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.

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