Jonathan Franzen and the New Dunciad


With a few exceptions, Twitterers have taken issue with Jonathan Franzen’s screed against the “modern world” (links below):

Amidst his promotion for a new book of translations (or something) by an obscure German satirist, Franzen tries to balance his technophobia with an admiration for the “functionality” of the PC over the Mac. That’s the best part of this wide-ranging polemic, which also lays into Twitter and those “who should know better” like Salmon Rushdie. Rushdie has the audacity, I guess, to reach out to a curious audience in something besides expensive hard-back books.

But the part that gets me is his attack on Amazon. Now, Amazon might very well be gearing up for its “Sinister Phase Two.” But Franzen’s complaints center on a strange attack on the democratization and demystification of “literature” and the “writer.” Here’s the key passages:

  • Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.
  • Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers
  • But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers.

Considering where it’s coming from – the most respected (and pretentious) literary novelist alive – Franzen is a weird vehicle for these arguments. Amazon promoted the hell out of his book in 2010; I know, because every day I went there to get something else, it reminded me when it was coming out. And since when have literary novelists not been “conscripted into . . .self-promotion” through book tours, TV appearances, or the cover of Time Magazine?

Further, the integrity of Amazon product reviews is worthy of investigation, but why shouldn’t customers look to their peers rather than “professional reviewers?” Franzen implies that those “responsible” professional reviewers don’t operate with similar prejudices. Think about all the high praises that appear on truly awful movies. When was this golden age of writing about books? Did they operate under the same standards of literary privilege of which Franzen continues to craft himself as the last remaining voice? Weren’t those “Big Six publishers” merely an analog version of what Amazon is trying to be? While we might nostalgic remember them as beholden to an idea of quality that Amazon is apparently not, that seems like a particularly selective reading of an profit-driven industry that continually published Harold Robbins yet rejected Dune 23 times.

If Franzen has a historical-literary parallel, it’s Alexander Pope and his Dunciad (The Dunciad, however, was funny). Like Franzen, Pope looked with horror at how easy it was to flood the market with bad books. Pope too was defending a particularly rigid version of literary discourse, seeing the proliferation of anything lesser as corrupting that which actually has value. And like Pope, Franzen is putting issues of technology and mediation as central to that corruption. But what exactly does Franzen want? I worry that the antidote is just as bad as the cure.

Revision Tracking – Piloting an idea

Last spring at Maryland, Jim Ridolfo visited to give a talk about his research and he stayed to talk to graduate students. One thing he mentioned, almost in passing, was that he questioned the necessity of Learning Management Systems because most teachers only used them as file storage systems – which is something any number of free services can provide, often with better functionality than Blackboard. This alternately felt like inspiration and a friendly accusation: even if my Blackboard sites were pretty well organized, I was basically creating file folders where students could download stuff and turn stuff in. In my first experience with Canvas this summer, I tried to become a more functional user. But looking back at my course site, I feel like there’s little I do here that requires the system with (perhaps) the exception of the gradebook. I use Wikia for Wiki projects, WordPress for student discussion. The LMS provides all these features in a private and secure space, while I want my students to think about writing for a public audience.

If the best thing about an LMS is its ability to store, collect, and localize different virtual logistical features, I’m piloting an attempt to use this in a way that helps students think about writing and revision. On two of my syllabi, I’ve include the following statement:

ImageOn Canvas, it looks like this:

ImageMy students’ first paper is due tomorrow (Friday), and I’ve post a “draft tracking” prompt each day since last Wednesday. Here, they can submit the progress of their paper – whether that’s an incomplete draft, a series of ideas, an outline, or a list of links for articles. Since this assignment asks them to write four analysis paragraphs, they have mainly been submitting those drafts.

My goal is to encourage them to work on a project a little bit per day, and then to post the evidence of that online. It’s completely optional and ungraded. When a student emails me to say she is going to come to my office hours, I take about five or ten minutes before the appointment come to review her progress. As I explain in the syllabus, and in more detail in class, I only look at this if the student asks me to, and I won’t give feedback over Canvas. I really don’t have the time to do that on a daily basis, and I want the students to develop their own revision process, which I can’t model as well virtually. But both the student and me have a record of the progress of revision, so we can both figure out ways to improve that process.

BTW, If I continue to do this, I’ll cut the didactic tone at the end of my syllabus statement – “the goal of this. . .” – because I think it implies a stereotype about “lazy students” that I wasn’t intending to establish. Rather, I’ll let them see the value without me explaining it to them. Also, I’ll cut the part about “leniency,” even though I’ll keep the general philosophy: this does show a students’ diligence and willingness to improve, and that’s something to take into consideration when the paper falls between a B- and a C+.

I welcome your thoughts for this test-run. At this point, the students are using it predictably: they’re turning in paragraphs that they’ve either already submitted for peer review in class, or full drafts that they want me to read during my office hours. I’d rather them use it as a space to store and collect their thoughts, outlines, half-finished drafts, or questions. But maybe that will come with the longer papers.