On Friday the 13th, in a lengthy essay for The Guardian, novelist Jonathan Franzen, with all the blustering torment and gusto of a Pentecostal doomsayer, portended the Apocalypse. I would picture him standing in the Times Square Subway Station, wearing a sandwich board with hands thumping a first edition of The Last Days of Mankind, except he doesn’t need to hit the streets to get his message out there – the Internet serves perfectly well.
In his piece, Franzen assails, along with all members of Twitter and Facebook, those folks who use their phones to Google things, authors who brazenly self-promote (hmmm), and any person who aspires to be an “individual” (excepting himself and the Dr. Evil-to-his-Mini-Me, fin de siècle Austrian critic and writer, Karl Kraus). Franzen’s essay, which is promotion for his forthcoming annotated translation of Kraus’s Essays, purports to tell us what’s wrong with the modern world. The problem, it would seem, is: “yakkers, tweeters and braggers” – aka, all the aforementioned people – aka, you – whom technology coddles, enables and eventually will destroy.
The sound and fury of latter-day Franzen is most accurately summed up by this multimedia tweet:
The marvelous @darth has supplied us with the only Jonathan Franzen reaction pic we ever needed: pic.twitter.com/h98h3g47OV
— Robinson Meyer (@yayitsrob) September 13 2021
OK, so Franzen is an old man yelling at
iCloud a cloud. Why should we care? Especially on a website devoted to Millennial love lives, identity and relationships…? I say, because we ARE witnessing The End of an Era. We ARE plunging headlong into a great, cacophonous, technology-driven Unknown. We are ALL complicit in a Brave New (Media) World. This truth is bad news for the likes of Franzen. BUT, it is great news for the rest of us.
Ergo. We should forgive Franzen for not going gentle into that good night. A moment of silence, please.
Now, let’s talk about The Good News:
But first, more good news:
Believe me…in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.
Far from being forbidden talk in modern day America, as Franzen asserts, this observation seems common sense. From the talking heads spewing vitriol past each other on cable news, to wars of words and emoticons on Twitter, to everyone’s “cooler than thou” posturing on Facebook and Instagram, we are a nation that is constantly calling out the supposed stupidity and recalcitrance of others. We love slinging mud at each other’s bravado and phoniness (as the trending Twitter vitriol against Franzen in response to his essay ably illustrates.) Our society is a raucous, vital manifestation of Kraus’s aphorism, and we know it too. Everyone thinks everyone else is a blockhead! We like it! There’s no revelation here.
What sticks in the craw, however, is that in the same space where Franzen impugns every “blockhead’s” quest for individuality, he asserts, “Like any artist, Kraus wanted to be an individual.” So, Kraus may aspire to be an individual? And by extension Franzen as well, like any artist? Let us embrace the sentiment here but ditch the hypocrisy. Franzen is welcome to think that those who use social media are blockheads for trying to build a life and identity that incorporates technology and the modern world. We are just as entitled to think that he is blockhead as well. An even bigger one.
Franzen hates the improvements in design and utility that technological innovation has afforded. Par exemple, he writes, decrying Apple’s cult of “cool”:
…the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned. This was especially true in the years of DOS operating systems and early Windows.
Oh, the glory days!
But Franzen’s opinion is one amidst millions. Our media age has amplified the colors and tones of democratic discourse. And I believe, wherever possible, we should engage this debate. We should strive to elevate our thoughts and opinions, while also applauding the great one-liner, the hilarious meme, or even the mundane but (let’s face it) human thoughts that come our way via pixels and fiber optic cable. We also must insist on the inclusion of as many voices as possible, by any means available. Does Franzen’s outlook-as-author entitle him to more authority than anyone else? No. As Roxane Gay points out on Salon, Franzen is out of touch with the media and people he is assailing.
Franzen’s “particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by [his] social circumstances” is going by the wayside. He and a chosen few “literary” tastemakers no longer get to sit in supreme judgment, broadcasting their views via one or two monolithic media platforms. Franzen feels, justifiably, that his power is waning. His towering position in the public sphere is crumbling – fast. He’s like King Kong, clutching the spire of the Empire State Building, knowing he is on top of the world, knowing also that he is falling, under attack, and yet is unsure of what to do (except hope that maybe Fay Wray will come home with him? She is, after all, “unbelievably pretty.”) We know how this movie ends. Bad news for the paleolithic ape.
But in the final analysis, Franzen accepts his fate. Bring on that apocalypse:
And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal.
The extreme anxiety underlying Franzen’s essay is not “disappointment” and it is not even “anger.” Franzen is looking at our modern world and realizing that he does not understand it, is not a part of it, and does not want to be. There is a fear and sadness not pondered in Franzen’s essay yet subconsciously poised in every moment of his bleak frustration. The question is at the stony root of Franzen’s bluster: If he does not understand the modern world, can he even write about it?
This is the way the world ends, this cacophony, this noise, this multiplicity, this anger, this humor, this absurdity. This is also the way new worlds are made. Thanks to Franzen, our old media world is ending now – not with a whimper, but with a bang, in fact, a thunderous roar of annoyance with his essay, heard all the Twitterverse over.
Rebecca Coale - aka Becky - is a writer, musician and producer. She and childhood best friend Jessica Donalds created Dating & Hookup and founded J&R Creative Media. Becky blogs about love poetry and modern life & womanhood. She lives with her husband, Howard Coale, and their family in Manhattan and Philadelphia.
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