Wednesday, March 07, 2012

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.

20 comments:

  1. I don't hate Franzen. He does say some pretty silly stuff sometimes but I usually laugh at him (in a mostly nice way) and go about my business.

    I guess I don't care what he thinks.

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  2. This made me laugh. I don't really care one way or the other about Franzen. If he finds Twitter irritating and useless, he can enjoy not using it. Like you, I initially thought it was a waste of time, but have gotten some great things out of it-- including meeting local writers who are now my crit group. To each his or her own.

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  3. I don't buy his books and that's enough for me. I can tune the rest out.

    Maybe someone will write him a long letter using a manual typewriter and have it delivered by carrier pigeon.

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  4. Agreed. I find some of the things he says funny, and even funnier are some of the #hashtag memes about him. But he does make himself an outspoken and easy target for many. There are just some people who dig themselves deeper holes whenever they open their mouths in public, and it can be fairly entertaining. I imagine that for some of his most vocal critics, he's FUN to hate, because it gives them a chance to test out their snark and biting wit.

    In general, though, I'm ambivalent. His opinions don't affect me one way or the other (though I reserve the right to change my stance if he starts into heavy misogyny), so I'll still laugh at the funniest lines, but ignore the rest of it.

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  5. Good post! I definitely had a good old time reading the #FranzenHates tweets, but I don't particularly take him very seriously.

    I do get annoyed whenever someone tries to say "social media is for ..." or "social media isn't about..." Because the fact of the matter is social media is social and falls to the whims of the users. And if we all decide to watch kitty cat videos on Monday and raise awareness about the bullying epidemic on Tuesday and discuss the efficacy of Invisible Children on Wednesday, and then retweet a video of a kitten playing with a baby monkey (no seriously, have you seen it? It's adorable), then THAT'S what social media is about. It's about EVERYTHING. It's for EVERYONE.

    Also, dear god, I hope you didn't just give Gwyneth Paltrow any ideas ...

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  6. It used to be the major scandals were artists choosing the wrong side in major political issues. Pound and fascism, Camus and Algeria, Leni Riefenstahl and Nazism, Neruda and Stalin, etc.

    Now it's that they show inadequate enthusiasm for Twitter, iPads and TV.

    Though I like Twitter, this may support Franzen's point.

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  7. Why yes, I did want to watch the whole Chris Crocker rant again. Needed to smile today.

    I heard Lev Grossman wanted that Time cover to read A Great American Novelist, not Great American Novelist with the strongly implied The. Trivia.

    I suspect I would turn into a dick with the kind of coverage Franzen gets. I think the high you would get from being a dick but still being widely sought after would be too alluring. The dark side of the business. Incidentally some agents do that on Twitter. NOT you.

    Gwyneth Paltrow, perfect comparison.

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  8. Twitter is always for talking about Dr. Who. :)

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  9. I dislike what Franzen represents: as a white literary male author, his books are liable to get awards and recognition that frankly, I think are undeserved. Is he a good writer? Absolutely. But honestly, having read The Corrections and Freedom, I fail to see what's so special or different or even particularly exciting or insightful about his work. (I think he's somewhat similar to John Irving, and I also think Irving is the much better writer.) The Corrections was okay, but I found Freedom somewhat offensive (I'm talking specifically about the Lalitha story thread, which just...rubbed me the wrong way, ick).

    My problem with Franzen is not a problem with him personally: it's the fact that he's considered Important, and what he says Matters. (As opposed to those silly, pesky women writers, they're not important, of course not!) Try and ignore that as we might, it still doesn't change the fact that his writing and his words are going to be given preference over someone a female writer of the same calibre, or even a writer of colour. So my objection to Franzen is not one I can eye-roll away, unlike my amused indifference to Gwyneth Paltrow.

    And frankly, the amount of vitriol people level at him is still nothing CLOSE to the vitriol (personal and professional) that women get. So yeah, he can afford to be a dick. If a woman's an asshole, she's considered a cunt and bitch. Not the same thing. Not even close.

    Twitter is mostly for talking about Doctor Who! ;-)

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    1. Disliking what someone represents is one thing, but using that person as a punching bag is another. (Not saying you do this, I mean the people who have been lately.) The level of attention he gets speaks to a larger issue and he just happens to be the poster boy for it. He's pretty reclusive otherwise, so it's not like he seeks this attention out. That's why I feel the need to defend him. He's just some guy who says dumb things. I'm sure he thinks he's just as great as critics say he is, but that doesn't necessarily mean he purposely ignites people. If he used the Internet and saw how much people analyzed that ONE quote, he'd be more confused than satisfied. Worse, he'd know that he was proven right. And no one ever should prove Jonathan Franzen right.

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    2. Women writers are also respected. Here's a 2011 Forbes article of The 10 Most Powerful Women Authors. And there are many more highly respected women authors, including Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver.

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  10. I tend to fall in line more with the eyeroll-and-chuckle approach myself most of the time. Kind of like that guy who said he wouldn't write for children unless he'd suffered brain damage first. I just can't take people that say things like that seriously.

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  11. For the most part, I don't tend to listen to what writers say.

    An odd statement, I know. I love reading their books, certainly (though I did not love The Corrections, which was, I think, my only encounter with Franzen so far), but I don't need to know about writers', or actors', or band members' personal politics and thoughts on things. Sometimes I do seek those things out, when I'm having a celeb-crush moment, but most of the time, it passes me by.

    I didn't know about #JonathanFranzenHates, though. That's pretty freaking funny.

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  12. This might be my most favorite blog post of yours ever.

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  13. I have to admit that I didn't even know Franzen said something. I think my favorite part of your post though is the obvious statement that Franzen himself will never see the insults pointed at him because... he doesn't use Twitter. I think that's kind of hilarious.

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  14. I love your point that he doesn't even know what people are saying about him because he's not on social media - so true! Guess it's all just wasted keystrokes. :)

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  15. I don’t hate Jonathan Franzen either. I actually admire him for his extraordinary writing skills. I even appreciate that he’s eccentric and that he speaks out about things that are important to him. Would I want to be his BFF? Probably not. I just want to read great books, and I don’t care if great books are sometimes written by eccentric people.

    What does disturb me is the amount of hate speech in our culture today and the tendency for people to verbally attack those who refuse to conform, people like Franzen. And, sadly, I feel that there is very strong prejudice against certain groups of people. You already mentioned the prejudice against women. Another group that arouses both jealousy and hatred are intellectuals, and I don’t remember any period in recent history in which intellectuals were so despised. I do fear that our culture is in a race for the bottom, and it’s just way too easy to mock people who don’t conform to that popular movement.

    I had no idea people didn’t like Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s always seemed to me to be an extremely sweet and humble person as well as a very talented actress, also a dedicated mother and wife, and someone in Hollywood who lives her life without scandal. She’s also involved with several charity organizations. She seems to live her life quite the opposite of those who make their money by cheating people out of their mortgages or hiring slave labor in third world countries to produce their products, and yet many people who have done that are deeply admired in our culture. I can’t imagine disliking a person like Gwyneth simply because her reality involved growing up with money, especially if they are sweet and humble and dedicated to helping others through charity work.

    I miss the good old days in the United States when we mostly seemed to get along and learn from each other, and when we admired the smart, the rich and the famous because we all knew that we could race for the top if we so desired.

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  16. I don't hate Jonathan Franzen because he's allowed to express his opinion. I don't buy Franzen's books because... well, I just haven't felt the need to pick one up and read it to the end.

    I don't hate Twitter because I don't ever use it. Mainly because of the constant stream of one's conscious that you mentioned. I don't enjoy swimming through all the spam to find the occasional gem. Same with Facebook.

    I DO, however, tend to side with the guy/gal being hated on for no other reason than that they disagree with the flock... And in this day and age that flock is HUGE. If you don't like their shiny trinkets, they come a lynchin'.

    I'm constantly getting remarks about not owning a smartphone.

    "But... how to you keep up with you tweets?"
    "I don't use Twitter."
    "...or Facebook?"
    "I don't use Facebook."
    "Don't you have any friends?"
    "Sure. Lots"
    "But how do you keep in touch with them? You carry a laptop around?" *Snicker,snicker*
    "Um... no. I call them or meet them, you know, face to face?"
    "What?! All 5000 of them?"

    Feel free to insert rolling eyes here.

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