The arguably great, inarguably astute Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay this past week that has taken even the literarily inclined a few days to get around to, as most good essays should. It's a piece that exists far apart from our internet-soaked, excerpt-inclined lives, and yet it's about these lives that we're now living, which he wishes we weren't all living. And he admits that even though he may sound angry and curmudgeony toward the modern world he's nowhere near as angry as he was in his 20s.
The essay is published here, in the UK Guardian, and it's an introduction to a book of translated writings by the early 20th century German cynic and satirist, Karl Kraus, called The Kraus Project. It's obviously a personal project that has spanned decades of Franzen's life, and the ideas he gets into in the essay touching on Kraus's criticisms of the modern age he was living in in pre-War Vienna show how, for a frustrated intellectual faced with rapid technological advancement and a sheep-like populace, surprisingly little has changed in 100 years.
A few things he touches on, drawing 2013 equivalents for Kraus's sentiments, which we will turn into bullet points because we know that would piss him off:
- With regard to individualized Facebook pages and perhaps the individualism of hipster style in general, he pulls this Kraus quote: "Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads."
- He would like to clarify that he thinks it's unfair that he was called a Luddite and technophobe when he denounced Twitter as stupid a few years ago. (Also, he says e-books are damaging to society.) He insists he owns a computer (a Lenovo ultrabook IdeaPad) that he uses every day, and he enjoys his DVR.
- But the fact that Salman Rushdie is on Twitter makes Franzen sad. Below, Rushdie's curt response, on Twitter.
- Franzen hits on the issue that has been discussed a fair amount, about how we're all ceding our power of memory to our devices out of laziness and maybe turning our brains to mush, because this was something Kraus talked about even though he had nothing approaching our gadgets. Basically, he predicted that no one would be able to multiply 2 times 2 in a hundred years because we'd rely on others to do it. Franzen writes, re: our phone usage at dinner, "The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I'm enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces' birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control." Yikes. I just wanted to look up how many movies Michelle Pfeiffer did with Mel Gibson, okay?
- He makes some salient points about the death knells of print publishing and literary culture, and the "pauperisation" of freelance writers at the hands of the web. "The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in [this current] world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?"
- And unfairly or not, he draws the conclusion that Amazon is evil, and Jeff Bezos "surely looks like one of the four horsemen." Why? Because "Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they're the only business hiring."
- Then he nearly goes off the rails, blowing up his argument to blame the general laziness of all of us for climate change, the "calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness," and the "levelling of Asia's remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot." Yep, we did all that, but... huh?
- And you know he really hates cats, right?
Look. We like Franzen, and we think it's a fucking shame that people of his intellectual caliber don't get to challenge us in public forums more often in this age of throwaway content. We ourselves are guilty at times of writing such throwaway content because we earn a living on the web, and that's how it is. Our days, and everyone else's, are now flooded with oceans of content in a way they didn't used to be, which is both thrilling and enervating, in equal measure, every hour of every day. Maybe that won't always be the case, or maybe the flood will just get a bit better controlled. Who knows.
We loved Freedom, as depressing as it was with regard to the environment, but we hated The Corrections in part because it was more brutal and obviously the product of a younger, angrier Franzen who thought we all needed a punch in the face. He's a man who's capable of great character development, but not always great compassion or lyricism. (Or self-awareness, since for all his whining about the plague of the internet, his little essay's viral spread is likely to mean a lot of extra book sales... on Amazon.)
His essay only drives home to us that there's a stubborn laziness and willful disengagement to his point of view, and to that of anyone who wants complain about digital killing print, etc. it's just as lazy and disengaged as he'd accuse every cellphone gazer of being, standing on a subway platform playing Candy Crush instead of reading Kraus. Yes, life would be easier and more pleasant for smart people if it were still 1965, we still wrote letters to each other, we still read the Paris Review and discussed foreign films at dinner without cell phone interruptions, and there were no daytime talk shows or Facebook. But isn't it easier to sit in that Ivory Tower bemoaning the directions that technology and a wider laziness have taken us, without figuring out how to engage with it all on your own terms? It sounds like a loud and wordy form of bitterness on his part that the universe of human communication has grown vastly bigger at the expense of the influence of novelists like him, and though he's right to observe, as everyone has, that the chatter can be insipid and deafening, it ain't going to be silenced.
Maybe we're doomed, and like this guy we can't say we've never thought and felt some of what Franzen's expressing. But despite all the intelligence behind these words, it's hard not to feel a little embarrassed for him. If he's not a brilliant prophet speaking truths we're too distracted to hear, couldn't he be just the lit world's version of the Bible-thumper on the corner, shrieking at you that you need to be saved? Wasn't that who Kraus kind of was, and why he was thus dusted under the rug of intellectual history by everyone but a handful of German scholars?
It's hard not to feel the cultural apocalypse coming to S.F. after reading this Vanity Fair piece about what all the tech millionaires and billionaires are spending their money on in Pacific Heights. This is our Guilded Age. Everything is terrible. But we can't wait to pick up our new iPhone 5S and marry a new Twitter millionaire.