A Critique of a Critique: Progress Unmoored from Johnathan Franzen

20100830_franzen_250x375I read The Corrections in 2002, for the plain damn fact that its author, Johnathan Franzen, turned down an appearance on Oprah. Hate to say it, but that has always been one of my dreams. To write a book that would get Oprah’s attention. I don’t write with her in mind, mind you. But after the fact it would be kinda nice. So I thought it was pretty cool (if a little bit dumb) that he would say no. That would have been like The Beatles saying ‘fuck you’ to the Queen (something John apparently wanted to do.)

So Franzen was my literary John Lennon. A bit of hero in my eyes. Most writers, me included, are publicity whores. We have to be. Our publishers don’t put much time or thought into it (I’m still waiting for a call-back from the publicist from the U.S. house that published Still Life With June–that was nine years ago.) They might take out an ad or two, arrange a tour. But if an opportunity comes up to promote the book, especially on TV, we jump at it. I usually don’t generalize about other writers and their process, but I think I can safely say that we all above all things want our books to be read. We want people to feel reading them they way we felt writing them. So the fact that Franzen passed up on an opportunity to promote so massively and effectively must, I thought, say something about his principles.

Then I read the book. There is one particular subset of American literature I cannot abide. I’ve tried reading it, because it’s said to be “important” but I’ve never been able to see it. I’m speaking of the male-dominated, heterosexual, white literature of the American 50’s and 60’s. I love Catch-22 (how could a gay man not love a book that opens: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”) Picture This and Catcher in the Rye and The Crying of Lot 49. But Saul Bellow and Sinclair Lewis and Tom Wolfe leave me cold. Maybe this is due to my own prejudice: perhaps I just am not interested in a painfully realistic account of the neuroses of middle aged straight men. Instantly add the literary neo-con Franzen to the aforementioned triplets: I hated The Corrections. I forced my way through it, and quit a couple of dozen pages before the end (I did the same with Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak.) I would have given up on him then, if my editor, again from my U.S. publisher (don’t think I’m bragging here, I couldn’t get those folks to return a phone call if I threw a rock through their window.) hadn’t just published his essays and wanted to send me a copy. I tried reading those too, and in this case his style worked well. But I had either just published, or was just about to publish, my own collection of them in Canada, and I didn’t need my confidence eroded (I’ve been having that done to me by straight guys since I was two.) I put that one up also and lost it.

So there goes Franzen.

Except he’s not. He keeps turning up in my life. I would hear things he said here and there, and what seemed to be a general dislike for him all across the Internet and my own literary community. Another writer friend and I had great fun pulling down The Corrections one day. It seems “Franzening” has become an international sport these days. I just heard Salmon Rushdie “twitted” him on twitter for something he said in an article recently (you might want to read that as I reference it a lot) and everyone seems to think he’s a gaseous wind bag, an incurable elitist, hopelessly white, straight and square (none of these things, by the way, are crimes though it is slightly indecorous these days to not have some little label you can slap on the back of your chair. I got queer. It works.) We’ve already established I don’t believe Franzen to be a great writer, but I do believe he is lamenting the loss of something very real: a massive paradigm shift between humans, our relationship to our enviromnent, our technology, and most importantly to ourselves. Franzen recognizes, and rightly so, that there is some weird alchemy going on. Humans are becoming less human (in an ontological sense–don’t worry, we’re not growing new limbs or anything.)

Franzen, and others like him, feel this most keenly because the world they write about is so firmly anchored in a dying paradigm. He’s right to be scared. Everything that he, and so many others, hold sacred is disappearing before their very eyes. Nobody is straight, male, and white anymore. Hell nobody is gay, black and female anymore either. These distinctions are rapidly disappearing. (I once had an e-mail account on a black only web service. Human individual and collective identity is rapidly being absorbed by the data-sphere.) Franzen says, speaking of the Internet:

“When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.”

Compare this to what Mathew Bates said about the proliferation of public libraries across Britain in the mid nineteenth century.

“It was in these years of class conflict and economic terror that the public library movement swept through Britain, as the nation’s progressive elite recognized that the light of cultural and intellectual energy was lacking in the lives of commoners”

We recognize now of course the importance of free public libraries. That is obvious and doesn’t need to be gone into here. But I can easily hear Franzen giving his line about the Internet a hundred and fifty years ago, in an English drawing room with a cigar and a cravat and fashionably scuffed but supple leather riding boots. “My God!” (It is not hard to imagine Franzen with a British accent, is it? )”What if they all learn to read and start writing books of their own? I’ll be out of a job!”

Mathew Bates of course had the benefit of a couple of hundred years distance on the events, while Franzen is right in the midst of things. T.S. Eliot saw something similar at the turn of the century, as he lamented the loss of a thousand years of culture because that culture was predicated upon a thousand years of social and political systems that could no longer survive in a world that was modernizing itself with machinery and factories and printing presses and cheaper goods and higher standards living and class conflict (think Marx) and industrialization (think Engels.) The established order was being overthrown by these rapid developments and Eliot saw that with it would go everything he held dear. Music, art and literature could be mass produced. Who any longer wanted to see Shakespeare when moving pictures were an option? Who wanted to go to see the Mona Lisa when you could look at a cheap reproduction in a book? Like Franzen, Eliot was an elitist, but his heart was in the right place, as I believe Franzen’s to be. But Eliot’s pen was in the right place also, and Franzen’s is not. Living in a time when most artists (Edmund Blunden, James Joyce, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Lilliam Hellman, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, John Paul Sarte) were being drawn into the fascist/communist debate and being forced to pick sides, Eliot refused to have any of it. He believed an artist should keep silent about such matters, and he advocated for what he called the “middle way” (a phrase also used by Buddhists and once by Prime Minister Chretien when he refused to take Canada into the Iraq war.) When Eliot did write about the political and cultural issues of his time he usually just undermined the positions of his aggressors on all sides and revealed the limitations of their ideologies.

A classy guy.

But Eliot did another remarkable thing. He turned his angst into literature, writing startling, imaginative, powerful poems about the loss he felt and saw (ironically some of these poems became part of the modernist canon, the movement he saw as the great destructor.) In The Wasteland Eliot wrote about our “heap of broken images.” Franzen writes about this too, but not nearly so elegantly or well. He seems to bitch about it whenever he gets an opportunity. He doesn’t understand what Eliot did: to wade into the debate about culture, and how it is affected by technology and sociology, is to wade into the politics of the thing. The two are inseparable.  Unless you’re Cicero, an artist is better off with his art. Perhaps it is unfair, but no-one would complain if Franzen created a character who was a writer who was so horrified by what he perceived as the erosion of culture, the loss of professional erudition,  and the depreciation of common value at the hands of technology that he is unable to write? I’d bet even Rushdie, given his own history, would think twice about “twitting” him for that.

Franzen frames most of his article around a discussion of the Austrian writer Karl Kraus (April 28, 1874 – June 12, 1936) whose major theme was that technology, and modernization (cultural, economic, political) was ruthlessly tearing apart the fabric of the society in which he lived. Frazen says, and I agree, that one of Kraus’s more important observations (what little I’ve read) was that modernism was separating us from our fundamental spiritual and aesthetic roots. Franzen doesn’t quote it, but I believe Kraus wrote that the first world war was a product of “progress unmoored from God.”

Franzen also writes:

“And the person who’s been lucky in life can’t help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insists on going wrong ways, corrupt and tasteless ways, he feels betrayed by it.”

He was speaking of Kraus, and also of himself. Notice the words. Wrong. Corrupt. Tasteless. They are all the product of a dichotomy. In Franzen you can hear echoes of Karl Marx, from The Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

Franzen, like his hero Kraus and his political antecedent Marx, is an enlightenment age thinker, with their emphasis on the reigns of thought, politics and culture in the hands of a “truly enlightened public” but separate from the “the blind and noisy multitude” (Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert 16 November 1717 – 29 October 1783). The established book industry that Franzen mourns the loss of (he mentions the Big Six publishers, close to the number of colonial empires that Klaus decried the loss of) was created in this era. Central to enlightenment age thinking is the idea of meritocracy rather than despotism, and dichotomy, with the idea that one should choose on one side of an issue or other (and further that only one side is right, and always your own.). In some ways the enlightenment saw the birth of polemics as a social and political discourse, by bravely taking on the Church, political despotism,  pre-scientific thinking, superstition, and other outmoded forms of thought on their own terms.

But Just as Von Clausewitz’s On War was once was excellent guide on how to fight a one front war (attrition), Enlightenment Age rationalism (another form of attrition) has become antedated. Just as there are no longer one front wars, there are no longer valid two-sided issues (a quick glance at those two-sided issues that are being fought–abortion, creationism–should convince anyone of that.) The world has become so much more complex. What was once an enlightened approach and forward thinking has become a stale plea for conservatism. Ultimately Franzen doesn’t understand the times he lives in because they have outgrown him, what Kurt Vonnegut called being “acculturated.”  He is simply not equipped to process with his enlightenment age tools what the world is throwing at him. Ask Franzen, ask any enlightenment age thinker, if he believes in God and I bet you dollars to microchips he says he either does or doesn’t or he doesn’t know.

Listen to what my character Randy from the book-in-progress has to say about that particular issue.

“I had never believed in fate, and I certainly never believed in God. Randy did. He talked about God a lot. “People who reject God,” he often said, “are not rejecting the divine at all but a supreme deity, a sort of maximum extrapolation of human intelligence situated within the natural order of things like the planets or stars. God creates the universe but he also immediately limits himself by occupying a space within it that assigns meaning to the natural laws we understand and justifying the randomness we don’t. This has been the trend since  enlightenment thinkers like Descartes and Newton came up with it in order to square away their faith with their growing scientific knowledge. The true divine can’t be defined, or situated, or manifested in time and space at all. It is nameless, genderless, soulless, apopahtic and occupies the areas between time and space. It would be just as accurate to call it The Nothing. But rejecting anything based on a particular world view is a form of intellectual deficiency borne of ideology. The true divine, or anything else for that matter, does not fit into the atheistic/religionist, God/No God, Either/Or dichotomy at all.”

I’m not as famous as Johnathan Franzen. Nor do I need to be. But I feel a little sorry for the guy. I’d like to give him some hope and tell him the world and human values and identity are not changing as rapidly as he thinks it is. But I can’t. I can say this though: he and I see these things in exactly the same way. Difference is, he laments, and I celebrate. And by the way: every single fact for this entry that wasn’t in my head came from the Internet. I hope the book in progress on my mac didn’t get devalued too much.

PS: Mac verses PC is not a valid dichotomy. A dichotomy must be mutually exclusive and and jointly exhaustive. Since Macs and PCs are both computers they cannot be mutually exclusive. Our perception of them stylistically may be a kind of specious dichotomy, but , in addition, since there are many brands of PC’s and only one brand of Mac they cannot be divided into equal but mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive parts and therefore fail the philosophical and analytical criteria in all respects. Just saying.

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