop the world, and we will be forced to bow down in chains before it, and create ziggurats out of human corpses as terrible tribute. Some of these women who Failed To Fuck Jonathan Franzen might now be on Twitter, which is wrong because of a German essayist who is now dead.

It’s interesting that a man’s candid admission of his youthful petulant hostility toward women, which we might regard as signaling his mature recognition of his own growth as well as clear-eyed assessment of the sources of his least creditable traits, is dismissed, seventh-grade style, as basically just “creepy.” One begins to think that in the realm of the sarcasteurs the political points are a red herring and the real crime is simply to have shown unaffected emotion at all. For the links between that and totalitarian thought, I will keep silent and refer you to Auerbach above.

Then consider the  charge, laid in the New York Times blog, that Franzen is wrong in his criticisms due to envy over his low literary status compared to Toni Morrison (and some others too—Roth, Bellow, etc.); it is this envy that may lead him to make such curmudgeonly remarks about technology, pop culture, and/or gender:

Mr. Franzen may despise the ephemeral social-media slipstream that conveniently blasted news of his book out into the world. But how much is timeless dead-tree literary discourse really paying attention to him or other literary novelists of his generation?

Perhaps not much, a graphic posted on Twitter over the weekend by the critic and novelist Kurt Andersen suggests.


According to the Ngram, Mr. Franzen, at 54 the youngest on the list, has garnered fewer mentions than any of the other novelists, and significantly fewer than Updike or Mailer had by the same age. And compared with mentions for Toni Morrison, 82, the most-cited novelist in the chart by far, his fever line is more of a flatline.

So let us compare the two authors’ views on technology/pop culture and gender to see if relative literary status affects one’s opinions on these matters. Here are Toni Morrison’s thoughts on pop culture from an interview with the Telegraph in 2012; if Franzen is archaic for preferring novels to the Internet, what does it make Morrison for preferring cathedrals to reality TV?—

“When you think about the churches, cathedrals,” she begins, “that’s art – there’s a narrative. Good story. Lovely music. There’s decoration. There’s costume. It’s all there. It’s very impressive.

“The pop stuff – it’s – it’s so low. People used to stand around and watch lynchings. And clap and laugh and have picnics. And they used to watch hangings. We don’t do that anymore. But we do watch these other car crashes.”

And on gender, I cannot even begin to imagine the outrage that would have ensued had Franzen written the following three paragraphs, in which Toni Morrison, introducing her edited volume, Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case, summarily and contemptuously dismisses as “wildly irresponsible” the feminist axiom that women should never be understood to have invited domestic violence or sexual assault:

Another issue the official story both exposed and blanketed is the matter of domestic abuse, by which is meant the physical harm males do to females—the reverse being rare, warranted, a joke or all three. There are patently excessive responses to these claims. A six-year-old boy was suspended for kissing a girl classmate on the cheek (prompting the question of whether expulsion would have been the consequence if she had kissed him). And there are undoubtedly some fabrications, abuse being the easiest and most effective claim in divorce settlements. But the more recent understandings of the law and the unassailable argument of men and women who trying to get the general population and the courts to take this issue seriously lead toward one conclusion: a female must not be physically accosted by a male under any circumstances—excepting a demonstrable threat to his or somebody’s life. That means whatever the reasons, there are no excuses. If she curses him, humiliates him or degrades him, he must not hit her. If she betrays him with another sexual partner, he must not hit her. If she abuses his children or burns his supper; wrecks his car or chops off his penis; whether he is shooting up, messing up or cleaning up, he must not hit her. Why? Because he is stronger. The power relationship is unequal. (Except when she is armed.)

As for sexual assault, the thinking is similar. Rape is a criminal act whatever the circumstances. A woman riding the subway nude may be guilty of indecency but she may not be raped. If she invites or even sells sex at 10:00 and refuses it at 10:45, the partner who disregards her refusal and forces sex is guilty of rape.  If she is drunk, asleep, mentally defective, paralyzed or dead, she must not be raped. Why? Because sexual congress must be by consent. And males are stronger.

Trying to ensure that view has been difficult partly because the masculinist side of the debate (She was “asking” for it) still pervades, but also because in the negotiation of power, the physical strength and the allegedly uncontrollable sexual hunger of males are seen as unequalizing factors. The popular counterargument that concerns female responsibility in these matters of power is a subversive, almost treasonable one. Men must be retrained and socialized into non-aggressive, respectful behavior. But women, whose historically repressive social education has been ruthless and whose self-esteem has been systematically plundered, are understood to have no responsibility. As long as the wildly irresponsible claim of “It doesn’t matter what she does” is the answer to the helpless idiocy of “She made me do it,” the complicity in power/abuse relationships will be unaddressed. It does matter what she does. And she can’t make you.

The Internet would crash, overwhelmed with fury, if Franzen wrote of a hypothetical rape victim that “It does matter what she does”!

These periodic controversies over Franzen—with whom, again, I do not agree on many issues—remind me of Susan Sontag’s viciously-received plea for nuance in the wake of 9/11: “let’s not be stupid together.” By the terms of this analogy, the (mostly left-wing) Twitterati must remind me of the (mostly right-wing) “watch what you say” patriotism police of the early post-9/11 days. And so they do.