Two weeks ago, during a talk at Tulane University, New Orleans, Jonathan Franzen— author of the blockbuster, Time-mag-gracing, 2010 novel Freedom—railed against social media and its cult of youth. He drew a line in the sand between himself and the atavism of microblogs, loudly proclaiming that Twitter stood “for everything [he] oppose[d],” that it was an insubstantial, an “irresponsible medium,” just the god damn worst thing.
And his reasoning? Twitter’s 140 character limitation was akin to writing a novel “without the letter ‘P’” (???). To confine any worthwhile thought to so few characters was not only impossible, he said, it was wasteful. Finally, with legs crossed, chin resting languid on a closed fist (in all likelihood), he announced that he only cared about readers who dismissed this electronic fluff at face: this Facebook, this Internet, that Kindle, these doohickeys, that stem-cell research. He only cared about “serious readers” (“these,” he said with Moses-esque extravagance, “are my people”). The talk wasn’t long, and it wasn’t recorded. We can only imagine him dictating this whole manifesto with a thin smile, beneath an equally thin moustache. In summary: he comes off as pompous, obsessive, and evangelical, but I won’t spend the whole article shooting him disses.
Something more interesting than Franzen’s ego-strokin’ and tech-hatin’, I think, is the Twitter response to it. With a sort of Alanis Morrissetteian irony, the author’s pretension went as viral as ‘Internet sensation’ Joseph Kony’s 2012 music video. “#JonathanFranzenhates Emoticons, because it takes 600 pages to accurately convey emotion,” twitterers shouted from rooftops, and “#JonathanFranzenhates the moon. Its light is unspeakably dishonest and no more than a reflection.” I don’t have anything against the man or his work, and I don’t mean to come off so snide (hah!), but all of this ridicule, I feel, is warranted.
It has nothing to do with Mr. F. hating on the Twitter machine—that’s entirely his prerogative (certainly he isn’t alone). It’s the fact that arguably the most famous living writer in America is making trite and vacuous criticisms of a website that he does not fully understand. Clearly, he does it all with good intent, but what’s new? He wants to make sure that we, the next literary generation, will protect and maintain what he deigns ‘good writing.’ That we take his torch and whisk it through the 21st century. He’s an aloof, but overprotective, father. A stereotype! And one wonders if he’s even picking the right battle.
A tweet is not a novel. A Facebook status is not a poem (though some, regrettably, christ help us, are). But say they were, what difference would that make? Popular writing modes change all the time. Language is constantly in flux; we’re hurtling into the future, hold onto your hats. That—and forgive me for psychoanalysing—is what I think bugs Franzen the most. Because if he believes that bad writing (or, at least, the lack of ‘good’ contemporary writing) stems from social media’s stripped-bare minimalism, why does he not take issue with Carver, Ezra Pound, or the haiku? If it’s Twitter’s spontaneity or fragmentation why not engage in fisticuffs with Faulkner (who allegedly wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, without reading over it once) or Kafka’s parables? If it’s in the ceaseless, serial quality of every Facebook post, where’s his beef with Charles Dickens? And if the e-book is the antichrist, book-destroyer! (NB: I am only exaggerating a little, here, Franzen believes e-books will spark anarchy—look it up if you don’t believe me) why hasn’t he written a stiff essay about Gutenberg, who put all those scribbling monks out of work with his ‘printing press’? It’s because none of those things are new, or different, or strange.
Literary change and evolution is inevitable and unstoppable. Most educated people in the 19th century dropped their monocles when novels began to replace poetry as what the masses read on their daily steam train commutes. When Twitter is forgotten (alternatively, deified and studied) in fifty years, something else will come to take its place, and there will be something else after that, and something after that. And there will always be a means, so long as humans have thoughts and opinions and a wish to communicate them to a world that would actually listen. Bad luck, Mr. Franzen.